My 75-year-old, slightly curmudgeonly father is prone to starting statements with “kids today don’t…” and fills in the rest of the sentence with a negative observation. One such observation that I can agree with is that “kids today don’t have any concept of how and where food comes from.” A fun and educational project to teach children about how and where food is grown is through saving seeds with kids.
Saving seeds from your garden is not a modern concept. Our forefathers commonly saved seeds year after year to preserve the most premium specimens, those with most abundant production and flavorful results. Saving seeds from the garden was, and is also, a great way to save money by recycling last year’s seeds instead of purchasing them.
A renewed interest in our environment and how to preserve it brings a renewed interest in sustainability. Saving seeds with kids is the perfect lesson on sustainability coupled with instruction in self-sufficiency. Seed harvesting for kids is an opportunity to teach children about history, geography, anatomy, genetics, and biology. Even spelling and mathematics can be incorporated into these lessons.
More importantly, harvesting plant seeds with your children teaches them about where their food comes from, how it is grown and why it is important to respect the land and the people who produce our food.
There are multitudes of ways you can collect seeds with your children. Harvest seeds from the garden in late summer and fall. Once the flowers have finished blooming, leave some of the heads on the plant to dry and then collect the seeds. Seeds can be saved in labeled plastic bags, in repurposed glass or plastic containers, in film containers, paper envelopes, you name it. Just remember to clearly label what each vessel contains.
Seeds can be removed from ripe fruit. Make sure to remove as much of the pulp from the seed as possible and then let them dry on newspaper or paper towels. If you dry them on paper towels, the seeds will stick. You can then store them right on the paper towel in a plastic bag (be sure to label them!) until it is time to sow in the spring. Then, simply cut around the seeds and the whole thing can be replanted.
Seeds can be saved whilst on a nature walk, urban hike, or other outing. Keep an eye out for maple seeds. Pick up pine cones, dry them indoors and then pull out the scales to reveal the seeds inside. Acorns are seeds too, and engender the mighty oak tree. Seeds may even come unwittingly home on your person. If you walk through a meadow wearing pants or socks, many different weed or wildflower seeds may stick to you.
Once you have harvested the seeds, make sure to dry them thoroughly so they don’t mold. Then, store each different type of seed in its own individual container clearly labeled. Keep them in a cool, dry area. The refrigerator is a great place to store seeds. Use either silica gel or 2 tablespoons of powdered milk wrapped in a tissue and placed inside the packet of seeds to ensure that they stay dry. Replace the packet every 5-6 months. Most seeds will last for 3 years.
There are hundreds of seed saving activities suitable for kids. Seeds can be used in board games, for art projects, as musical instruments (dried gourds), and for making seed balls. Seeds can be cured and eaten (pumpkin and sunflower) and cooked with (coriander). Use seeds to teach math and spelling. The internet has many great ideas and Pinterest has a great site with a plethora of suggestions.
Dwight Sipler / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
If you have a garden full of lettuce, mesclun, and arugula, saving your own seeds is an economical way to propagate next year's crop. Saving seeds allows you to cherry-pick the varieties that perform well in your garden or heirloom varieties that are hard to obtain. Over time, seeds saved from your garden adapt to their particular growing conditions making your seeds specifically suitable to your garden, assuring a fruitful harvest.
As with any new project, before you invest time or money in developing a new garden, learn a bit about the practice. What fruits and vegetables thrive where you live? During which season do your favorite vegetables grow and ripen? Do the plants you hope to put next to one another tend to cross-pollinate? Are your favorite fruits and veggies perennial, biennial, or annual?
Also know how you can acquire seeds and plants to get your garden started. Did you know that SNAP/food stamps can be used to purchase seeds and edible plants? Aside from saving seeds from the produce you’ve already purchased, using SNAP to purchase seeds and plants is another way to get started.
Always choose the best quality plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables from which to save seeds. Look for disease resistance, vigor, great flavor, and productivity. Next year's plants will only be as good as this year's seed. Harvest seeds either:
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You can plant most perennial seeds in the garden starting in fall. Start them in a protected spot in loose, well-drained soil. Water them well after planting, and give them a light covering of mulch. They'll wait out the winter and sprout in spring. Or, you can store the seeds and start them indoors in late winter or very early spring. Don't expect them to bloom their first year because the plants will use all their energy to grow roots and leaves most will bloom the second year. Some of the easiest perennial flowers to collect seeds from include:
Perennial seeds are ready to harvest after the flowers are done blooming and petals have fallen off. Follow these steps:
When gathering the plant seeds, allow any pods to dry out and turn brown before cutting down and storing in a cool, dry place. Always harvest seed when conditions are dry (or as dry as possible).
The key to long lasting seeds is good storage. Seeds must be dry when they enter storage or mold will shorten their lifespan. Keep dried seeds in a cool place free from moisture and humidity. If completely dry, seal in jars or any lidded containers that will keep moisture out.
It’s a good idea to check your seeds periodically throughout the storage period to ensure they remain dry and secure. If stored properly, seeds will last many years (depending on the variety) and you will have both an inexpensive and secure seed source for your garden well into the future.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.