One of my favorite children's books when I was young was "Miss Rumphius," a story about a woman who wants to travel, make the world more beautiful, and one day live in a cottage by the sea. She sees the world, spreading lupine seeds, making everywhere she goes more beautiful, and eventually settles in a cottage by the sea. When I was a kid, I wanted to be the 'Lupine Lady' when I grew up. I thought traveling and collecting and sowing flower seeds was a viable occupation. When I realized that that wasn't exactly true, but was still an honorable way to live life, I started collecting flower seeds from any plant I happened to pass in a flowering state. My dad's front yard in my hometown is testament to this fact—it's nearly overcome with vibrant (and virtually invasive) Cosmos and bachelor buttons acquired from neighbors' yards on walks in my childhood.
While I've always collected flower seeds as a force of habit, normally the sight of a bolting lettuce in my garden is enough to cause me to shriek, rip the offending plant out, and pretend my garden isn't mine. I've been out of town a lot lately, and had a busy spring, and just didn't decide what I was going to replace the lettuce with this year, so some things went past their prime. But, since I've never been afforded the luxury of space and time allowed in the garden to let things go to seed, I decided to look at my flowering herbs and vegetables this time around in a different light—as art projects. Other plants are appreciated just for their flowers. Rather than disown the lettuce bed at the end of spring this year, I let them have their way and they grew into huge stalks.
Since I've always been in such a rush to rip out plants when past their prime, it was fascinating to watch them fully come to fruition. The black seeded Simpson and the Buttercrunch lettuces each sent up a hollow stalk in the middle of the plant that got to be nearly five feet tall, with a whole starburst of little, yellow, dandelion-like flowers, that once mature formed little puffy clouds to be carried by the wind. And the Lola Rossa did it all too, but in purple.
It's not exactly pretty, but, to me, it is very interesting. And with all these plants coming to fruition, I realized that there are still harvestable parts of the plants—there is still a way for me to be farming, not just observing. I can harvest the seeds for this fall's garden! Seeds aren't cheap—especially with the Miss Lupine-scatter approach that I take to planting lettuce—so this way I can scatter with wild abandon next time I plant.
I've found a new way to be a laissez farmer. I don't usually save seeds because the bolting plants take away room in the garden from plants that might be producing something I can eat. Next year, I'll try to plant my summer plants around the spring ones so that they can be growing while I'm waiting for the lettuces to finish the seed-making process. But for now I'm content with the odd-looking flowers at the center of everything.
Once the lettuce seeds are mature, (test by pulling on the white tufts of the flowers - the seed will be attached at the end and dry when ready) I pull them out by hand. Then I 'cure' the seeds by letting them air dry for a few days on a paper plate inside the house (where there's less humidity) out of the way of breezes or ceiling fans, before storing them in labeled Ziploc bags.
Being the Laissez farmer that I am, I only save seeds from the plants that make it easy on me: the lettuces and herbs (and the occasional flower). It's easy enough to save seeds from vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, but those aren't usually plants I take the time to grow from seed. Squash varieties can cross pollinate so the plant may be a strange combination of varieties (squampkin, anyone?), and many root vegetables are bi-ennials so they take a full year to go to seed. But some herb seeds are easy to harvest, and they can be eaten too. Cilantro seeds (coriander) form little balls that I like to grind and cook with fish, and I use dill seeds to brighten up borscht in February (and pickles in summer). I seldom pick the flowers off basil plants (as is common practice among gardeners) because the bees like the flowers and the seeds are easy to pick so that I can just scatter them at will - like the Lupine Lady. Maybe not exactly making the world more beautiful, but I am at least making my little corner of it more flavorful.
For detailed directions on saving seeds from a long list of flowers and vegetables, visit: www.seedsavers.org