What is hybrid seeds?

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Hybrids & Heirlooms

As you review seed catalogs and make selections, you may be confronted with the terms hybrid, open pollinated, and heirloom. Knowing what these mean will help you know more about the plant and what to expect.

Crossing specific parent plants produces a hybrid seed (plant) by means of controlled pollination. These hybrid seeds are often called “F1” or “F1 hybrids.” The terms “hybrid” and “F1” are strictly defined in the seed industry and, when used in seed catalogs, do not apply to plants crossed in the wild.

Some people think of a hybrid as blending two different plants, like mixing a red flowered plant and white flowered plant to get a pink flowered offspring. Unfortunately, the laws of genetics prevent it from being that easy. Most hybridized plants require the cross breeding of carefully chosen parent plants. The resulting seed will produce plants with very specific characteristics. Hybrid plants are very consistent from plant to plant and year to year. Hybrids carry a combination of traits from the parent plants.

Based on desirable traits, breeders select specific male and female parent plants. The plants selected to be the female seed-bearing partner have their pollen bearing anthers removed. They receive pollen only from those plants selected as their partners. By controlling the pollination, the resulting offspring will have identifiable genetic characteristics from both parents.

Producing hybrid seed is more time consuming and expensive because the plants must be hand pollinated. In addition, plant breeders may work for years to find the right combination of desirable traits they are looking for in a plant.

The breeder of the F1 hybrid variety can be the exclusive source of that variety. Only the breeder knows exactly what two parent plants are needed to produce the seed. Other breeders can try to duplicate a hybrid, but only the first breeder knows the exact combination used. Of course, it is through the process of trying to breed new and better varieties that unexpected new ones are found.

Not every F1 hybrid is a winner. The All America Selections program and other trial gardens are ways that new varieties are tested side by side to see what, if any, improvements have taken place in a certain type of flower or vegetable. Before a variety reaches the market, seed companies perform their own trials, and many hybrids end up in the compost pile, never to be seen again.

The extra work needed to produce hybrid varieties usually means higher cost. Are they worth the price? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of hybrids. Hybrids possess wider adaptability to environmental stress and are more uniform from plant to plant than non-hybrids. Other benefits of hybrids may be earlier flowers, higher yields, improved disease resistance, or other characteristics. Many hybrids are better, more consistent garden performers.

The extra vitality in hybrid plants is called “hybrid vigor.” More plants survive the seedling stage, grow larger and stronger than non-hybrids, and have higher yields. Improved disease and insect resistance means fewer pesticides have to be used in the garden.

The primary disadvantage of hybrids is the seeds cannot be saved from year to year. Seeds saved from hybrid plants usually will not produce the same plant the following year because most varieties are not self-sustaining. Offspring of hybrids usually show an unpredictable mixture of characteristics from the grandparent plants instead of being similar to the parent.

Some gardeners feel that the taste of hybrid vegetables does not equal that of heirloom varieties. But taste is so subjective that there does not seem to be a fair test to compare hybrids developed for the home garden to heirlooms. ‘Burpee’s Big Boy,’ ‘Celebrity,’ and ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes, ‘Sweet Success’ cucumber, and ‘Premium Crop’ broccoli are examples of F1 hybrids that have been popular for years.

Open-pollinated, also known as heirloom or standard, plants are varieties that have stable traits from one generation to the next. Open pollinated plants are fairly similar to each other but not as uniform as hybrids. Because most were originally chosen for only one or two specific characteristics, individual plants of older heirloom varieties may differ greatly in size, shape, or other traits.

Open pollinated varieties are usually grown in fields where they self and cross-pollinate. Wind and insects carry the pollen from one plant to another. Plants that cross-pollinate must be isolated from other plants of different varieties so they will produce seed that is “true to type.” Beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes are self-pollinating so they are easier to continue year to year without having to isolate them from other varieties of plants.

Genetic “drift” can occur over a period of time. Plants that deviate too far from the accepted standard are removed from commercial nursery fields of open pollinated varieties. Likewise, home gardeners should destroy highly unusual plants if you are trying to preserve an open pollinated variety. Removal of these rogue plants prevents them from pollinating other plants and producing too much variation.

The advantage of open pollinated seeds is that the home gardener from year to year and generation to generation may continue heirloom plants by careful seed saving. Open pollinated plants provide a larger gene pool for future breeding. Well known open pollinated varieties include ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole bean, ‘Scarlet Nantes’ carrot, ‘Black Beauty’ eggplant, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, ‘California Wonder’ pepper, and ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Roma’ tomatoes.

As a gardener you may choose hybrids, heirlooms, or a combination of both types for the garden. Compare the characteristics of each variety with the qualities you want in a plant. Select varieties that are best for your garden.

February – March 2001: Hybrids & Heirlooms | Put the Right Plant In the Right Place | Windbreaks Can Help Save On Energy Costs | Apple Scab & Black Knot

Learn The Difference Between Non-Hybrid Seeds And Hybrid Seeds

Growing plants can be complicated enough, but technical terms can make growing plants even more confusing. The terms hybrid seeds and non-hybrid seeds are two of these terms. These terms are especially confusing due to a rather heated political debate occurring around these terms. Read on to learn more about what are hybrid seeds and non-hybrid seeds.

What are Hybrid Seeds?

Hybrid seeds are produced by companies through careful pollination of two specific varieties. Normally, this highly selective plant breeding is done to bring together two traits in each of the chosen varieties so that the resulting seed has both of the traits.

So, for example, one tomato plant may be very drought tolerant and another tomato plant produces vigorously, the two plants might be cross pollinated to produce a drought tolerant tomato plant that produces a lot of tomatoes.

Plants grown from hybrid seeds typically do not produce seeds that can be used to grow the same type of plants, and can even produce seeds that will not grow at all.

Though the term “hybrid seeds” is often used in relation to vegetables, any kind of plant that produces seeds can be bred into a hybrid variety.

What are Non-Hybrid Seeds?

Non-hybrid seeds are also called open pollinated seeds or heirloom seeds. Non-hybrid seeds come from plants that are naturally pollinated. Some of these varieties have been around for centuries.

Non-hybrid seeds will produce plants whose seeds will produce more plants that look the same as the parent plant.

Should I Use Hybrid Seeds or Non-Hybrid Seeds?

Despite the debate on the Internet as to whether you should use hybrid seeds or not, this is actually a personal question for a gardener. Both hybrid seeds and non-hybrid seeds have their pros and cons.

The positives for hybrid seeds are that they tend to perform better in your garden in terms of more fruits and vegetables produced, more plants surviving disease and pests and more flowers. For a gardener, this can mean an increased return for all the time spent in caring for a garden.

The negatives for hybrid seeds are that they tend to be more expensive to buy due to the specialized pollination process and the seeds you collect from them will not grow the same plant next year and, in some cases, have been bred so that no plant at all can grow from the seeds of a hybrid plant.

The positives for non-hybrid seeds is that they come in a wonderful variety. For example, with tomato plants, there are literally thousands of non hybrid varieties that you can try and each have their own look and flavor. Because of the cost and time involved in producing hybrid seeds, there are only a few dozen varieties, so your choices are limited.

With non-hybrid seeds, you can also collect seeds from the plant and use them again next year to grow the same variety of plant.

The negatives for non-hybrid seeds is that they are not as well rounded as hybrid seeds. Many non-hybrid seeds are much more susceptible to disease and pests than their hybrid counterparts. They also tend not to produce nearly as much as hybrid seeds do.

Which is right for you depends on what you would like out of your garden. Consider carefully which type of seed is best for you.

Why Not Save Hybrid Seeds?

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: August 1, 2014

Upon paging through a seed catalog, one can’t help but be impressed with the number of times the term “hybrid” is used. More and more vegetables (and flowers) are available as F1 hybrids. The cost of hybrid seed is equally impressive, prompting some frugal growers to attempt to save the seeds of hybrids for next year’s crop. The result usually is very disappointing; the following article will attempt to explain why.

By definition, a hybrid is simply the offspring that results from the mating of two individual with dissimilar genetic makeup. A more restrictive definition of hybrid is an individual that is the result of a cross between two inbred parents. The result, called a F1 hybrid, was created to exploit the phenomenon of hybrid vigor (or heterosis, as it is scientifically termed). The advantages of hybrid vigor include improved vigor, higher yields, earlier maturity, greater uniformity and an increase in the expression of certain traits.

In this day-and-age of being able to map the entire genetic make-up (genome) of plants and animals, scientists still are at a loss to explain why hybrid vigor occurs. A bit of genetics is required to explain this phenomenon further.

Most plants genetically are diploids meaning they have two sets of chromosomes–one from their male (pollen) parent and one from their female (egg) parent. Contained on these chromosomes are the genes responsible for the expression the various traits of the plant. When the gene(s) for a trait are the same on both the chromosome inherited from the pollen parent as that from the egg parent, the individual is said to be homozygous for that trait. Inbred plants are homozygous for all genes on their chromosomes.

Conversely, when the gene(s) are different the individual is termed heterozygous. For example, fruit color in tomato is controlled by the action of a single gene. Every tomato has two genes for the fruit color trait, one from each of its parents. Genetically, if we assume ‘R’=red fruit, ‘r’=pink fruit and red is dominant over pink, tomatoes with the genetic makeup of ‘RR’ and ‘Rr’ would both have red fruit. The former would be called homozygous for the gene (both genes are the same) for fruit color whereas the latter would be heterozygous (the genes differ). Since the (recessive) gene for pink fruit can only express itself in the absence of the (dominant) gene for red, pink-fruited plants genetically would be ‘rr’ and also homozygous.

We can use the above to illustrate why F1 hybrids do not “breed true”. If a homozygous red-fruited breeding (RR) line were to be crossed with a homozygous pink-fruited (rr) breeding line, all of the F1 progeny would be Rr for fruit color and bear red fruit, since red is dominant over pink. However, when the heterozygous F1 pollinates itself, the result will be both red and pink fruited F2 plants in the ratio of 3 red for every 1 pink. The latter ratio was derived in the mid- 1800s by Gregor Mendel, who was one of the first people to study the inheritance of traits in plants.

Most economically important traits (e.g. vigor, yield) are controlled by the action of many genes. Some geneticists believe F1 hybrids are superior because they contain all of the favorable genes for a trait held by both of their parents. But, if this were true then at least some of their progeny should equal their F1 hybrid parents in performance, and this is not the case. Others believe it is the fact that corresponding genes for a trait are in a heterozygous state (differ from each other such as the ‘Rr’ red-fruited tomato) in the F1 hybrid when compared with either parent, but there are faults with this theory as well.

The method used to develop hybrid parental lines depends on whether the crop in question is self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. Self-pollinated plants such as tomato are high homozygous, as described above. Therefore, crossing any two inbred (e.g. heirloom) tomatoes will result in the production of F1 hybrid seed. However, in an attempt to form inbred breeding lines with numerous good traits, tomatoes are often crossed to form potential breeding lines. Seed is then saved from plants that possess the favorable traits from both parents. This must be done for six generations before the breeding line is considered to be homozygous and a good prospect to serve as a parent in the production of an F1 hybrid.

In contrast, cross-pollinated crops such as sweet corn are highly heterozygous. In order to form parental breeding lines, controlled self-pollination must take place for at least six years to form homozygous individuals. Each and every generation of self-pollination results in the loss of plant vigor making the parents of hybrid cross-pollinated plants unproductive, adding to seed cost. Fortunately, the vigor is more than regained in the F1 hybrid.

Suffice to say however they are produced, F1 are worth the added seed cost. Their development is painstaking and expensive. Many, many crosses must be made and evaluated before the plant breeder is likely to find a combination of parents that lead to an improvement for the trait(s) under improvement. Pollination must be strictly controlled and often is still done by hand in naturally self-pollinated species. Once a favorable combination of parents has been identified, the cross must be made each time seed of the F1 hybrid is wanted, since hybrid vigor only last one generation. Again, if the crop in question is self-pollinated this very tedious, time-consuming process must be done by hand.

When seed is saved from F1 hybrids, the resulting progeny tend (genetically) to revert back to the parents that were used to make the cross. The result is a loss of hybrid vigor and its benefits, along with disappointing performance. Again, it is important to remember that hybrid vigor lasts only one generation and results only when two parental lines are crossed. Therefore, saving the seeds from hybrids is not recommended.

Editor’s note. In 2013 I had some ‘volunteer’ tomatoes come up where the F1 Hybrid ‘Sunsugar’ was growing in 2012. I also had a Sunsugar planted in 2013 elsewhere in the garden, so I could compare the progeny to it (I termed it Sunsugar and ‘Son of Sunsugar’). The fruit was yellow, of similar size and really quite good, but not as sweet and not quite as tasty. The Sunsugar fruit had a somewhat translucent shine where ‘Son of Sunsugar’ was a bit opaque. I had these at MU Bradford Farm’ annual ‘TomatoFest’ and a number of individuals tried them and agreed, the F1 fruit was better than the progeny. I had no ability to evaluate vigor or anything else.

Differences Between Open Pollinated and F1 Hybrid Varieties

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN OPEN POLLINATED AND F1 HYBRID VARIETIES

The very best growers out there know there isn’t just one right way to grow.

Over the centuries spanning the seed industry’s entire history, the most successful seed breeders have known this, too. In fact, the earliest seed variety developers were originally growers in and of themselves—whether of food, flowers, grasses, and much more.

Thriving and diverse seed industries today—both domestic and international—have built their very foundations on this universal fact known among farmers: that successful growing on many different treks requires many different approaches.

We here at Westar take pride in this knowledge and history ourselves. Whether you’re a large-scale conventional grower or a small organic gardener, you know your path to a successful season will likely be different from others in your field.

That even goes from large grower to grower, and small gardener to gardener. It also applies to every tiny aspect of one’s business—including what types of seeds you use.

DIFFERENT SEED TYPES FOR DIFFERENT WAYS TO GROW

To match the farming world’s versatile ways of growing, the seed industry has developed many varieties of seed to match. These types range from all-natural, pure-bred pedigreed heirloom varieties to amazing cross-breeds and hybrids.

Desirable traits for beauty, color, rigor, and adaptability have been captured in some of today’s most well-loved seed strains. Yet the way that these traits are refined and ensured in commercial seed can involve very different techniques in and of themselves.

Though there’s many ways to develop and save new seeds, two of the most common types of seed breeding techniques— and the two major seed types we have here at Westar—are open pollinated seeds and F1 hybrids.

OPEN POLLINATED SEEDS

Long considered the most natural type of seed on the market, open pollinated varieties are comprised of seeds developed through their natural breeding processes—and with minimal interference from breeders.

Being called “open” means these varieties openly receive pollen from other compatible varieties nearby, or which can self-seed of their own accord if self-pollinating. Breeders may step in and choose which plants their stock can cross-breed with to obtain certain traits, as is the case with certain cross-pollinated open varieties.

These open pollinated strains, for the most part, are purebred—and some even have a pedigree going way back, which can make some of these breeds “heirloom” varieties.

All strains considered heirloom varieties are open pollinated varieties, though not all open pollinated varieties can be called heirlooms.

F1 HYBRID SEEDS

F1 hybrids are more artificially-bred seed strains compared to open pollinated seeds.

“F1” describes the first generation of offspring and seed from two individuals of two very different plant varieties, or even plant species. In some cases, these might be two breeds of plants that wouldn’t have crossed otherwise.

The result: a new generation of seeds featuring very specialized traits, hand-picked through careful selection by the seed breeder.

Beyond the advantages of more “control” over the bred-in traits, F1 hybrid seeds—as the result of the cross—typically yield plants that are almost identical, with very little genetic variation and a lot of predictability.

The result: very specific and very advantageous traits that could not be possible in open pollinated varieties. What’s more, there’s a much smaller chance of getting weak or unsuccessful individuals from F1’s, since the cross breeds an almost entirely genetically similar seed generation.

WHY DO WE HAVE DIFFERENT VARIETIES OF SEEDS?

Both open pollinated and F1 hybrids are great separate approaches to developing new, robust, and highly adaptable seed strains.

But the real question is: why do we need two separate ways to come up with great new seeds?

The answer ultimately comes down to the grower and their needs.

While both approaches to seed-breeding clearly have their advantages, there can also be disadvantages to either seed type when you move beyond its theory to the actual practice of growing it. Heirloom and open pollinated seeds may work for certain growers, for example, but not for others—and vice versa with F1 hybrids.

That’s why it can’t truly be said that one type is better than the other. It really depends on how you grow, and the nature of your business and needs—and especially your growing techniques and the markets you are trying to reach.

OPEN POLLINATED: MEETING NEEDS OF SMALLER MARKETS

What instances better call for open pollinated seed varieties?

Open pollinated seeds—including heirloom varieties—tend to have a better appeal to small farmers and gardeners due to their genetic diversity, though not always.

For that matter too, some signature open pollinated traits simply can’t be captured by hybrid crossings, and thus retain special charm and significance for growers. The fact that they’re quite “natural” lends them quite a bit of popularity, too.

While growing actual open pollinated seeds and heirlooms poses challenges for growers meeting large market demands, they nonetheless are enduring favorites among home gardeners and small farmers.

Their genetic variability, which can create some degree of unpredictability through the growing season, are still a huge draw for growers who want to stick to the classic, time-honored tradition of saving seed from one’s crop the year previous—and perhaps even come up with new varieties of their very own.

Here are the pros and cons of open pollinated varieties:

Pros:

  • More natural method of seed breeding
  • Maintains heirloom varieties that have significant cultural or other value
  • More genetic diversity in each seed
  • Seed from these varieties can be saved and replanted by growers, and can even lead to new desirable varieties

Cons:

  • More diversity means less predictable seed—different sizes and maturity times
  • Yields both strong and weak individuals from seed stock
  • Process of coming up with specific strong or new varieties takes more time
  • Controlling genetics when producing open pollinated seed is more challenging

F1 HYBRIDS: FOR LARGER OPERATIONS AND MECHANIZATION

On the other hand, F1 hybrids may have a wider appeal—and particularly for large market farmers and operators aiming to produce as much crop as efficiently and successfully as they possibly can.

But why would F1’s be more advantageous in those settings? It’s because F1’s, due to their almost identical genetics in one single generation, produce almost completely identical plants.

For small farmers and gardeners, the advantages to this might not seem obvious. Plants of different sizes, and which reach harvest point at different times as well, don’t create challenges—and in fact, can make desirable harvests possible for longer throughout the season.

For much larger growers however—and especially those who employ mechanized agriculture—the attractiveness of seed that grows plants of the exact same size, and which all mature at the exact same time, holds a lot more promise for productivity and profit.

Why? Because the plant uniformity of F1 hybrids means minimization of crop loss and damage, while improving efficiency and boosting profit without any more work.

It’s true that seed from F1’s cannot be saved or used to get those crops again, nor do F1’s hold the appeal of being natural of culturally significant.

Regardless, they are one of the most natural seed strain development methods that can better serve larger agricultural operations and maximize their profits, and without being genetically modified at all.

Pros:

  • More predictable seed due to genetic similarity from seed to seed
  • Yields only strong individuals with desired traits due to similar seeds
  • F1’s yield immediate improvements in their first generation
  • Controlling F1’s genetics, in most cases, can be easier and less costly

Cons:

  • Less natural method of seed breeding
  • Seed breeds many not have significant cultural value, aren’t heirlooms
  • No genetic diversity in seed, all seeds mostly the same
  • Saving seed from these types (especially self-pollinators) not strong or reliable

WHICH VARIETY SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?

The pros and cons of open pollinated vs. F1 hybrid seeds suit certain growers, while they may not favor others.

With the advantages and disadvantages of both laid side-by-side, which type of seed will you choose to grow? If you’re not sure, answering the following questions may be a big help to you before you decide your purchase and seed orders.

SAVING YOUR OWN SEED? GO OPEN POLLINATED

Small gardeners might show more favor towards open pollinated and even heirloom seeds for a few reasons.

For one, you can save the seeds from these varieties and plant them again next year in your garden.

You can also count on the fact that most of the seed saved will breed true, and yield strong plants again and again, season after season. Some very popular garden varieties are open pollinated or heirlooms, with very trademark appearances, sizes, and growing patterns.

Small farmers who also want to grow special diverse vegetable varieties, and who aren’t as focused on productivity and mechanization, may be drawn to open pollinated seeds to meet special market demands, too.

NEED UNIFORMITY FOR MECHANIZATION? TRY F1 HYBRIDS

For growers with a focus on optimum productivity, uniformity, and profits, F1 hybrids may have more allure.

Because F1 seeds tend to produce almost completely identical plants, harvesters and cultivators on tractors and other machinery are less likely to damage or mishandle crops. For that matter too, F1’s also all reach maturity and harvest peak at the same time, making them an excellent match for mechanization and rapid harvest all at once.

While seed cannot be saved from these varieties, this is probably not a priority for larger growers and operators.

Additionally, F1 hybrids may also contain traits that open pollinated varieties could not develop: such as chemical resistance, pest resistance, seedlessness, and more.

SHOULD YOU CHOOSE PRICIER F1 SEEDS OVER OPEN POLLINATED?

In some cases, F1 varieties are more expensive than open pollinated, though in other instances the inverse may be true.

If you’re trying to save money with the upcoming season’s seed order, which types of seed are truly worth the price? Is it more worth it to get the higher valued F1’s?

Make sure to take a closer look at your growing needs. F1’s produce wonderful strains and are greatly matched to larger growing operations, though their higher price doesn’t necessarily translate to better value for small gardeners and market farmers.

Then again, F1’s can competitively provide traits that open pollinated seeds cannot—though you won’t be able to save seed from them again year after year (thus why open pollinated seeds tend to be less expensive).

ARE F1 HYBRIDS STRONGER & MORE RIGOROUS THAN HEIRLOOMS?

Though F1 strains are priced higher on average than heirlooms, for some growers that doesn’t automatically mean you have stronger, better-matched plants for every situation.

In fact, F1 hybrids—especially if they are seed from self-pollinating plants, like and tomatoes and peas—are not necessarily more stronger and more adaptable than others of their species or variety. Rather, they have a very rigid set of characteristics that you can more reliably count on in any F1 hybrid seed stock you will buy.

On the other hand, F1 hybrids among cross-pollinating plants can and do exhibit more adaptability and resilience, even in comparison to open pollinated plants of the same species or breed.

This is due to “hybrid vigour,” a genetic occurrence that happens among cross-pollinating plants. This genetic phenomenon makes hybrid descendants in cross-pollinators much more robust when they’re allowed to have completely new genetics introduced into their lines.

HOW WILL YOU GROW?

F1 hybrids could prove to be well worth the higher price and more successful than open pollinated types. Then again, you’re not likely to get strong seed from F1’s, even when produced from cross-pollinators.

Or, you can pay much less for an open pollinated or heirloom seed variety, on the other hand, and get a more natural type of seed with stronger historical and cultural value— along with highly unique traits.

However, the genetics of the open pollinated seed you get may be less uniform and reliable. Still, this many not be an advantage that some gardeners and small farmers require.

What you choose to grow depends on your priorities. Here at Westar, we honor every priority—and we know that the priorities of any one grower is hardly ever the same as another.

We strive to provide all the very best choices of both open pollinated and F1 hybrid varieties, so we can best serve even the most unique needs of every grower, one customer at a time.

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As your friendly, memory-challenged Planet Natural Blogger goes through the newly arrived seed catalogs, he marvels at the latest crop (heh) of F1 hybrid seeds to hit garden store racks. Then we start to wonder: what happened to that supposedly high-yielding, easy-to-grow, delicious hybrid tomato or lettuce or squash that was such a sensation back in whatever year it was?

In the catalogs this year, we find a new hybrid tomato with the word “super” in its name, a sweet corn designed to grow in pots, and a spaghetti squash glorified with the name of an ancient Roman city. Will any of them still be around in 10 years? Some, like Burpee’s Early Girl Hybrid have survived the test of time. Others, like the Moreton tomato, celebrated in the mid-Atlantic states for its “Jersey” taste, disappeared when the Harris Seed Company which owned its patent stopped producing it. Luckily, Rutgers University has helped bring it back.

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And that’s the problem — at least one of the problems — with F1 hybrids. Like GMO crops, they are owned by the business that holds their patent. No one else can offer the seed unless they buy the patent or it expires. It’s a great way to corner the market. No wonder new hybrids are advertised with such superlatives.

The other disadvantage, of course, is that they don’t breed true. You can save the seed of a hybrid, if it makes seed, but you won’t get the same plant when you try to grow it the next year. These F1 hybrids can occur naturally when they’re “open pollinated.” Open pollination occurs naturally, by wind, insects, birds or any animal, including humans, carrying pollen between the plants. Hybridization occurs with human help, often to combine specific traits that for one reason or another, are considered desirable such as higher yields, disease resistance or shipping potential. That’s how we got the Tivoli hybrid squash, the first spaghetti-type squash that grows on a bush rather than a vine. Burpee owns the patent on that seed. You can read about the differences between open-pollination and hybridization here.

Many see a problem with corporate interests owning patent on individual seeds. We won’t go into those here. But the solution, in fact often the best seed, is heirloom. Heirloom seeds have been around for generations, passed on from gardener to gardener (of course, they can also be bought from gardening companies). Because of this they not only offer the best flavor, pest resistance and other desirable traits, they encourage community. Seed collection is a wonderful family activity and once initiated makes your garden something of a legacy. Sure, we’ve all grown our share of hybrids and may have tried to develop our own. With heirloom seed, Mother Nature has already done the work for us. In short, heirlooms are tried and true. When planning your garden this winter, try to include planting a little tradition.

The vegetable and flower growing season is getting closer with each passing day. Here in NC, we have had unseasonably warm weather. It SEEMS that spring has sprung but I still don’t dare really get gardening in full steam in case we get a bit of a cold snap. Are you an avid gardener? If you are, you may have wondered about the various seed types available for planting.

You only have to walk into a gardening center or big box hardware store in spring to see rows and rows of seeds for sale. Choosing what type to purchase can seem like a daunting task, since there are so many choices. One of the choices that every gardener has to make is the choice between open-pollinated, hybrid or heirloom seed varieties. Each type offers something and often the choice depends on your own needs and interests.

Differences between the various seed types.

Open-Pollinated Seeds

Open-pollination occurs in nature, naturally. It happens when a bird, insect, or even the wind pollinates plants. As long as the plants are separated from other varieties, open pollinated seeds will breed “true to type.” The advantage of open-pollinated seeds is that you can save seeds and have them to plant from one season to the next. Another big advantage of open-pollinated vegetable seeds for most people is their superior flavor.

Heirloom Seeds

My favorite among the seed types are the heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds have developed outside of the commercial plant trade. I have heirloom bean seeds that originated in my great grandmother’s garden. Each generation of my family has saved seeds from the plant and grown basically an identical bean to one that my great grandmother grew. There are many smaller seed companies that have developed a niche in the market place selling heirloom seeds. Some say that heirloom seeds are identified by how long the seed has been passed down (often 50 or even 100 years is the benchmark.) Others say that the history of the seed saving is important for heirloom varieties.Heirloom seeds are always open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom seeds. This sounds like a paradox but is really based on the ancestry of the seed than on the pollination.

Growing heirloom seeds

I was lucky enough to receive this kit of Heirloom vegetable seeds from Sprout Brite to try out. They no longer have this seed kit in stock but they do have other garden kits for sale.

The kit contains a wonderful selection of these heirloom seeds: Brandywine Tomato, Cherry Belle Radish, Tendersweet Carrot, Golden Beauty Corn, Great Lakes Lettuce, Red Burgundy Onion, Delikatesse Cucumber, Utah Celery, California Wonder Pepper, and Calabrese Broccoli. The kit comes in a pretty display box which makes it a great gift idea. Along with the kit, the winner will receive planting instructions and a calendar.

Find out more about the advantages of heirloom vegetables here.

Hybrid Seeds.

Hybrid seeds are those that have cross pollinated between two types of similar plants. This can result, naturally, if the plants are not separated from each other, and it can also be intentional by human intervention. Seeds of hybrid plants are unstable and cannot be saved for use in the following years. They will grow but likely will not be like the parent plants and may be less healthy. With hybrid seeds, you must purchase new seeds every year which adds to the cost of gardening.

Hybrid plants are somewhat uniform in size. If you are growing vegetables for resale purposes, this can be a big plus. Hybrid plants generally grow better and have a higher yield than open pollinated seed plants. They offer higher disease resistance. This makes them desirable for home growers as well as those in the commercial field. The main disadvantage is that flavor is not high on the list of priorities with hybrid seeds, although is not always the case.

What about GMO Seeds?

GMO seeds.

And now for the elephant in the room. If you have an interest in organic gardening, you have probably heard about the controversy concerning the use of GMO seeds.

GMO means genetically modified organism. GMO seeds are created in a lab using sophisticated techniques such as gene splicing. Instead of crossing two different but related plants (as hybrid seeds do) the cross can be much more significant (such as crossing a bacteria with a plant.) This is done to create pest resistant plants.

What are the disadvantages of GMO seeds? Sadly, that is a big fat unknown. In many other countries there is GMO labeling on products which come from GMO seeds, but here in the USA, this is not yet the case.

Many GMO seeds are those that are considered cash crops for farmers: soybean, corn, canola and cotton, but the slope is slippery and who knows what comes next?

Which of these seed types do you have experience with and which is your favorite?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a small commission from the sale, but the price is the same for you. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Welcome to Eden Seeds and Select Organic.

Our aim is to distribute old traditional open pollinated varieties of vegetable seed, preferably old Australian varieties and organically or bio-dynamically grown where possible.

We believe they are more nutritious and better tasting, hardy and easier to grow for the home gardener. Old varieties produce over an extended period. Home gardeners obtain relaxation, enjoyment and quality from a most rewarding hobby.

Our seeds are the old traditional open pollinated non-hybrid varieties and have no chemical treatment, and no genetic engineering.

Which type of seeds to choose?

If you’re looking to buy seeds then you’ve come to the right place. Our online store has over 1100 varieties of seeds available.

Eden Seeds are conventionally grown, have no chemical treatment, and in some cases organically grown however they may not be certified organic.

Select Organic seeds are certified organically grown (ACO 10457).

Both Eden and Select seeds are the old traditional, open pollinated, non-hybrid, heirloom varieties and have no chemical treatment, and no genetic engineering.

A huge range of gardening books

As well as offering the largest range of vegetable & herb seeds in Australia, we also have a huge range of gardening related books, from beginner gardening through to advanced biodynamics.

We have wall charts for companion planting, moon planting guides, DVDs, cookbooks, permaculture, no-dig gardening, sprouts & microgreens, compost, green manures, soil fertility, a few children’s books, and much more!

Browse our range of books, or use our site search above.

Announcing no fees to Western Australia

Our Western Australian customers do not pay the quarantine inspection fee, instead we are billed directly from QWA under special arrangement. You pay no surcharge or additional fees for your seed order.

We dispatch orders to W.A. once per week (every Friday) and the W.A. quarantine inspection process can sometimes delay delivery so we ask all our W.A. customers to allow at least two weeks for delivery. Please keep this in mind when planning your planting schedule.

We also have a list of seeds that cannot be sent to W.A.

Saving corn seed for next year.

Saving Seed from Hybrid Plants

There is quite a bit of misinformation out there about saving seeds. Again and again I read the pronouncements online that you can’t save seed from hybrid plants. This simply is not true. You can save seed from hybrid plants or from plants that have been cross pollinated. It is important to note, however, that the plants you grow from these saved seeds will carry the genetics from both ‘parents’ and may display different characteristics than you are expecting. If you are interested in growing heirloom seeds that grow true to type each year, check out my post Seeds for Self Sufficiency.

This post contains affiliate links for products you may find useful. Please see disclosure below.

Heirloom beans

Although most gardeners like to know what they’ll get when they plant seeds, there are pros to planting the seed from cross pollinated and hybrid plants. For starters, you could come up with a brand new variety of pumpkin, radish, or green bean. Plant breeders have worked for ages to develop new varieties of fruits and vegetables that produce better, resist disease, and bear earlier.

Squash seed cross pollinates easily.

The Downside

Although the prospect of developing new varieties of plants sounds pretty exciting, it is likely that you’ll grow quite a few less than desirable veggies in the process. Many seeds available are hybrids (plants with two or more parent varieties) that bear earlier, produce more, or hold their quality longer in shipping. When you plant the seeds from these hybrids, the new generation will revert back to the parent varieties. These may not have the best flavor, production, or space saving qualities. However, if you save the seed from the best plants each year, you can eventually come up with a brand new variety. Once the offspring continually show the same characteristics of the parents, you have a new variety.

Onions are biennials, meaning they flower and produce seed in their second year.

Saving Seeds for Preparedness

Many preppers purchase and stash away a myriad of heritage, or open pollinated, seed varieties in anticipation of the collapse of society. Their plan is to start growing and saving heritage seed varieties when the grocery stores are closed and food is scarce. I think it is a good idea to keep extra seeds on hand, but I think it is a much better idea to grow a garden every year, save seeds from your crops, and develop new varieties that are better suited to your growing conditions.

If you wish to save heritage seeds in anticipation of the end of the world as we know it…here are a couple of things to think about…

First, many seeds only have a shelf life of a few years and then the germination rates decrease dramatically. Parsnips are a good example of this. I have had extremely poor germination from parsnip seed I’ve keep for more than one year. So if you do wish to stock up on survival seeds, I suggest purchasing them in an airtight container that seals out moisture. If you open the package, pop a silica gel packet (desiccant) in before resealing to help prevent any damage from humidity.

Salsify seed

Second, there is a learning curve when you start gardening. It takes several years to gain the experience needed to grow enough food to sustain your family. So preppers should seriously learn the skills rather than just saving up boxes of seeds in hopes that they’ll have a great first garden.

The best course of action is to start gardening and learn the skills needed to raise, prepare, and preserve your food. Each year seed should be saved to plant a garden the following year. Some crops are biennials and the seed can’t be gathered until the second year of growth. For these plants, some seed should be planted each year and some of the crop should be left in place to grow and produce seed the following year.

All of these grew from my compost, with the exception of the Red Kuri squash on the right.

There is a lot to learn about saving seed from your garden. It takes time and energy to selectively breed for new varieties. But saving seed from hybrids and cross pollinated plants will often produce a crop of edible fruits and vegetables. Every year I have volunteer plants that sprout from my compost pile and the results are often very tasty. So don’t listen to nay sayers that tell you that you can’t save seeds from hybrids. It’s just not true!

Do you save seed from your crops? Have you ever saved seed from cross pollinated plants? Were you happy with the results?
This site is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. You will not pay any extra for these products and I’ll earn a small commission to help support this blog.
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Saving Tomato Seeds FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions

Tomato Dirt answers your saving tomato seeds FAQs (frequently asked questions).
Q. Is it possible to save seeds from hybrid tomatoes?
A. Yes. However, be warned that hybrid tomato seeds will likely not produce tomatoes that are true to their type. By definition, a hybrid tomato plant is a cross between two different varieties. A hybrid variety can be re-created only by crossing the exact same two types of parent plants.

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Get your free copy of “10 Must-Know Tomato Growing Tips.” This 20-page guide is filled with tips you need to know to have a successful tomato crop, whether you’re a beginning or experienced gardener.

Q. How do I know if my current tomato plants are hybrids or heirlooms (open pollinated)?
A. Every plant and seed packet you purchase is labeled. Look for “hybrid” or “F1 Hybrid” after the tomato’s variety name to determine if it is a hybrid.

Q. If I choose to save a few hybrid seeds, is there a special procedure I should follow?
A. No. Use the same seed saving method for any kind of tomato seeds, both heirloom and hybrid.

Q. Will properly saved hybrid tomato seeds grow?
A. Yes. In fact, many gardeners find it interesting to save and grow hybrid tomato seeds because the results are unpredictable. Tomato plants grown from saved hybrid seeds can bear excellent and tasty fruit. If you’re not concerned about growing a “pure” variety, give hybrid seed saving a try with one or two varieties a year. If you track and label saved seeds carefully, who knows – you may produce a new tomato variety from your garden by saving hybrid seeds.

Q. Can I save seeds from a plant that’s had early blight, late blight, or various wilt diseases?
A. Yes. What’s most important with saving seeds is the health of the tomato fruit. Blights and wilts originate in the soil, not the seed.

Q. Why do tomato seeds need to be fermented?
A. Tomato seeds are encased in a gel coating. Fermentation removes that casing. Fermentation also kills disease-causing microbes that can infect next year’s plants. And fermentation ensures a better germination rate.

Q. How do I know when my tomato seeds are completely dried?
A. Drying takes 1-3 weeks. Dried seeds will be very hard. You won’t be able to bite or smash thoroughly dried seeds easily. An adequately dried seed makes a faint snapping noise when broken in half. Seeds that bend rather than snap need to be dried longer.

Q. What’s considered to be a good germination rate?
A. 80% germination is average for seeds properly fermented, sorted, dried, and stored by the home gardener. Often the rate is even higher. (Federal standards require 75% germination rate for commercially-produced seeds.)

Q. How long can saved tomato seeds can be used?
A. If tomato seeds are properly fermented, dried, and stored, they can last up to 10 years with a germination rate of 50%. If used within 4-7 years, the germination rate will be even better.

Q. Do home-saved seeds produce better plants than commercially purchased seeds?
A. Gardeners report that seeds saved repeatedly from a particular variety grow stronger, healthier plants each subsequent year. Plants adapt to climate and conditions and pass along those traits to later generations.

More on saving tomato seeds
Why save tomato seeds? 10 great reasons …
How to save tomato seeds to plant next year …
Which tomato varieties should you save for next year?
Easy seed saving method for tomato seeds …
How to make your own tomato seed tape …

How to take end of season notes about your tomato garden …Seed Trading 101: how to trade tomato seeds …
Where to find seed exchange forums to swap seeds …
How to grow tomatoes from seeds …

Get more tips on our Saving Tomato Seeds Pinterest board…

Return from Save Tomato Seeds FAQs to Tomato Dirt home

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Saving Seed from the Garden

Every year a few gardeners ask about saving seed from their flowers and vegetables. We would not have the wonderful heirloom varieties if someone hadn’t kept the seeds year to year. Seed saving can be a rewarding and cost saving way to garden, but beware of the pitfalls.

Not every plant’s seeds are worth keeping. Hybrid plants are developed by crossing specific parent plants. Hybrids are wonderful plants but the seed is often sterile or does not reproduce true to the parent plant. Therefore, never save the seed from hybrids. Another major problem is some plants’ flowers are open pollinated by insects, wind or people. These plants include squash, cucumbers, melon, parsley, cabbage, chard, broccoli, mustard greens, celery, spinach, cauliflower, kale, radish, beets, onion, and basil. These plants cross with others within their family. The only way to maintain the original variety is to isolate by large distances. Isolation is often impossible or impractical in a home garden.

Some seeds may transmit certain diseases. A disease that infected a crop at the end of the growing season may do little damage to that crop. However, if the seed is saved and planted the following year, the disease may severely injure or even kill the young plants.

What can you save? Standard or heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants are good candidates. Many gardeners successfully keep beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers. Plants you know are heirloom varieties are easy to save. Ask the person or organization you obtained the seed from how they did it. Some people like to experiment, but make sure you don’t bet the whole garden on saved seed.

When saving seed, always harvest from the best. Choose disease-free plants with qualities you desire. Look for the most flavorful vegetables or beautiful flowers. Consider size, harvest time and other characteristics.

Always harvest mature seed. For example, cucumber seeds at the eating stage are not ripe and will not germinate if saved. You must allow the fruit and seed to fully mature. Because seed set reduces the vigor of the plant and discourages further fruit production, wait until near the end of the season to save fruit for seed.

Seeds are mature or ripe when flowers are faded and dry or have puffy tops. Plants with pods, like beans, are ready when the pods are brown and dry. When seeds are ripe they usually turn from white to cream colored or light brown to dark brown. Collect the seed or fruits when most of the seed is ripe. Do not wait for everything to mature because you may lose most of the seed to birds or animals.

Beans, peas, onions, carrots, corn, most flowers and herb seeds are prepared by a dry method. Allow the seed to mature and dry as long as possible on the plant. Complete the drying process by spreading on a screen in a single layer in a well-ventilated dry location. As the seed dries the chaff or pods can be removed or blown gently away. An alternative method for extremely small or lightweight seed is putting the dry seed heads into paper bags that will catch the seed as it falls out.

Seed contained in fleshy fruits should be cleaned using the wet method. Tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumber and roses are prepared this way. Scoop the seed masses out of the fruit or lightly crush fruits. Put the seed mass and a small amount of warm water in a bucket or jar. Let the mix ferment for two to four days. Stir daily. The fermentation process kills viruses and separates the good seed from the bad seed and fruit pulp. After two to four days, the good viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the container while the pulp and bad seed float. Pour off the pulp, water, bad seed and mold. Spread the good seed on a screen or paper towel to dry.

Seeds must be stored dry. Place in glass jar or envelopes. Make sure you label all the containers or packages with the seed type or variety, and date. Put in the freezer for two days to kill pests. Then store in a cool dry location like a refrigerator. Seed that molds was not sufficiently dry before storage.

Seed viability decreases over time. Parsley, onion, and sweet corn must be used the next year. Most seed should be used within three years.

Seed saving is essential for maintaining unusual or heritage vegetables and flowers. It is a great way to propagate many native plants too. There are numerous seed saver exchanges, clubs, and listings in magazines like Organic Gardening. Although you shouldn’t base your entire garden on saved seed you may want to give seed saving a try.

August – September 2000: Gypsy Moth: Know the Facts | Flood Tolerant Trees | Saving Seed from the Garden | Ideal Time for Lawn Renovation

HYBRID VARIETIES AND SAVING SEED
Although most horticulturists and plant breeders do not recommend home gardeners grow their own seed, it’s a definite fact that seeds of many vegetables grown under garden conditions will generally prove satisfactory for later planting.

Raising and saving seed is obviously not for everyone. The gardener whose only aim is to grow a few backyard vegetables is certainly not interested. That gardener to whom the height of adventure is trying a new variety will certainly back away. But the avid gardener who enjoys a challenge, who likes to try something different, who wonders about the “why” of how plants grow – – this person should probably try raising seed. There will be failures, problems and disappointments, but these will only make successes that much sweeter.

Gardeners will face discouraging arguments about raising their own seed, both in what they read and from conversations with other gardeners and horticulturists. These precautions and arguments should be heeded and close attention paid to some of the obvious pitfalls, such as:

1. You shouldn’t save seed from hybrid vegetables because they won’t produce true in the next generation. This is indeed a fact. To understand this completely, you must understand what a F-1 hybrid is. The simplest way to define an F-1 hybrid is to take an example. Let us say a plant breeder observes a particularly good habit in a plant, but with poor flower color, and in another plant of the same type he sees good color but poor habit. The best plant of each type is then taken and self-pollinated (in isolation) each year and, each year, the seed is re-sown. Eventually, every time the seed is sown the same identical plants will appear. When they do, this is known as a ‘pure line.’

If the breeder now takes the pure line of each of the two plants he originally selected and cross pollinates the two by hand the result is known as an F-1 hybrid. Plants are grown from seed produced and the result of this cross pollination should have a good habit and good color.

This is the simplest form of hybridization; there are complications, of course. A completely pure line can sometimes take seven or eight years to achieve. Sometimes, a pure line is made up of several previous crossings to begin to build in desirable features and grown on until it is true before use in hybridization.

To summarize, an F-1 hybrid is the result of crossing two pure lines to achieve the desired result. This seems a lot of trouble to go to but there are definite advantages. Scientific and accurate breeding programs have made it possible not only to bring out the outstanding qualities of the parent plants, but in most cases. these qualities have been enhanced and new desirable characteristics added to the resultant hybrid plants. In addition to qualities like good vigor, trueness to type, heavy yields and high uniformity which hybrid plants enjoy, other characteristics such as earliness, disease resistance and good holding ability have been incorporated into most F-1 hybrids. Uniform plant habit and maturity, coupled with uniformity in shape or size have made hybrid vegetables extremely suitable for mechanical harvesting.

We can’t expect to get all these advantages for nothing. Because creating F-1 hybrids involves many years of preparation to create pure lines and these pure lines have to be constantly maintained so that the F seed can be harvested each year, seed is more expensive. The problem is compounded because to ensure that no self pollination takes place, all the hybridizing of the two pure lines sometimes has to be done by hand. So you often have to pay more for your seed or get fewer in a packet. Seed is often collected by hand too to ensure that each plant is as productive as possible.

It is not only the gardeners who benefit, there are advantages for the plant breeders too. With ordinary varieties anyone can grow them and collect the seed which can then be re- sown in the garden or, on a larger scale, sold. So a plant breeder who puts a lot of work into creating a variety which is not an F-1 hybrid can soon find someone else selling it and getting a share of the financial reward. But seed collected from a F 1 hybrid will not produce plants the same as those from which
it is collected. Only by crossing the pure lines can the variety be made – and only the original breeder has the necessary pure lines. However, there are many open-pollinated varieties of vegetables that were growing successfully long before the hybrids came along and which can be duplicated by saving seed.

2. It is difficult for the home gardener to isolate varieties and strains to avoid unwanted cross-pollination. Cross-pollination can be a major problem if the gardener works in the midst of many other gardens where he has no control over what is being grown around him.

3. Unwanted cross-pollination and faulty selection of parent plants result in the gradual deterioration or “running out” of the seed. If you still want to try your hand at growing some seed at home, then ordinary cultural practices necessary for the production of good quality home-grown vegetables are usually adequate for seed production. In fact, the seed saved are by- products of the vegetables planted for table use.

In the case of seed saving, a part of the row or maybe a few plants in the row are tagged as those to be allowed to produce seed. The vegetables of designated plants will be allowed to remain until mature on the plant.

Extreme care should be taken to prevent mixing of varieties. For example, if you want to save squash seed, then plant only one type of squash in your garden. You should also realize that there are some vegetables that are not valuable or practical for saving seed such as carrots, beets, radishes and mustard.

Following are some simple directions on how to save seed from some of the most commonly grown garden vegetables:

BEANS (all kinds)- Allow the seed to thoroughly mature on the plant, usually indicated by size of the seed in the pod or by the color of the pod. Pull the entire plant early in the morning and place it in the shade to dry out. This will prevent the pods from splitting open and the beans from shattering.

CUCUMBERS – Cross pollination occurs in cucumbers. This means pollen is transferred from a plant of one variety to a plant of another variety. This is done by insects. Although it does not affect the fruit borne this season, if you save the seed and plant them next year, the plants that come from these seeds will be different. So will the fruit. So, if you want to save cucumber seed, plant only one variety. Select strong, healthy cucumber plants and well-formed fruits. Let the fruits hang on the vine until ripe (skin becomes yellowish and hard). Then handle like the process for tomatoes given below.

EGGPLANT – When the eggplant fruit has obtained maximum size and shows some evidence of browning and shriveling, it is ready to be harvested for seed. Split open, remove the seed and wash thoroughly to remove all pulp. Spread out in the sun to dry quickly as moist seed will begin to germinate overnight if left in a damp condition. Store in a cool, dry place.

OKRA – Okra pods should be left on the stalk until brown and well matured. Remove the pods and place them in the shade until thoroughly dried. Although the seed may be removed from the pod, it is generally best to store them in the pod until ready for planting at which time the pods may be split open and the seed removed. Pods harvested too green will not store well and are likely to split, shattering the seed.

PEPPERS – Pepper should be allowed to ripen until they become red. Cut the pepper pod in half and scrape the seed from a cavity onto a piece of paper. Spread out the seed and dry thoroughly before placing in a storage container.

SOUTHERN PEAS – Southern peas should be left on the plant until thoroughly matured, usually indicated by a browning of the pods. The pods should be picked, spread out in a dry area and cured for a week or two, then shelled.

SQUASH – If seed are to be saved from squash, grow only one variety in the garden. When the outer covering of the squash has become hardened, the seed are generally mature. Split the squash fruit open, scoop out the seed and wash until all pulp is removed. Spread out on newspaper to dry.

TOMATOES – Allow the tomato fruit to thoroughly ripen on the vine. Cut the tomatoes open and remove the seed by squeezing or spooning out the pulp with seeds into a non-metal container such as a drinking glass or jar. Set the container aside for one or two days. The pulp and seed covering will ferment so that the seeds can be washed clean with a directed spray of water into the fermented solution. The clean, viable seeds will drop to the bottom of the solution, allowing the sediment to poured off. Several rinsings may be necessary. Then spread the tomato seed out on a cloth or paper towel to dry. After seed are dry, package, label and date for storage in a cool (refrigerator), dry location.

Who knows – – maybe you will produce a super vegetable which will prevent world starvation!

Most farmers don’t save seed from year to year to plant. Have you ever wondered why? It’s not because anyone forces them to. It makes next year much easier!

Why Don’t Farmers Save Seeds?

(Referral links are used in this post. This post was sponsored by Indiana Soybean Alliance. All thoughts and opinions are my own.)

It’s true, most farmers don’t save seeds from one year’s crop to plant the next year. A popular myth is that seed companies force this on farmers by selling seeds with a “terminator gene” that won’t reproduce. This is not true.

Cleaning Seeds

One of the reasons that farmers choose not to save seeds from year to year is because they need special equipment to clean the seeds to get them ready to plant, and extra storage space to store the seeds from harvest until it is time to plant again. Not all farmers have this equipment or the storage space.

More Options

Another reason that farmers do not save seeds to plant is that they may not want to plant the same hybrid or variety again. Purchasing seeds every year means that farmers can choose a different crop to plant (corn instead of soybeans, or barley instead of wheat), or they can simply plant a different hybrid or variety of the same plant. For example, if we are expecting a dry year, a farmer may choose to plant a drought-tolerant corn hybrid instead next year. Or if a farmer had an exceptionally bad year with a pest this year, she may choose to plant cotton that is resistant to that pest next year. Saving seed from one year to the next means that you have to plant the same crops and the same variety next year. Purchasing new seed every year gives a farmer a lot more flexibility.

Seed Treatment

Farmers may also choose to purchase new seed every year, rather than saving their seed, so they can purchase seed that has been treated. Many seeds are pre-treated with a fungicide or a starter fertilizer. A fungicide pre-treatment will help protect growing seeds against fungi that live in damp soils and will kill seeds as they start to grow. Starter fertilizer pre-treatments makes sure that each seed has exactly the nutrients it needs to start to grow.

Contracts

Farmers who choose to grow genetically modified (GM, or GMO) seed sign a contract stating that they will not save their seed to grow next year. GMO seed is protected under intellectual property laws. To save this seed to plant again the next year will violate a contract and is illegal under Intellectual Property law. My friend Brian Scott gives a great summary of what is in his contract with Monsanto on his blog, The Farmer’s Life. (He even has a copy of the contract available for you to look at.) I need to sign the same contract when we plant GMO sweet corn in our garden.

Growing Hybrids

The final reason might be the most important. It has to do with crops that are hybrids – like corn, canola, and sorghum. Crops like soy, wheat, and cotton are inbred, instead of hybrids, so they are a little different story. The main reason for not saving “inbred” seeds comes back to cleaning and storage (see above).

Hybrids have been used since the 1950s. Pioneer was one of the first companies to start selling hybrid seeds to farmers. The trick to hybrids is that you actually need two highly inbred parents to get a good hybrid. It’s a bit complicated, and I’ll describe it in detail in a future post. For now, let’s hit the highlights.

The main reason farmers don’t save hybrid seeds to plant next year is that the seeds won’t “breed true.” Hybrids are made by crossing two highly inbred parent plants (more details coming soon). Every seed (or corn kernel) that is planted has the exact same genetics. Farmers know that they will get a very consistent crop in each field when they plant hybrid seeds.

As the crop grows and the plants are fertilized, hybrid plants are breeding with each other. This creates a lot more variability in the genetics of the corn kernels (seeds). If a farmer was to save these seeds to plant next year, the crop that grows will be inconsistent.

The overall yield in the field will likely be less. And because the genetics are not the same, the plants will be different. Some might have kept the trait for more efficient water use, some might have kept the trait for stronger stalks, some might have kept the trait for large kernels, and some might have lost all of these traits. Farmers have so much to worry about with the weather, pests, weeds, and field conditions, they don’t need to worry about inconsistent seeds, too!

What other questions do you have about saving seed, hybrid breeding, and GMOs? Check out these resources, and leave me more questions in the comments!

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