Seed Saving and Plant Sex Ed

Last weekend, despite not having quite recovered from my before-dawn flight from Arkansas the day before, I traveled to the little town of Cowen to teach a fresh crop of Master Gardeners about botany.

Aside from all the “fun” (note: sarcasm) I teach in the class like chemistry, biology, physics and Latin, it also includes sex ed. — specifically plant reproduction.

I’m often surprised by the number of gardeners, even experienced gardeners, who didn’t realize that anything that contains a seed is classified as a fruit. We often categorize plants by their culinary use, but botanically speaking, beans, peppers, peas, okra and anything that has a seed inside is a fruit.

We grow our tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more to harvest their fruit to eat, but the plant’s intent is to produce alluring fruits containing seeds that will be spread by animals to pass on their genetic material.

While our consumption of these plants doesn’t readily spread genetic material through dispersing seeds (at least not since the dawn of modern bathrooms), we can still play a part in saving and continuing the plant’s genetic material.

On my trip to Arkansas, I visited the university’s fruit research station, which breeds more blackberry varieties than any other entity in the world. Chances are, any blackberry you eat will have originated from the station, or its parent or grandparent did.

It was amazing to watch the process of hand-pollinating, planting seeds, selecting for desired traits and eventually bringing plants to market. It takes at least 30 years from start to finish to develop a new variety.

So while they may be a few years away, I can tell you to start looking for miniature blackberries that only get about a foot tall — perfect for a patio pot. (There’s already one variety on the market called Baby Cakes from Monrovia).

It won’t take 30 years, but many home gardeners practice seed saving, where they gather, save, plant and share the genetic bounty from their own gardens. Though it can be rewarding, there are some tips and tricks to being successful.

I’m reminded of two recent episodes concerning seed saving that can provide important lessons for seed savers:

Last year, one of my Master Gardeners came up to me at the end of a meeting and asked me what was wrong with her zucchini. She handed me an object roughly the shape of a zucchini, only a bit larger and splotched with orange. She had saved the seeds from the year before.20151104_200712

I immediately answered that her zucchini had crossed with a pumpkin. Both of these plants are the same species and can easily cross pollinate. Even if you don’t have pumpkins in your garden, bees can travel 2 miles or more in search of food.

That’s why most saved seeds are from two crops, tomatoes and beans. Both of these crops have closed flowers that help resist cross pollination.

They are most likely to be self-fertile, meaning that the flower will pollinate itself without outside assistance. This helps the plant breed true — so next year you end up with something that’s roughly the same as what you had this year. These plants can be just a few feet away from a different variety and they will not cross pollinate.

If you want to save something that is bee-pollinated, like your squash, pumpkins or cucumbers, you’ll need to do what they do at the blackberry research farm: collect pollen, hand pollinate the flowers before they open and cover them with something to keep bees out. Otherwise you might end up with a surprise in the garden next year.

Just a few weeks ago, a farmer friend posted a picture of a zucchini he grew on Facebook and offered it up to folks who had asked for its seed. It was a golden yellow zucchini, so it was one that you typically don’t find at local stores.

I posted my usual warning about zucchini and cross pollination, but didn’t realize another detail that my colleague, Dr. Barbara Liedl from West Virginia State University pointed out — it was a hybrid variety zucchini. Barbara had to quickly correct the farmer’s assumption that, because it was a hybrid variety, the seeds it produced would be sterile.

That is a common misconception. The offspring from hybrids aren’t sterile (unless there is some unique breeding technique that changes the chromosome number), but they are unlikely to have the traits of the plant from which you are saving the seeds.

The heirloom varieties that we often save are open pollinated, meaning that when they cross with themselves their genetics are relatively stable and you won’t see a lot of difference from year to year. (There will still be some difference, so if you save seeds for a long time you can end up with your own strain of a variety suited to your garden and location.)

Hybrids, on the other hand, have less stable genetics than the open pollinated varieties. With the way genetics work, some of those offspring will have traits of the mother plant, some will favor the father and some will be similar to the plant you are trying to save.

When seed companies sell hybrid varieties, they have to maintain a population of the mother plant and father plant to cross them every year to get the specific hybrid variety.

While the results of saving seeds from hybrids will be unpredictable, it can also be fun. My friend, plant breeder Joseph Tychonievich, points out in his talks and his book, “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” that you can save the seeds from plants most closely resembling the desired plant over several years.

Just keep planting your selected seeds and harvesting the closest one to what you want. After about three or four years, you can end up with a relatively stable, perhaps even open-pollinated variety, that is your very own based on that hybrid variety you love.

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