Native Seed Saving with West Cook Wild Ones

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

It's the season of all out native seed saving.

So, with the rage on regarding filling our urban landscapes with native plants – to increase the biodiversity of bees, butterflies, beneficial insects and birds – I reached out to one of the founding members of West Cook Wild Ones, Ginger Vanderveer, for a few straight-from-the-trenches tips. 

What gives root to Ginger's street cred for me is the fact that this member of the Park District of Oak Park Greening Advisory Committee, and steward of the PDOP Field Park, is that she has a jar full of seeds that she's willing to divvy up and share with the public. 

This is why:  "if we don't have native material growing everywhere, we won't have anything else," she told me recently.  "We won't have bees and birds, and there are so many species that depend on that.  And we depend on all the other species so that's the way it works.  It's the circle of life."

To get out there and start gathering a few seeds now, here are four of her go-tos, and a piece of advice:


Columbine… seeds itself in May, and the beginning of June, so you really want to watch for when it's beginning to look dry.  And, to avoid disease, don't ever harvest any seeds when it is wet.

 New England Aster

Aster… seeds should be saved just before they get all fluffy.  "I just take them as little branches and I put them in a paper bag.  I wait a couple of days and they naturally fall off and I pull the stem out of the branch, and all the seeds are at the bottom of the bag," Ginger says.  "It's the least messy way to handle that." 


Milkweed... if still greenish, snip the whole pod off of the plant and put that in a bag and when it dries up a little more, harvest the seeds out of that. And, make sure that you are harvesting seeds from healthy-looking plants, but only take a third of the seeds available.  Leave some for it to naturally seed itself.  


Echinacea…can be messy, with the seeds falling everywhere, "so I snip off the head and put that in a paper bag.  Once I have collected them, I save some of the seeds to sow in the spring, and in fall, loosen the soil and broadcast them.   Because Echinacea takes a really long time to start, in the Fall I use one of my old flower troughs, the plastic ones that I would use in a flower box, and put those troughs somewhere semi-sheltered along the wall of a house or garage and plant my seeds in that.  I don't water them.  I just toss them into about 5 or 6 troughs, so I can have one for each type of native plant I am starting from seed," she says.

The Critical Part:  pass it on to someone young.  Ginger  adds that  "I have a young friend who has been helping me clean seeds and put them in envelopes for give-a-way since she was 5 or 6 years old.  Involve young people so they know what this is all about." 

So, it is a good day to be like Ginger, but not be "ginger" about saving native seeds.  After all, winter is coming.

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Pamela Yodd from oakPark  

Posted: November 3rd, 2014 1:00 PM

Thanjs do much for the clear and plant-specific details on this topic from an expert


Posted: November 1st, 2014 8:19 AM

Great to see Ginger share her knowledge with the larger community; OP benefits from all of her generosity and the beauty and ecological functions all of her gardens give. West Cook Wild Ones will have an informal seed swap Nov 16 after our "Behind the Scenes of a Wild Animal Hospital" presentation by Jack Macrae from Willowbrook Animal Hospital. Room 259, The Priory 7200 W Division. Program is 2:30; seed swap right after. Bring envelopes/pen.

Sally Stovall from Oak Park  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 1:17 PM

Thanks, Deb. This is just what I needed!

Don Nekrosius from Oak Park  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 1:11 PM

Ginger's commitment to native plants is admirable and her prescription for reusing flower box troughs as starter "beds" is clever indeed. Every conversation between gardeners and passersby should include a plug for saving seed and including native plants throughout the village. Healthy soil and native plants host the insects and animal life that keep nature alive. By the way, this is something the Greening Advisory Committee actively supports throughout Park District sites.

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