How do we harvest and clean native prairie seeds

Harvesting seeds is one of our favorite activities, and it’s fun for the whole family! We’ve learned efficient ways to collect, separate, clean and store our prairie seeds. Check our our restoration progress – years 1-3, 4, and 5-6.

Native prairie plants seeds ripen at all different times. Some seeds need to be gathered immediately and others can stay on the stem for a long time. It’s always a dance between perfect ripeness, drying the seeds, leaving some for wildlife, and planning around weather. We usually collect and redistribute all of the early spring and summer seeds to increase the density in our prairie. We collect most of the fall seeds for scattering and selling.

Stiff Goldenrod with Mature Seeds

Most of our seeds are collected in the fall, from August through November. It’s a fun weekend activity. Each week, focusing on different plants. Here is how we do it and the tools we use:

Most prairies seeds are gathered by hand but some require cutting. We do a lot of separating right in the field but most of the screening and cleaning happens back at home.

To get started, connect the landyard clips to each side of your bucket and wear the bucket around your neck. The bucket lands at an almost perfect gathering height. Use one bucket for each seed type. Some of us wear 2 or 3 buckets at a time and keep our scissors in a holster at our waist. (These two are closest to what we carry – this one snaps into your belt loop and this one wraps around like a fanny pack). Little kids and older people get one bucket. Most kids seem to “lose” their seeds as they walk. It’s totally fine! Seeds dumped all the around while they gather is welcome in a prairie, and they usually get a lot of enjoyment from pulling the seeds off. This is one place where flower head plucking is allowed and encouraged!

Using your hands to gather native prairie seeds

Your hands are fantastic for stripping off native prairie seeds. It’s almost as if they were made for it! Ripeness is key. In general, the seeds are ready when all the flowers have fallen off and the seeds have dried on the stem. Some of the seeds become fluffy. They should be fully poofed out (see the goldenrod photo above.) Ripe seeds will slip off easily. If you have to fight them off, you’re too early. Most seeds that can be gathered by hand, rub off just by rubbing your hands over them. Here is a list of the seeds we gather by hand.

  • Leadplant (this has yet to show in our prairie, but we collect this by hand with the parks district)
  • Milkweed (all types)
  • Indigo
  • Baptisia
  • White and purple prairie clovers
  • Wild petunia
  • Golden Alexanders

Of these, the prairie clovers are some of the most satisfying. They are really enjoyable to run between your hands and you can collect large quantities of very clean seed. They are not sellable in their original form (they are difficult to clean and scarify) but they are very easy to collect and re-spead in your own prairie space. Milkweed are also really fun, because they have the fluff.

Using a Scissors to gather the heads of native prairie plants to collect the seeds

Many plants have tough stems and seeds that are more challenging to collect. We break these into two categories: The head collections, and the stem collections.

Coneflower heads drying in a bowl

Here are the plants that we collect by cutting off the flower heads and putting them in a bowl to dry:

  • Prairie Onion
  • Anise Hyssop
  • Coreopsis
  • Penstemon
  • Coneflower
  • Rattlesnake master
  • Bottle Gentian
  • Sunflowers (all types)
  • Lupine
  • Round headed bush clover
  • black eyed susan
  • Mountain mint
  • Compass plant
  • Cup plant
  • Ohio Spiderwort
  • Hoary Vervain
  • Culvers Root

It’s really important that these flower heads be left to dry. They can’t be stacked too high or left smooshed together or they will mold. Some of these, we hang to dry in longer stems, like the round headed bush clover or the black eyed susans. We usually do this in the barn and sweep any fallen seeds back out into the prairie. You can also lay the stems on window screens or drying racks. We often put them in big galvanized vases so they splay out. This is a time to get creative with the supplies you have on hand.

We still gather most of these seed heads using our ice cream buckets. We just stuff them full of heads and then walk our buckets to a central wagon. Or if someone is pulling the wagon, we just drop them all in. We often mix bunches together in the wagon, but keep them to their own side so separation is easier.

We use a scissors or the Thumb harvesting plant knife to cut the stems. The thumb knife is really nice because you can wear it on your hand and still have both hands free. It takes some getting used to, but some of us are really quick with it.

Gloves are not generally necessary for the harvest of most of these plants, but may be beneficial when dealing with the heads directly during separation (particularly the sunflowers and coneflowers)

Here are the plants that we collect by cutting off the stems and shaking off the seeds

  • Asters
  • Anise Hyssop (older and drier stems)
  • Joe Pye Weed
  • Boneset
  • Blazing star
  • Goldenrod
  • ironweed
  • Bee balm
  • Spotted Bee balm
  • Most of the native prairie grasses

These are really fun plants to collect! We cut the stems in bouquets and shake them against our buckets, into large rubbermaid tubs, or into paper bags. The buckets work great for most of the smallest seeds – fluff like goldenrod and joe pye weed require bigger containers.) If you experiment with it, you can generally blow out a lot of the fluff and chaff and get a really nice concentrated collection of seeds.

We leave most of the stems in the prairie, but you could also repurpose them as floral stems or do like we do and use them in your honey bee feeders.

A collection of round headed bush clover after weeks of drying and then being shaken from the stems. Lots of stems and leaves mixed with thousands of seeds.

How to separate and clean native prairie seeds

The majority of the separation happens in the field – either by pulling the seeds from the plant, cutting of the seed head, or shaking the “bouquet” into a bag/bucket.

Spotted Bee Balm “Bouquet”

This eliminates much of the original plant material. We have found that some of the tougher plants benefit from being run through a leaf shredder. We had luck with this little one. To be fair – it SUCKED for shredding leaves. It could only handle small leaf loads , but it was great for breaking up plant material. It basically rips them and tosses them around, shaking seeds loose and breaking up tougher seed heads.

We put a big rubbermaid bin underneath to collect the duff and the seeds. Usually, the duff can just be taken off by hand. Shaking the seeds into a corner, they will generally sink to the bottom and you can just scoop off the top mulch. Toss that in the mulch pile (or back into the prairie) and you are left with a much smaller mass to work with.

Shaking seed heads in mason jars also works great – especially for anise hyssop, the coneflowers, and some of the sunflowers. This only works when the seed heads have fully dried. Otherwise, you may have to pick apart a lot of the sunflowers. And you will almost always have to pick apart the cup plants and compass plants.

Culvers roots and vervains can be rubbed off. They tend to be rough on the hands, so gloves make it easier. If they are really dry, shaking in the jars works okay.

The best way to separate seeds from plants leaves and material

Cleaning the final seeds takes a lot of buckets and containers. We like to use bakers sheets and bowls of all sizes. A pasta strainer (or regular kitchen colander) works great for removing large plant materials like leaves and stem pieces. If you are keeping the seeds for your own use, you could stop after this step and store your seeds in paper lunch bags for the winter. You could also use a fan or the wind to winnow away the leaves and stems, but a colander is really easy and you lose fewer seeds.

After you have removed most of the leaves, its time to REALLY clean the seeds. This is done with different gradients of sieves. We process a LOT of seeds, and this set of 6 mini sieves is amazing! We are able to separate out even the smallest seeds, remove dust, dirt, and little rocks. Its great! We also use this coarser sieve set for our larger seeds.

One of the neat tricks of the sieve sets is that you can stack them together and shake seeds all the way through. In the 3rd picture below, our seeds are staying in the bottom sieve, the dust is being filtered through the bottom, and larger bits and pieces are staying on top. It helps to sieve a few times to really get a clean product.

Many seeds need scarification and/or winter treatment in order to germinate. For this reason, its important to store you seeds in a cold place if you want to mimic some of that winterization. Or just plant them in the fall.

If you can’t wait for nature to help, you can scarify your seeds by using a a sandpaper block or rubbing your seeds through mesh.

Fully cleaned seeds – easy to weigh out and store, or sell.

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