Complete the gardening experience by seed saving.

Saving seeds can be a fun thing to do and you can save seeds from plants that you find particularly satisfying. You can save a little money too. Some terms and definitions are in order to help understand the basics of seed saving.

Self-pollination occurs on plants with ‘perfect flowers’ where the transfer of pollen from the anther to the stigma of the same flower occurs on the same plant or a clone of the same plant. Self-pollinating plants are tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, beans and peas. These are the easiest plants to save seeds from because they usually don’t cross-pollinate. However, there still exists a remote possibility of cross-pollination even with some of these plants.

Therefore it is recommended to keep lettuce and tomato varieties separated by at least 10 feet. Some older varieties of (heirloom) tomatoes have flowers that do not exclude cross-pollination because the style (female ovary part) is higher than the anthers (male parts) and thus could be pollinated by insects. Hence, it is safer to separate such tomatoes to the extent possible. Most of the time, cross-pollination does not occur for these plants. I have saved a lot of heirlooms planted next to each other without a problem, but the plants from seeds I saved from a ‘Big Rainbow’ turned out more to be more like ‘Little Rainbows’.  I always wondered if that one got cross-pollinated. Peppers are also vulnerable to cross-pollination and the hot pepper genes are dominant, so be cautious.

Open pollination occurs when wind, insects (pollinators like bees), or the gardener pollinates the flowers so they can set fruit and produce seeds. The seed of open-pollinated plants, when planted in subsequent years, will yield the same type of plant as its original or it can be said to be: ‘true to seed’. There will be some variation in plants from the seeds, but that is to be expected.

Heirloom plants are always open-pollinated or self-pollinated but they are a variety that has been around for at least 50 years.

Hybrid: A hybrid plant is a cross between two different types, or varieties, of plants. Growers hybridize a vegetable by isolating the most coveted traits from one variety and combining them with traits from another to form a totally new offspring. Seeds saved from a hybrid are unlikely to be true to the hybrid plant. However, some hybrids have been produced for such a long time that they can be propagated by seed saving. I attended a conference where a tomato breeder informed us that if the hybrid tomato seed costs less than 25 cents per seed, it is likely OK to save seeds from the hybrid as it has over several generations become a stable variety and will produce seeds like the parent. I suspect that ‘Early Girl’ tomato is one that qualifies as it has been around since 1975 and the cost is about 8 cents per seed. ‘Early Girl’ is sweet, tasty and early to produce.

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO seeds: These are seeds that have been genetically manipulated in a laboratory with certain genes inserted. For example, corn and soybeans have been genetically modified so that the fields can be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide without harm to these plants. We often see ‘Non-GMO’ labels on advertising for garden seeds and in seed catalogs and seed packets. This is more of a reassuring marketing ploy than a real issue. There are no flower or vegetable seeds for the home gardeners that are GMO. The cost of producing GMO seeds for home gardeners is too high to be worth the effort.

Saving seeds that are not self-pollinating is a bit tricky. Plants of different varieties need to be separated by distance, isolated (caged to exclude insects) or have different bloom times. For more information on this, see: https://www.seedsavers.org/isolation-distances. However, if you only have only one variety of cosmos, carrots, beets, chard, melon or other plants and you are far enough away from your neighbor’s gardens (or wild carrots) you can save seeds safely.

In the case of squash flowers you can isolate the female by bagging until it opens then hand pollinate by rubbing male flower parts on the female and then bagging again to exclude insects and tag it for seed saving. This is not a seed saving effort I have had the time or patience for. Whatever you decide to do in the seed saving department, it can be a satisfying culmination of the gardening experience. Happy seed saving.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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