Saving Seeds With Jac Semmler, Seed Queen

“People automatically think about saving their vegetable seeds but often forget they’ve got a massive seed library in their garden”, says Jac Semmler, seed saver extraordinaire and ornamental category manager at Australia’s seediest garden club, Diggers.

After interviewing Jac about her home garden, featured on the Planthunter earlier this month, we catch up again to chat seeds. I ask her to share her hot tips on seed saving because – not only is it a cost effective way of growing a garden – seed saving and sharing is, as Jac suggests, “a really good way of spreading the plant love.” And so, here’s Jac Semmler’s guide to collecting, storing, and growing ornamental plant seeds.

SNIP AND COLLECT

Make sure the seeds you are harvesting is mature and dry. “You want your plant to have gone right through its entire life cycle, and for the flower to be completely dry on the plant. If you’re into dead-heading, make sure you leave some dried seed-heads on the plant to collect.”

Waiting till a seed is mature might mean “putting a little bag over the seed-head so it’s seeds doesn’t escape.” A stocking or a mesh bag should do the trick. Don’t use plastic because it’ll suffocate the plant, and you want your seeds to be nice and dry.

To be a seed saver, you have to be OK with a bit of dead in your garden, according to Jac. Tuning into the natural cycles of your plants is “the glory of seed-saving.”

DISCRIMINATE!

“Always look for your best performing plants and save seed from them, rather than the weaklings.” Never save seeds from a plant that is diseased or sad, as you’ll then be passing those genes onto new plants. Pick your star students, your best garden performers, for your seed stock plants.

CLEAN YOUR SEEDS

Once you’ve collected your seed, clean the plant material from the seed capsules. My mum, who used to have a propagation nursery, used to use different sized sieves to separate the seed from the bits and pieces of plant collected with it. A kitchen sieve might work the same, depending on the size of your seed. Don’t bother being too pedantic about this, just clean it as best you can.

PACK IT GOOD

Pack your seeds in paper bags or envelopes. Don’t forget to label them. “It’s a trick for young players – having a bunch of paper bags and envelopes and not knowing what’s in them! I’ve got those”, Jac tells me. Write the plant’s name (the botanical name if you know it) the date you collected it and where you collected it from. These, like notes on a herbarium specimen, are the beginnings of stories of connection. Stories involving “going to a friend’s garden or a family garden and taking a few seeds home in your pocket.”

STORE IT GOOD

Storage is key to seed viability, according to Jac. It’s all about keeping moisture as low as possible, and temperatures regulated. “I have a big seed collection that I store in our study because it’s a south facing room and has the most stable temperature in the house. It doesn’t get too cold or hot. I don’t store any seed in my potting shed because it’s too extreme in temperature. This affects seed viability over time.”

Never store your seeds in full sun. Keep them in a dark, cool, dry place.

WHO AND WHAT?

Annual plants – those that live for only one growing season – are the best plants to kick start your seed saving journey with. “Annuals are typically really easy to propagate from seed.” Some of Jac’s seed saving suggestions:

Exotic Annuals:

  • Calendula officinalis (marigold)
  • Papaver spp. (poppy)
  • Borage (bee bush)
  • Nicotania (tobacco plant)

Native Annuals:

  • Actinotus helianthi (flannel flower) – the seeds of this delicate beauty germinate better when stimulated by smoke. You can buy charcoal pellets, soak some charcoal or ash (plenty of that around at the moment) in a watering can and then water seeds.
  • Whalenbergia stricta
  • Craspedia globose (billy buttons)
  • Xerochrysum spp. (paper daisy) 

Perennials:

  • Echinacea spp. (cone flower)
  • Echinops spp. (globe thistle)
  • Rudbeckia spp. (black eyed susan)
  • Scabiosa spp.
  • Cardoon/Artichoke

Perennials that grow well from seed are, according to Jac, any with prominent seed heads.

Cardoon heads for seed saving. By Jac Semmler.

TAKE THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

Some plants are best propagated by division (many grasses), others by seed, and others (particularly shrubs) by cuttings. As Jac suggests, don’t make more work for yourself than necessary. “Take the path of least resistance”, she suggests wisely. If a plant divides easily and is hard to grow from seed, divide it. “Know your plants and understand what works best for them.”

SOW YOUR SEED

Sow your seeds in trays, punnets or directly in-ground.  

If sowing into punnets, Jac suggests using a high quality, sterile, seed raising mix. “You definitely get what you pay for”, she says. You can also make your own.  

“I often plant perennials in punnet trays and annuals directly into the ground. Transplant as soon as you see roots poking out from the base of the punnet/tray, or if they need thinning out.”

BUT DON’T SOW WEEDS

Plants that grow easily from seed can become weedy. Always keep a very close eye on self-seeding plants and monitor their spread, particularly if you live near bushland.

AND SPREAD THE SEEDY LOVE

“If you’re like me and you like seeing the seed heads drying in the garden, why not save them? Why not share them with your friends and family? Why not get the next generation growing?” Jac says.

Give seed saving a go!” she says.

“Throw your seeds at the public!” she says.

Yes! I say.

Yes.

As we face months of unprecedented isolation due to a virus winding its way around the world, a delightful way of supporting each other and our Earth is by collecting, packaging and sharing parcels of seeds with those we care for.

To plant hope for better times.

To plant beauty for now.

To plant food for later.

To plant love for always.

Rudbekia seeds from Jac Semmler’s garden.

Header image of poppy seedheads taken in Monet’s garden by Georgina Reid.