Randalls Island Park Alliance

Harvesting Seed

In Ask a Gardener, General Plants on July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm

by Kaity Cheng

There are several beds of Salvia nemorosa (woodland sage) in our waterfront garden. Clusters of this flower can also be found at the Hellgate Wildflower Meadow. It is an attractive plant that is easy to grow and propagate, with the result that it has been passed around by gardeners for many years. Its fragrant flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Salvia nemorosa grows in clumps, bearing flowers of blue and purple gradations.

As spring rolls into summer, the perennial blooms follow each other in waves. Salvia nemorosa bloomed in May, painting purple swaths along the waterfront. Even as the flowers senesce, clumps of Salvia nemorosa continued to provide color, until the purple yields to brown.  After the flowers are spent, it is good to cut back woodland sage. Cutting back induces a second, less showy bloom in the fall. We also cut back the woodland sage so that we can harvest their seeds.

I began cutting back the flowers on a hot Sunday afternoon. I gazed at the bed of woodland sage, which appeared quite long for a lone gardener. With pruners, I held clusters of stems together and snipped them at their base. I piled these flower stems into a cardboard box, and stored them in a dry room in our tool cottage.

Salvia nemorosa

Eunyoung had stressed the importance of dry conditions for storing the flowers. The following week, Jean, Jeong Aee, Dianne, and I completed the spent flower stem harvest. We used a combination of pruners and shears, the former being neater, the latter being more satisfying! We scoured the island for used brown boxes. Diving into a dumpster turned up one usable box. The Sportime Tennis Center turned out to be the most reliable box provider, with a retail store that receives daily shipments. Still, we had not uncovered enough boxes to store all the woodland sage. Some of the sage ended up in our trusty rubber buckets, and some were stored in some of our gray plastic storage bins.

The following day, as we began to strip off the leaves, we noticed how wet the flowers felt. There was also a smell. Ants had found the plants and apparently liked them. So this was a good lesson in plant storage. Plastic and rubber lack porosity and any organic matter stored inside will get soggy. Even in a dry cardboard box, if the plants are packed in too tightly, there is no way for air to circulate. Our method of stuffing as much as we could into our already scarce bins did not allow for  proper evaporation and ventilation.

Much of what we had meant to save had to be thrown out. Mold had gathered and spread around the damp stems. We foraged for a few more boxes, and divided the salvaged stems and stored them loosely and spaciously in the boxes.

JeongAee salvages for healthy stems

We are now well prepared for the next time we harvest plants for seed. We know we’ll need a good supply of dry boxes. If we harvest the flowers directly into the boxes, we’ll be less likely to harvest more than we can store. Although I had the urge to save everything we were cutting, this urge often leads to unexpected waste! Had we harvested half the amount and composted the rest, we would not have had the mold issue. The risk of mold is lower if leaves are stripped off immediately, as they carry moisture. In our Salvia nemorosa harvest, we left the leaves on, thinking the salvia stripping would be a good activity for the heat wave looming before us.
In spite of our losses, it was well worth our time to save seed from this year’s crop of woodland sage. The life force of those dead-headed clusters continues in the seeds that were harvested, and will persist after those seeds are spread somewhere else.

One look around the Hellgate Wildflower Meadow illustrates the value of saving seed.  The seeds of native perennials were broadcast across the meadow. Unlike at the waterfront, where Salvia nemorosa blooms in defined swaths along the water’s edge, the Salvia nemorosa at Hellgate are scattered in clumps, designed not by pen and paper but by the forces of sun, wind, rain, and soil. Salvia nemorosa thrive in the lottery of the seed broadcast.


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