Saving Seeds to Meet our Needs

As golf courses have proven to be instrumental in conserving, protecting and promoting native species and natural habitats, we are faced with the need to source native species to help with future efforts. Perhaps the most cost-effective and ecologically responsible approach is to collect native seed from our natural areas and introduce these species responsibly into out-of-play zones throughout our golf courses. But what is involved in saving seed? For that I went to an expert, Gavin Trevelyan of Tallgrass Ontario, an organized network of associations/organizations with the shared goal of conserving savanna and prairie communities in Ontario Canada.

Turfhugger - Why save seed?
Gavin Trevelyan - This is a valid question, particularly when there is so much good quality seed available on the market already. Why would you bother with collecting your own seed when it can sometimes be more cost effective to just purchase it in ready-to-go packages from a commercial supplier? The answer is genetics. Many of the suppliers that sell seed from native plant species in Ontario are in fact selling seeds from sources outside the province, sometimes from sources as far away as California. They are native species, though the genetic traits of the product you’re purchasing may not be suited for the climate and soils here in Ontario. By harvesting seed yourself from sites in the area you wish to plant, you can be assured that the plants that grow from them will be adapted for the local climate, resulting in a more reliable planting project over the long-term.

Another issue is the prevalence of cultivars available from commercial seed sellers. Cultivars are the result of artificial selection, where plant breeders collect and propagate seeds from individual specimens that show desirable traits, like showiness or drought resistance. In an ecologically sound planting, cultivars should not be included in the seed or planting mix. Cultivars tend to be bred from just a few individual plants, and so can be inbred, and certainly display a very low level of genetic diversity. This can mean that a single environmental challenge like a fungus or insect attack can wipe out the entire population. With a more diverse genetic base to your planting, you can assure that the planting project is better able to adapt to change over time. The other major concern with cultivars is that they are significantly less appealing to pollinators than are their local, genetically diverse cousins. This is significant, if pollinator habitat or the establishment of an ornamental butterfly garden is one of the planting goals. Cultivars are commonly sold, and are of little ecological value.

Turfhugger - What economic, environmental or other benefits does seed saving, trading provide a land owner?
Gavin Trevelyan - Seed can be expensive! If you’ve got the time and the inclination, getting out and collecting your own seed for your planting project can be significantly cheaper than purchasing it from a supplier. Landowners that are expanding habitats already on their properties have the advantage of collecting seed in a way that does not require them to get permission ahead of time – an issue if collection from other properties is required

If a landowner has purchased seed to get their restoration project up and running, collecting seed from the site as the plants mature is certainly more affordable an option than consistently returning to that supplier for more seed. Fortunately, there are no patents on native species of plants, so this is entirely okay to do!

A major benefit to a landowner in doing their own seed collecting is the level of control in the process that is possible for them. This is where the landowner has control in where the seeds come from and what species are going into the mix. This way, they can tailor the seed mix according to their particular needs, balancing requirements like aesthetics with ecological value depending on the planting site.
Personally, I find the process of seed collection and processing to be enormously fulfilling. There are intangible benefits associated with the process, like the satisfaction in seeing plants in flower that you started from seed. I like to think of it a bit like the plants have graduated at that point.

Turfhugger - What seed to save?
Gavin Trevelyan - Of course, this depends on the site that you’re working on. Generally, whatever the habitat type is that you’re attempting to restore, plant or expand, start with the more common species of plants, rather than the rarer ones. This is important, as enthusiastic collectors can damage wild populations of rarer species inadvertently by over harvesting them. It’s important to have the habitat established before introducing them. A great resource for determining rarity of plants in Ontario is the Ministry of Natural Resources Natural Heritage Information System database online.
Being a grassland guy, I know that habitat type well. At Tallgrass Ontario, we’ve developed a seed collection manual for our volunteers to use. We’ve focussed on 32 species of wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. These are the species that are neither too rare (reasons discussed above), too common (they tend to get to the site on their own without help from us), or too obscure (that only botanists can identify correctly). For example, we’re after Smooth Aster because of its prairie affinity, but not New England Aster, because it will show up in any planting unaided.

Turfhugger - How do you collect it?
Gavin Trevelyan - Collection methods vary between species, sites, and applications. Commercial growers use mechanical harvesters to collect seed incredibly efficiently, but that requires large monoculture stands of species to be able to make it work. For small collections, and particularly for collecting from natural or restored sites, any number of very low-tech methods are suitable. Generally, get yourself a few buckets, a set of pruners and some gloves and start at it. As a collector, various ways of collecting seed by hand will make sense for different species. You can strip seeds off of grasses, and hand pick pods or seed heads. Large panicles of seeds get cut off the plant and stuck in a bucket. It’s all very basic, really.

Turfhugger - How should we store the seeds over winter?
Gavin Trevelyan - Before storing seed, it’s necessary to dry it and clean it. Seed that is harbouring moisture will soon moulder, and the collection will be lost. Drying racks are great, basically some landscape fabric stapled to a wooden frame. They are cheap and easy to build, and work by allowing moisture to be wicked away from the newly collected seed heads. Placing seed out on a tarp and stirring it occasionally works too.

Once the seeds are dried, it is necessary to do pre-cleaning, where the seeds are knocked out of their heads, pods or whatever. This is can be done by using an old blender with duct-taped blades, or by feeding the seed heads into a leaf-vacuum. The rotating blades will smash apart the seed heads, freeing the seeds within, while not damaging too many of the seeds on the way through.

After pre-cleaning is finished, the actual cleaning needs to happen. This is where debris and other bits of plant material are separated from the actual seeds. This is important, as this process will eliminate weed seeds and will enable long-term storage without fear of mouldering in a sealed container. There are a number of specialised industrial machines that are highly efficient at cleaning large quantities of seeds, but most are far too expensive to be a realistic option for most uses. There are many low budget ways to get seed quite clean. Usually, most people will use a series of sieves or screens of different hole sizes to separate out seeds. Manual opening of seed heads or pods is a possible way of cleaning seed, but it is very time consuming. A neat trick that works well is to dump the seed and chaff mix into a large mixing bowl, and use an old hair dryer to blow air over the mix. The lighter chaff will be blown over the sides of the bowl, while the heavier seed will remain at the bottom. A similar concept involves fashioning what’s called a winnower out of 2x2’s, ductwork and a fan. A winnower works by passing seed and chaff through a moving column of air, where the lighter chaff gets blown out one end and seed falls through to a tray beneath the machine.

Once the seed is clean, you can store it. Paper bags are a good choice, because they wick moisture away from the seed. They can be a problem with plants with very small seed, as the seed can slip through the folds at the bottom of the bag. Plastic containers and glass jars are commonly used storage vessels for cleaned seed. Sealed storage should not be done on seeds that have not been cleaned. Seeds should be stored in a way that will protect them from vermin, and provide them with the necessary cues for breaking dormancy. Stratification is the process of cuing seeds to germinate, and is done according to what that species’ seed is adapted for. Information on the seed treatments required for specific species can be found in simple google searches online.

Turfhugger - How do you plant the seeds?
Gavin Trevelyan - After going to all of the effort to collect, clean, store and treat seeds, it’s time to plant them. Planting times vary between species and it’s sometimes advisable to plant seeds at the time of year when they would naturally drop off the plants. Using that approach to seed planting, seed treatments are not necessary, as the seeds will be exposed to their natural cues to break dormancy. Seeds that have spent the winter in your care will be ready for planting in the spring.

As with everything else, there are a number of methods that can be used, the correct one to be used depends on site conditions, species being planted and project budget. There are a number of excellent machines that do a good job of seeding large areas quickly. Some machines are designed to plant seeds directly into an established site. This is called interseeding, and can be the best option if there are desirable plants on the site that you don’t want to lose. Most other situations involve some degree of site preparation prior to seeding. Generally, these sites involve some level of either mechanical, manual or chemical removal of plants that are on the site where you want to plant.

 Controlling invasive plants or potentially problem species is best done at this stage, to ensure the success of the planting project. Once the site is prepared, seeds are either broadcast, drilled or planted by machine in furrows of the appropriate depth. With any of these methods, it is advisable to do a little bit of compacting of the soil and raking to ensure good seed to soil contact. After that, it’s the job of the planter to help nature on its course, by keeping an eye on problem weeds and controlling them if necessary, and by watering the seedlings if they need an extra boost.

Turfhugger - Out on a Limb has recently established a seed sharing network for golf courses in Southern Ontario, are these common?
Gavin Trevelyan - There isn’t a whole lot of seed sharing going on. Most people, including myself, are rather jealous of their seed and where it comes from. I loathe to tell people exactly where I got my seed, because I don’t want other sneaking in and grabbing it before I can! This is a common mentality among seed collectors!

Perhaps an exception are events usually coordinated by local horticulture clubs. These events feature gardeners and other plant enthusiasts getting together to trade, purchase or sell seeds with each other. There is generally a large diversity of seeds available, and the events tend to focus largely on heirloom vegetable varieties, but there generally are native seeds available in small quantities.


I think we are going to try to do this next year with the ladies members. I think Aubudon would appreciate the effort.

This is another great idea Scott. I don't see the service on your webpage! what gives?