April 13, 2015

5 Seed-Saving Crops to Plant with Kids - Photo by Tessa Zundel (HobbyFarms.com)

It’s great to start teaching seed saving to your children early in life. By mastering this gardening technique, they’ll soon be equipped for continuing a sustainable garden as their growing skills develop. If this year is the first time your family plans to save seeds, I suggest starting with crops that offer up their seed harvest with relative ease. Below is a list of plants that will oblige you with a harvest of seeds without too much hassle. All you need to do is stand by with a bag and some clippers.

1. Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)

Sunflowers brighten up any garden, and your family will certainly enjoy growing them. They attract pollinators, and as the petals begin to fade, seeds will start forming on the flower head. You’ll know the seeds are ready for harvest when they begin to change color from green to black or white with stripes. Choose a variety that will form large seeds, such as Mammoth Grey Stripe or Skyscraper, so children can handle them easily.

To select which seeds to save, step back and look at all your sunflower stalks. Find the plants that had the loveliest blooms, the strongest stalks, the healthiest leaves and the plumpest seeds. These specimens will be genetically strong and more likely to perform well for you in years to come.

Involve your children in these inspections. My children often observe far more detail in the garden than I do, and they can usually tell me which sunflowers they like best. These are the sunflowers that have been fairy houses and forts, after all!

After everyone has had their say, tie a paper bag around the seed heads of your three chosen plants. Secure it firmly but not so tight that you damage the plant. As the season progresses, the air will continue to circulate in the bag and the sun will dry your seeds. Once dry, bring the flower heads indoors and remove the seeds. Save a certain amount (plus, a little extra) for next year, then trade, sell or eat the rest.

Some of the large-seed sunflower varieties can have flower heads more than 1 foot in diameter with more than 1,500 seeds. In these cases, I cut the seed heads off at the neck and dry them them on a flat surface in the sun with bird netting overtop. Flip them every day to dry evenly.

2. Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)

5 Seed-Saving Crops to Plant with Kids - Photo by Ashley Bristowe/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)

Hollyhocks are an old, cottage-garden flower, and my daughters love using the blossoms to make fairy skirts. Hollyhocks are a biennial, meaning they grow a mound of scallop-shaped leaves their first year and a tall stalk covered in large, bell-shaped flowers the second year. Hollyhocks come in a rainbow of colors: yellow, white, pink and red.

The nice thing about hollyhock seed pods is that they’re easy to spot. After the blooms fade, they fall off and a round, dumpling-like pocket is revealed. Once it’s completely dry, you can open it up and find a tidy wheel of seeds. Unless you live in a place with severe winters, you can leave the seeds on the plant to fall off and reseed themselves wherever the wind carries them. In fact, in most places, hollyhocks reseed so easily that gardeners get tricked into thinking they’re perennial flowers.

If you decide to harvest the seeds, follow the same plant-selection protocol as you did with the sunflowers: Only select the plants that performed best. Watch out for rust on hollyhocks, which will look like small reddish spots on the leaves. Rust doesn’t usually affect the flowers, but it can defoliate the plant and weaken it, making it unsuitable for seed saving.

Several seed houses offer rust-resistant varieties of hollyhock. Help prevent rust in the garden by gathering and composting all frost-killed leaves and stalks at the end of each season. If rust is already present, skip the compost and just throw away the plants.

3. Lima Beans (Phaseolus lunatus) and 4. Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus)

5 Seed-Saving Crops to Plant with Kids - Photo by Tessa Zundel (HobbyFarms.com)

Lima beans are fun to save seed from because they dry white and big and are easy to plant every year. Runner beans grow on vigorous, show-stopping vines that produce flowers in a lovely range of reds and whites. Attractive and strong, you can train them up teepee trellises or cattle panels to create a natural fort in the children’s garden.

The best part about harvesting bean seeds is that you don’t have to do any work to preserve them. Beans can be dried on the vine—in fact, that’s the preferred method—and they come pre-packaged in their pods to prevent the birds from eating them. I usually send the kids out with kitchen scissors when the beans are brown and dry to collect them.

Depending on the variety of bean, removing the dried outer shell can be murder on the hands. To save us pain, we toss them all into a burlap or feed sack and bang them against the ground. This usually removes enough of the shell to get the beans out easily. If we have a variety with a tougher pod, I’ll have one of my smaller children walk on the bag with clean shoes to pop the shells. This is a much coveted job, as the kiddos think its great sport to walk on something we’re going to eat.

5. Onions (Allium cepa)

5 Seed-Saving Crops to Plant with Kids - Photo by Tessa Zundel (HobbyFarms.com)

Children may not be as keen to eat onions, but trust me, this is a fun seed to save. Once an onion bulb has formed, it sends up a perfectly straight flower stalk with a perfectly round flower head on top. Once pollinated (the bees love these flowers!), each tiny flower on the flower head turns into a jet-black, pyramid-shaped seed.

You can use the bag method from the sunflowers to save onion seeds, as well, or you can cut the stalks once the seeds appear, invert them into a paper bag and then hang them upside down to dry. Visit my post on saving leek seeds for more details—it works the same way.

Sometimes, my seed-saving program includes letting the plants reseed themselves. In addition to saving some onion seeds, I like to let others fall wherever they want. In my zone 5 garden, they come up in the early spring and I use them as green onions in stir-fries and scrambled eggs. So delicious!

Did I miss one of your favorite plants for saving seeds? Remember, when children are involved, keep it simple so the kids can enjoy a successful beginning on their road to becoming expert seed savers.

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