Seed-Saving 101: How to Save Seeds from Annual Flowers
Our garden is dotted with dozens of colorful annual flowers: calendula, cosmos, zinnia… you name it! Bees and butterflies fill the air, flitting from one prized food source to another. Unlike some meticulously-groomed flower gardens, ours is on the wild side, with both bright and faded brown blooms everywhere you look. Yet it is a bit unkempt on purpose, and for good reason: so we can seed-save! (Not to mention the wildlife likes it wild too.)
Read along to learn more about how to save seeds from annual flowers! This article will cover exactly when and how to collect flower seeds to save, seed storage best practices, and the easiest types of annual flowers to seed-save from.
Why Save Seed from Annual Flowers?
Seed-saving flowers is fun, easy, and rewarding. It is an excellent way to select and reproduce the prettiest, most successful flowers in your garden. Rather than allowing seeds to fall and scatter haphazardly (which we do plenty of too!), collecting and saving annual flower seeds makes it easy to re-plant them in more deliberate locations next season.
Most annual flowers are prolific seed-bearers. Given their short life span (just one year!), their natural instinct is to create and disperse as much seed possible to continue their legacy into the following year. Therefore, you can usually collect a substantial amount of seed from annual flowers. And what gardener doesn’t love free seeds? Even if you don’t intend to plant them all yourself, saved seeds make a sweet and thoughtful gift for fellow gardeners. Better yet, exchange them in a seed swap!
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The Best Time to Save Seeds from Annual Flowers
The key to successfully saving seeds from annual flowers is to let the blooms completely mature and dry while they are still on the plant. As old flower heads wither and die, they’re paving the way for new life by developing seeds inside. The same goes for many vegetable, legume, and grain plant seeds. The longer they’re allowed to develop and dry on the mother plant, the better.
This means that cut flowers (those used in bouquets) aren’t ideal for seed-saving. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy some cut flowers in your home too! Just keep in mind that when a flower is harvested young or in peak bloom, it likely hasn’t been pollinated yet – and thus lacks viable seeds. Seeds will not continue to develop if fresh flowers are removed and dried off the plant. Even half-dead looking flowers need more time on the plant!
How to Collect and Save Annual Flower Seeds
- Choose the most luscious, robust, and healthy-looking flowers to save seed from. Good genes are passed on!
- Allow the chosen flower head to fade and dry out on the plant. Ideally, even the green base of the flower (pedicel) and individual stem should become brown and dry as well. However, don’t let it sit there forever! Collect seeds before the head crumbles and they drop seed (though some annual flowers hold together nicely for a long time, like zinnia). Large nasturtium seeds are easy to collect once they fall to the ground.
- Use clean pruning snips to remove the spent flower head. Rather than cutting off the head alone, follow its single stem down until you reach a junction of side branches or leaves, and trim there. This method of dead-heading helps promote more blooms and also looks more clean than topping the heads only. If you aren’t ready to work with the cut dry flower heads quite yet (or if they aren’t 100% dry) store them in a brown paper bag for a week or two.
- Extra-crumbly, large, or visible seeds like calendula can be collected directly into your hand from the plant before removing the flower. Otherwise, gather the cut dry flower heads on a clean work surface such as a table or tray – where you can pull them apart to easily save seeds, as opposed to losing them!
- As you gently break apart the dry flower heads, sift through and look for developed seeds. Set those aside to save. Every variety of flower will have different size and shape of seeds inside, along with some hulls/chaff and other dry flower matter. Mature seeds will be more thick and firm (and usually darker in color) than the surrounding fluff. They will also be located in the centermost portion of the flower head, possibly attached at the base.
- Since flower petals are designed to help spread seed in the wind once dry, the amount of petals on a flower often correlates to how many seeds are present in the dry head! For example, a simple cosmos flower may only provide a handful of seeds, while a big fluffy double zinnia can provide dozens or more. This isn’t always the case of course. Consider sunflowers and their huge seed-to-petal ratio!
Tips for Storing Saved Flower Seeds
- As best you can, sort out the chaff from the seed. When we are seed-saving flowers for personal use, I don’t mind if some extra fluff comes along with seeds. Yet if we’re planning to seed swap or give them away as a gift, it is nice to store the seeds as “clean” as possible.
- If the flower head was still a tad on the green side, or if the seeds are damp-feeling at all, don’t package them up right away. Instead, spread the collected seeds out in an open, shallow, airy container in a dark location for a few days (up to a couple weeks) to thoroughly dry.
- Once dry, transfer the seeds into small packages for long-term storage. We like to use these small paper coin envelopes. They come in two sizes, and are perfect to write labels on. Ziplock baggies work too, but make sure your seeds are totally dry first since plastic will trap in moisture. If you have a large amount of seed, use a glass mason jar or other Tupperware-like container.
- Store your saved flower seeds in a dry, temperate, and protected location. It is best to store them away from direct light. Using opaque paper packs also helps block light. Check out this article for more seed storage tips, and to learn more about how we organize all of our garden seeds in these awesome storage containers.
- The seeds saved from annual flowers are best used the following year. However, it is possible to successfully plant and grow flowers from them for many years to come! However, the germination (sprouting) rate will slowly decline over time, so simply plant a few extra seeds to compensate as the years go on.
- You can either plant saved annual flowers seeds directly outdoors, or start seeds indoors and transplant them outside as seedlings. We typically get a jump start on the season and do the latter. If you need any tips on growing from seed, visit our Seed Starting 101 article, a step-by-step guide.
The Best Annual Flowers for Seed-Saving
- Bachelor’s Buttons (aka cornflower)
- Coneflowers (aka echinacea). These are actually perennials – but full of seeds!
The above-listed annual flowers are some of our favorites! Not only are they easy flowers to save seed from, but they’re also among the easiest companion flowers to grow in general – and highly attractive to pollinators! For an even larger list of our favorite pollinator-friendly flowers (including perennials not listed here), please feel free to visit: “The Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies, and Hummingbirds”.
Speaking of pollinators, they are another great reason to leave some spent blooms in the garden – instead of scrupulously deadheading every one. Seed-filled dry annual flowers are a wonderful food source for wild song birds! In our garden, we find birds are especially grateful for left-behind sunflowers and coneflowers.
See? It is crazy easy to save seeds from flowers.
In all, I hope you enjoyed this article and learned a little something new! Perhaps you’ll look at “ugly” brown flowers a little differently now too. Clearly we can’t save seed from all the flowers in the world – nor would we want to! Truth be told, we would harvest far more fresh cut flower bouquets to admire if our cat Dalai didn’t destroy every one we bring inside! So, enjoy those pretty flowers however you see fit.
Looking for new seed varieties to try? Browse the flower sections of our top 12 places to buy organic, heirloom, and non-GMO garden seeds. Please feel free to ask questions, and spread the flower power by sharing or pinning this article. Thanks for tuning in!
Don’t miss these related articles:
- How to Turn Your Yard or Garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat
- The Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies and Hummingbirds
- 7 Best Easy Annual Companion Flowers to Grow From Seed
- Companion Planting 101 (w/ Printable Companion Planting Chart)
- 9 Common Seed-Starting Mistakes to Avoid
- All About Monarchs: How to Attract, Raise & Release Monarch Butterflies
This is wonderful information, thank you! Just what I was looking for.
Hi there! Thanks for the helpful information. I collected seeds this year, and wonder if they can be planted the same season. In years past I keep them a year and then plant them (petunias, marigolds, dianthus, Black-eyed Susans…)
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Marcy, you can plant the seeds anytime after you harvest them assuming that they were collected at the appropriate time. Some seeds need cold stratification for the seed to break dormancy before they can be planted so you may want to look into your specific varieties to know for sure if they qualify for this or not. Hope that helps and good luck!
This article is extremely useful! I’m eager to check this out.
To whom it may concern, we are a group of gardeners in Colorado wanting to save seeds from an annual garden bed. The weather is getting colder but the plants are not all turning brown. Can we pot some of the zinnias up keep them watered until they go brown? Or is it possible to pull them out of the ground with roots in tact and hang them upside down. Thank you for your quick answer! Joan
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Joan, it would be best to allow the plants to turn brown with age to let the seeds mature and ripen as much as possible with their roots still in the ground. If you are up against time, pulling them and letting them dry upside down seems to be an option, though some of the flowers may not have mature enough seeds to save. Let us know what you decide and how it worked out for you, good luck!
Very helpful. I’m excited to give this a try!
Last year I collected my marigold seeds but none of them ever germinated. Why might that be?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hey Kim, sorry to hear your seeds didn’t germinate. There could be a number of factors on why they didn’t sprout, the main one being that they were harvested too fresh. The flowers should be allowed to dry on the stem of the plant and picked once completely dry and fully “ripe”. Also, if the seeds were subjected to harsh environmental conditions such as too hot, cold, moist etc. it could also decrease their viability.
I have a few different types of zinnias this year but one is a mystery one that I love.and want to save. Because they are close to the other zinnias is there a way to isolate so I don’t have a cross pollinate?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Sharon, that’s a great question as zinnias do cross pollinate and to ensure a pure seed, you should only grow one variety at a time or space them 1/4 mile which isn’t feasible for most people. I would still save seed from the mystery plant and see how the seeds and plants differ from the mother plant. Hope that helps and good luck!
I had the same problem with my merigolds none sprouted and I saved a time I thought they were all dry. Is there an extra trick with merigolds?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Sharon, marigolds should sprout fairly easily so maybe the seeds weren’t mature enough? If your other flower seeds sprouted then the seeds must be the issue as marigolds usually sprout just as easy or even more so than most others. Hope that helps and good luck!