Hands up, all of us who, in a moment of Carol Klein-inspired passion, toured our flower borders in late summer 2013 equipped with paper bags and scissors and saved seeds from our favourite perennials, seed heads down, stems up, maybe even a rubber band round the top? Well done! And did you also remember to write on the outside of the bag what was inside?
Or did you, (truth now), think “Oh, I’ll remember what’s in there” and move merrily on to the next plant? And do you now find yourself looking at brown dust and broken flower heads, deliberating about whether you have Echinacea in there or maybe it was that nice Helenium you bought at Hampton Court? and finally you realise that the only way to find out is to plant them and wait to see what comes up. So this is Lesson One – always label. In fact, it is easiest to write the name on the bag before you put the seeds in.
Which brings me to Lesson Two – sow your bounty thoughtfully. Nature is impossibly generous and you may well find in your paper bag far more seed than you can feasibly grow on. It is easier to be disciplined about large seeds like sweet peas or lupins, and much harder when the seed is tiny. A good rule is to visualise how much seed you would find in a commercial packet and try to work within that framework. If not, you risk sowing the seed too densely (after all, you’ve got all that seed and it seems a pity to waste it) but then end up with a forest of Verbena Bonariensis seedlings in the seed tray which are too spindly and tangled to be usable. Some seed, such as Nigella, may be sown directly from your paper bag onto prepared ground, but be prepared to thin out after germination.
And Lesson Three applies to shop bought seeds as much as self-harvested ones – the older the seed is, the less viable it becomes so clear out your collection of half empty Suttons packets and old envelopes of poppy seed from the year before last and bin them, and make room for fresh seed this year. It will increase your chances of success.
Finally please bear in mind that plants raised from seed may not come true and that the only way to ensure an identical plant to the parent is vegetative propagation, i.e. cuttings from root, stem or leaf. But that would be to lose the element of surprise and the chance that you might raise something really special as a result of your seed harvesting.