Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seed-Saving for Dummies

In the backyard, tall tufted wands of lettuce seed stalks are waving in the August breezes. The Bronze Arrow plants, a highly touted American heirloom oak leaf variety, were grown from seeds saved in the autumn of 2010. Out of several varieties, these are the most prolific: luxuriant with seeds ready to take off on their little white parachutes. I have been cutting off the puffy tops and dropping them into a brown paper shopping bag labeled with as much information as possible: collection date, variety, source (i.e. grown from saved seed, purchased seed, or nursery starts).

I used to happily collect seeds from whatever plants in the garden made it through their full life cycle. Then, as I learned more, it became clear that not all seeds are created equal.

The biggest factor for a backyard gardener to be aware of is that some plants are inbreeding and self-pollinating. They don't rely on bees or insects and don't need pollen from other plants. Everything happens right at home in self-contained flowers on a single plant. These are the garden introverts: lettuce, peas, beans, and tomatoes are examples. They have "perfect" flowers, meaning they possess both male and female structures in the same blossoms on the same plant. The blossoms of peas and beans are often pollinated from within before they even open because the stigma (pollen receiving structure) and anthers (pollen producing) are very close together and mature at the same time. Inbreeding plants evidently have the remarkable ability to produce vigorous offspring generation after generation without outside infusions of genetic material.

The garden extroverts -- such as chard, broccoli, and zucchini -- are outbreeding and cross-pollinating. They like to attract insects to carry their pollen around and fertilize the nearby blossoms of plants in the same species. Beet pollen will fertilize chard blossoms and vice versus. Different varieties of broccoli will gleefully co-mingle, as will zucchini. (Now I understand why my carefully gathered Romanesco broccoli seeds gave rise to plants which sported odd, purplish, lumpy heads instead of the gorgeous lime-green, laser-sharp, Fibonacci-spiraled heads I was expecting. Purple sprouting broccoli, I'm looking at you! These cross-bred plants had the less desirable features of both parents -- very few side shoots and small shapeless heads).

Inbreeding seeds, on the other hand, left to themselves (as they prefer) are likely to produce a plant that resembles its parent -- because it usually has only one parent. They breed true.

I have now realized that I am a complete neophyte at understanding the mysteries of plant genetics and will simplify my seed-saving habits, sticking with the easiest, most predictable types, such as lettuce.

Still, there are complications, even at the beginner level of seed-saving. It's important to make sure that the seeds you are gathering come from non-hybrid plants. Hybrids are new varieties created by combining two plant lines with distinct features into one line that joins the best of both. Hybrid plants grow well, but, even if self-pollinating, they produce seeds that revert to the separate, less desirable features of the parents. If you grow hybrids, there's no point in saving the seeds; you have to keep buying the seeds or seedlings to keep the defining characteristics. (Often, it's well worth it: the fabulous Sungold tomato, for instance.)

Fortunately, it seems like most of the lettuce seedlings I pick up at the local nurseries happen to be non-hybrid heirlooms.

Australian Yellow is a tasty heirloom with crinkled, chartreuse leaves. The seedlings were part of an All-Star mix from Cottage Garden nursery. These seed stalks, despite being chomped by deer, have grown back and are almost ready to be harvested.

The Garrison lettuce -- a dark-red oak leaf variety grown for its attractive baby leaves which are a popular addition to mesclun mixes -- also came from Cottage Gardens. These seed stalks, too, were chewed down by deer. They are still in the blooming stage.

There's plenty of material here for further adventures in seed-saving, even for beginners.


Sources of information used in this post:

Daughter of the Soil

Seed Savers Exchange

International Seed Saving Institute

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