However, it’s not just as simple as throwing some seeds into a container and waiting patiently to plant them again next year. When saving vegetable seeds in particular, if you plan to obtain the same plant with the same genetics, the plant must be pollinated with pollen from the same variety.
When discussing saving seeds there are terms you should know, including hybrid, heirloom and open-, or self-pollinated.
Hybrids became increasingly common after World War II and are plants resulting from a cross of two species or two different varieties within a species. That process results in plants that have a blending of the parent plants’ traits. The reason we grow hybrids is that they often show improved vigor, productivity and disease resistance. However, many of the current hybrids either produce sterile seeds or the seeds they produce will not grow true to the parent plant. As such, they aren’t plants that there is any point in saving seed from. So if you like a particular hybrid, you will need to purchase the seed again each year.
For most people in the industry, heirloom plants are considered to be older plant varieties that were growing before hybrids were widely available or are plants that have been grown for 100 years or more. Heirlooms are usually open- or self-pollinated plants.
Most of the seeds that can be saved will come from open- or self-pollinated plants. Open-pollinated plants are pollinated by the wind, insects, animals or people. Since these plants can be easily pollinated by plants within the species but not necessarily the same variety, the seed resulting from those crosses likely won’t have the exact same characteristics of the plant you have growing — it will be a cross, showing traits from both parents. Certainly, an open-pollinated plant can have its pollination controlled with the right attention to detail. And an open pollinated plant that is pollinated by the same variety will have seeds that will grow similar to the parent seeds.
It’s generally considered that with an open-pollinated plant that is pollinated by wind, such as corn, spinach, beets, etc., you need at least a mile between two different varieties to prevent cross-pollination. If a plant is insect-pollinated, which is how the majority of crops are pollinated, it’s suggested there be at least one-quarter mile in distance between varieties that could cross-pollinate. As such, you can see the difficulties in working with open-pollinated plants.
Luckily, self-pollinating plants have flowers that can pollinate themselves, giving gardeners the best chance to save quality seeds since the pollen is usually directly transferred within the flower and so produces more seed true to that type. However, that doesn’t mean pollen can’t be transferred between plants, resulting in some seeds that will grow into plants that are different than the original. The main self-pollinating vegetable plants are beans, lettuce, peas and heirloom tomatoes.
Of course, you then need to harvest the seeds from the right plant at the right time. The right plants are those plants that have grown and produced well and taste great. The right time is when the seeds truly are mature. Look for more information about harvesting seeds in a future article.
Thought for the day: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” —Robert Louis Stevenson.
Previous articles are available at the Times-Independent website, www.moabtimes.com. Have an idea you’d like Mike to consider writing about? Want more information about these topics? Call the Utah State University Extension Grand County office at 435-259-7558 or email Mike Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.