What is it that makes one plant stand out among all others in form and structure? Why are some tomatoes striped, some pear shaped, and some dark, blood -red? What was it about that fresh corn your Grandmother used to serve that made it so sweet and crisp? And, why were the peas fresh from her garden the best ever? The answers to these and many other questions are the stories from the seed – and, genetics. There are so many interesting phenomena surrounding our plant world, and seeds hold valuable genetic resources that can be handed down over the years. The story of some seed might represent an immigrant family arriving to a new land – and with that migration, seed was brought with them to begin their farms. In the early days, saving seed was a necessity for production of food to feed growing families. Saving seed also preserves biodiversity, or the variety of sustainable seed to grow the food we need. Seed that has adapted to a particular area produces stronger plants, and knowing where seed is from may help gardeners predict how the plant will grow.
During this recent pandemic, scores of people started home gardens. Many seed sources were sold out of particular varieties of seed. With that, seasoned and new gardeners alike are now considering what types of seed to plant, and whether the seed will be able to be shared, or saved for use again in next year’s garden.
Saving seed preserves food culture — if heirloom seed hadn’t been saved over the generations, tomatoes such as Cherokee Purple or Brandywine might not exist, or we might have missed out on alpine strawberries. Hopi corn has been passed down through generations; it is sacred and protected. Adapting to specific climates, seed saved from locally grown plants helps assure strength, diversity and garden traditions.
Seed saving is really just the process of preserving genetic material of a particular vegetable, fruit, or flowering plant, and using it later – or sharing it with others. Seed saving starts with open-pollinated parent plants. Open-pollinated seed is genetically true to the parent plant, meaning the seed will result in a plant very similar to the parent plant. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated varieties that are un-altered over time, and have been passed on to generations within a family or community. Although heirloom plants are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. This is because hybrid seed is derived from two specific varieties of open-pollinated plants, carefully chosen for specific traits, then cross-pollinated for desired qualities such as disease resistance, plant vigor or, uniformity of fruit. But, unlike open-pollinated or heirloom seed, seed from hybrid plants will not grow true-to-parent type, producing plants that are perhaps less vigorous, producing fruit that is strange, and genetically variable.
Saving seed is fun and profitable – what would you like to add to your special seed story? Start by saving seed from this year’s crops. Select open-pollinated plants – choose from the most vigorous plants of the lot, with the best-tasting fruit. These will be the “parents” for your crops next year. Tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas are good choices for seed saving. The seeds require little or no special treatment before storage.
To learn more about saving seed, an excellent resource is the book, “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth or, “Saving Seeds: The Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds” by Marc Rogers.
The Master Gardeners of Nevada County will have an online workshop, “Seed Saving Basics,” on Saturday, Aug. 1st at 9 a.m. Check our website for details at https://ncmg.ucanr.org/. At this workshop, viewers will:
Discover the benefits of seed saving and how to preserve heirloom varieties for posterity;
Explore the differences between hybrid and open-pollinated varieties;
Learn about seed harvesting and proper storage techniques;
Participate in seed saving demonstrations.
Look for other upcoming online gardening classes, including a new workshop, “From Seed to Vase” to be presented on Aug. 15, which will cover the basics of growing fabulous flowers for bouquets and flower arrangements. Other upcoming online workshops will feature composting, soil building, and container gardening. Check the website for schedules of online workshops.
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.