Open pollination, heirlooms and saving seed

By catalyst

The ins and outs of pollination and the importance of saving seeds. 

Once upon a time, farmers and gardeners ensured their next year’s crops by always saving seed from the previous harvest. Crop plants were exclusively open pollinated; they had evolved to fit into local ecosystems over generations, and had been adapted by farmers for reliable performance over many years. Individual plants from these varieties might vary considerably, but the strain as a whole would “come true” from the seed collected. Open-pollinated heirloom varieties developed resistance to local pests and diseases and were well adapted to the local climate.

With the advent of hybrid seed, farmers could attain a much more standardized crop with certain desired characteristics (a bruise-resistant tomato, for example). The seeds from such crops would not produce true copies of themselves, however, so it was not worth saving. Farmers would have to buy the next year’s seed from the seed supplier again.

With the rise of monoculture farming, many open pollinated and heirloom species of crop plants have already been lost or are currently facing extinction. But recently, gardeners have been rediscovering the joys of open pollinated varieties and the satisfaction of saving seed.

Your future isn’t likely to depend on it, at least not yet, but seed-saving is a fun experiment and may yet prove to be critical. In the meantime, you’re learning something new.

Garden author Tina James advises beginning your seed-saving exploits with plants that are self-pollinated. “This gives you all of the annual and biennial flowers and herbs to explore as well as such vegetables as beans, peas, eggplant, lettuce, okra and peppers,” she writes.

If you think you might like to try your hand at seed-saving this year, buy open-pollinated seed. The packet may not be clearly marked “open pollinated,” but may have the letters “OP” appended to the varietal name. If you are buying plants from a nursery, ask whether they are open pollinated varieties. Here is an “honor roll” of open pollinated varieties: seeds?q=show&id=293&page=5

Open pollinated seeds can be self-pollinated or cross-pollinated, de­pending on the crop. Self-pollinated plants will always come true from seed, where cross-pollinated varieties such as brassicas will need segregation from each other in order not to produce hybrid seed. It is possible to segregate cross-pollinators physically, but not practical. Instead, plant varieties that mature at different times. Bok choy, for example, can cross with with turnips, broccoli and Chinese cabbage. If you want to save the seed, grow the extra-dwarf version, pak choy. This short, fast variety matures before the others, so it’s safe from what Caleb Warnock calls “unwanted cousin pollen.”

Lettuce is easy: Literally, let it go to seed. When the plant gets all leggy and turns yellow, the seedpods are dry and ripe for picking.

Tomatoes require special care, but are easily doable and extremely rewarding. (More about that closer harvest season.)

While you can generally rely on honeybees or native bees for pollination (see p. 18), you might want to exert extra effort if you plan to save seeds from pumpkins, cucumbers, melons, summer and winter squashes, and gourds (this is known as the cucurbit family) to guarantee that the seed is identical to its parent plant. Google “pollination methods: Cucurbits” and you’ll find what you need. You’ll also find clear instructions in The Forgotten Skills of Self-Sufficiency used by the Mormon Pioneers, by Caleb Warnock (2011: Bonneville Books).

Root vegetables (beets, carrots) require two years to produce true seed. If you’re a beginning seed-saver, you probably want a quicker reward time. Skip these for later.

Label your seed and store in a cool, dry place.

Main thing to remember right now: There’s no sense in saving seeds from hybrids, which will not breed true. If you think you might want to try your hand at saving seed, buy open-pollinated seed. 


“Grow a hybrid seed, eat for a summer. Grow an open-pollinated seed, eat for generations.”
— Caleb Warnock


open pollinated: a plant whose seeds will reproduce “true,” which means the seed will grow into the same type of plant from whcih they were borne. Open-pollinated is the opposite of hybrid.

self-pollinated: Plants that have both male and felmale reproductive organs and can thus fertilize themselves.

cross-pollination: The transfer of pollen among genetically similar plants, accomplished by such natural agents as the wind and insects.

hybrid: a plant created by mechanically pollinating two genetically dissimilar plants. An F1 hybrid is a plant resulting from the first generation of seed produced from that union. Most modern hybrids are F1 and will not come true to seed.

—from Gardening From the Heart: A Natural Garden Primer, by Tina James (Randall Books)

This article was originally published on March 30, 2012.