Garden Muse

Wonders of the Harvest

by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist








Fall always makes me think in terms of botanical parts — maybe because of all those botany projects assigned in science classes.

I remember the poster I turned in to my high school biology teacher — it was supposed to display a leaf and seed of each specimen assigned. Mrs. Garrett rejected it outright, however, because I had stapled a plastic bag containing a big magnolia pod to the board. She told me to take it back unless I wanted an F, asked incredulously how I could mistake a pod for a seed, and seemed the most disturbed that I had not even been curious enough to look inside.

As beautiful as a magnolia blossom is, I now appreciate even more its stage of brilliant red seeds popping out of the brown pod, just as I appreciate that teachable moment. Use the season to tromp around for a close examination. It can produce both aesthetic and practical results if you keep a gardening journal or harvest natural elements to use creatively. Also, seed saving means lots of free plants for next year.

My nature-loving friend Alene kept her box of church-offering envelopes in her car so she was always ready to collect natural objects: any type really, but especially seeds.  Your children or grandchildren will delight in peeking inside interesting pods or fruit to find seeds. My son planted the cherry pits he saved after snacking on cherries from our tree; thankfully, his seedlings had grown into sturdy replacements by the time we lost our beloved parent tree. 

The “helicopters” that float down from maples catch kids’ interest and reliably produce trees, as my mother can attest — all the maples in her backyard came from my first-grade seed-starting project. Introduce children to money plant. You’ll find them enjoying the harvest as it yields plenty of “coins,” tissue-thin discs that sheath the seeds.

Another especially fun pod for children to open is the papery Chinese lantern. Cut open the orange lantern to see its seed, shining bright like a light bulb. Hardy hibiscus seeds are easy to collect and well worth the effort as the plants they become are expensive, exotic-looking beauties.

Bringing in the sheaves can take on a whole new meaning when those bundles boast everlasting flowers such as celosia, yarrow, and hydrangea. Scour flea markets for old drying racks and hang the bundles upside down for color bursts that lend a warm, provincial look to a kitchen or breakfast area, or simply use a tied sheaf of any grass on its own as a centerpiece.

Hydrangea blooms should be left on the shrub until the petals feel dry to the touch, but be aware of frost forecasts and harvest before flowers are nipped. At the ideal drying stage, the flower has turned lime green, or has been tinged with red. If you do not like the color or if the bloom has become brown, you can help nature along with cans of floral spray (available at any craft store). Use at least two colors to “mottle” (crimson and basil, for example, or blue and rose), and start out spraying from a distance of more than one foot for the most natural look. 

Before using the versatile cockscomb-type celosia in wreaths or holiday arrangements, be sure to shake them onto a light-colored surface to collect all the pinhead-sized black seeds to plant in the spring.

Seed heads of any type from the onion family, from small purple chives to giant allium, lend excellent globular form to arrangements. Once the seeds of garlic chives drop off, use the spiky skeletons, especially effective when sprayed gold or silver. Pods can even make artful centerpieces by themselves.

Black curly pods hanging from locust trees grab children’s interest if you call them “Witches’ Fingers” and collect them for Halloween. The redbud’s contrast of bright-yellow leaves against dark pods makes a striking arrangement. If you have access to any lotus pods from a water garden, remove the seeds, then spray the pod silver or sparkling white and insert artificial pearls for lustrous holiday bouquets.

The fruit of the vine is perhaps the showiest part of fall. Pumpkins and gourds — the icons of autumn — light up the season in all shapes, colors and sizes. Miniature pumpkins are fun to use inside and capture children’s imagination.  Carved and lined up as a centerpiece of junior jack-o’-lanterns, they create a sensation when lit at the end of a fun family meal. Decorate with American bittersweet (but be careful to avoid the invasive Asian variety), dazzling with its round orange clusters that open to reveal fleshy red seeds.

Hyacinth bean vine, an annual, yields rich purple pods that complement the fiery oranges and yellows of the season. Harvest its black-and-white seed before frost and store in envelopes in a dark place. 

Pressed botanical parts can be fashioned into 3D artwork. A single tiny pressed leaf or flower in the corner of a note card or bookmark makes a special gift. The life cycle of a plant is instructive and fascinating. Follow Henry David Thoreau’s lead and do some field sketching or nature journaling to record your impressions of the season and you may find yourself waxing poetic with appreciation, reassurance, and “Faith in a Seed.”

© Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Va., where she runs her design business, Imagine That. 


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