Seeds, seeds, seeds! I love seeds; I think it has to do with all the possibilities that a tiny dot the size of a pin head can hold (think brassicaes: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.). Or maybe I love them for all of their different shapes and sizes – beans with their beautiful patterning and cool, smooth skin. Even Cucurbitaceae – squash – with their bland, brown, traditional tear drop shape have their differences from variety to variety that are simply awe inspiring when carefully examined. There’s also some bit of a thrill that comes with saving your own seed from year to year: you get to know the plants, know the heritage of the seed, and it is one more step to self-sufficiency. But before you can just go saving seeds for next year, there are some things to consider.
Often times when we look at a seed catalog, or seed envelope, we will notice some verbiage that may or may not make sense. Typically this verbiage pertains to the seed and the plant that will develop from it.
Open Pollinated: Open pollination means that when a female flower is pollinated by a male flower of the same variety (delicata squash x delicata squash), the seed produced thereafter will resemble the parent plant(s) (delicata squash). When the pollination occurs between male and female parts of the same plant or even the same flower (tomatoes, beans), this is called self-fertilization. Plants that have individual flowers that are self-fertilizing are inherently open pollinated. Some varieties of plants will produce flowers that are specifically male or female. If you notice a squash vine, the first flowers to come out are typically male and later on down the vine, the female flowers start to come out. These are still considered to be open pollinated.
Heirloom: Seeds of an heirloom variety are also inherently open pollinated. The term heirloom simply implies that the seed-line has been kept true for a number of years. Heirloom varieties tend to be less friendly to the industrial commercial market, but can come in many different color, size, taste, and other variations making them ideal for farmer’s markets. (Essentially, heirloom is a subset within open pollinated.)
Hybrids: A hybrid is a seed that comes from two different varieties of parents (delicata squash x sweet dumpling squash): it has been cross-pollinated. Often times hybrids are produced to create faster growing plants, larger yields, or to create a plant that might be less susceptible to certain diseases. A hybrid is the first generation of a new lineage and is considered “F1” (the 1 is typically a subscript) in nomenclature and all plants in the F1 generation will look and produce the same. However, if you save seeds from a hybridization – accidentally or on purpose – the following generation (F2) will have a large number of physical differences, if the seed from the F1 is even viable.
Saving seeds helps us save money, and it gives us further insight into our individual plants. In a sense, by selecting plants that are growing well in our gardens, we’re doing our own genetic modification by selecting plants that are amiable to our soil, temperature, water and light conditions. The problem with saving seed is that it needs to be precise. The easiest way to be precise is only grow one variety of each type of vegetable. There are many books out there that deal with seed saving methods (my favorite is Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed), and can give you statistics on cross-pollination. For example, corn pollen is very light and can travel by wind up to two miles! It is also important to save seed from a number of different plants as inbreeding depression – a lack of genetic diversity – can occur. Some plants are more susceptible to this than others.
In short, if you want to save seed, get a good book, stick with one variety of each species, and go for the open-pollinated annual varieties. A good text like Seed to Seed will give you regional planting information as well as information regarding seed storage statistics, and methods to prevent cross-pollination (corn is wind pollinated and can travel up to half a mile). If you don’t care about saving seeds, plant whatever suits your fancy.