DIY, Local Harvest
Plant Sex Ed
What you should know before deciding to save your plant’s seeds for replanting
Becoming more self reliant and resilient was one of the main reasons I began gardening almost 20 years ago. I am constantly searching for ways to wean from the machine. Consequently, I am a proponent of gardening strategies which allow me to be less dependent on purchased inputs. I get even more excited when I learn strategies that help me achieve more while working less. Saving my own seeds in the garden pretty much slam dunks both of these criteria.
The seed is perhaps one of the most sophisticated technologies on planet Earth today. With an inherent self awareness somehow contained within an apparently dormant and unassuming shell, the seed will wait until the song of the season calls for it to germinate and grow. A single seed can yield an abundance of food for the gardener and a near endless supply of seed for the next generation. One might even argue the plant is simply the seed’s way of making more seeds.
Making use of the power of seed is a fantastic way for every gardener to lighten the work load. Perhaps the simplest strategy is allowing plants to drop seed and replant themselves in a whimsical and wild fashion. I tend to utilize this strategy for a number of herbs and annual flowers that also double as pollinator and beneficial insect habitat. Herbs such as cilantro and dill are delicious when young, provide nectar and habitat while flowering, then replant themselves with reckless abandon. Unwanted seedlings are easily pulled and plated for delicious micro greens, and the harvest comes with next to no prep work.
This strategy works best with selfers. A selfer in seed terminology describes a plant with a “perfect flower,” or the ability of a flower to self pollinate and produce viable seed on its own. With little or no cross pollination, these types of plant will produce seed that grows a next generation which shares the same characteristics as its parent. These are far and away the easiest and most reliable crops to save seed from, and include lettuce, beans and peas.
Things get a little more difficult once we start to deal with plants that are more promiscuous (yes, promiscuity is indeed a scientific term and legitimate consideration within the seed-saving community). These crossers require a certain isolation distance in order to produce seed that is true to type. Isolation distance describes how far a plant must be grown away from another compatible plant in order to produce seed that is true to type, i.e. it shares the same traits as its parent. For example, “pink brandywine” tomatoes need to be grown at least 100 feet from “mortgage lifter” tomatoes in order to produce seed that will grow another generation of “pink brandywine” tomatoes.
How plants hook up
These distances vary, depending on the family of vegetable under consideration. Let’s look at this through the paradigm of “hooking up” in dating culture. On the “hard to get” side we have sweet peppers, who won’t cross with another pepper unless it’s within 15 feet, or eggplants, which need 50 feet. I like to think of these vegetable friends as “prudes.”
On the highly promiscuous side we have corn, cucumbers and squash, who will eagerly cross-pollinate and which all require at least a mile of isolation to remain true to type. I like to think of these veggies as my “friends who use Tinder.”
If we don’t observe these isolation distances and allow plants to cross, we have now produced a hybrid, or a plant that will share certain characteristics of both parents. The art of creating meaningful hybrids is far beyond the scope of this article, and for the backyard gardener may be of little concern. A bit of random crossing here and there is often fun and exciting, and until modern times there was little concern for “pure” or “true” varieties. Randomly growing a wide range of different expressions of a particular vegetable, allowing them to all cross pollinate, saving the seeds and planting them out the following year is what is known as a “land race.”
Creating a bit of randomness can be fun, especially with tomatoes. However, don’t expect as positive an experience with squash. Because they are so highly promiscuous, the chances your black beauty zucchini will cross with a spaghetti squash or pie pumpkin are pretty high. And trust me, you rarely find the best qualities of each in your hybrid! You’ll most likely end up with a rock hard summer squash that tastes like Styrofoam the following year. But hey, maybe your prowess in the kitchen far exceeds mine.
Here’s a hint to help you determine whether or not two varieties will cross. When considering a cross, note the plants’ Latin names. There are always two names: the genus, which is always capitalized, and the species, which is never capitalized. For a Black Beauty Zucchini squash, the genus is Cucurbita, and the species is pepo. Squash have three different species: pepo, moschata and maxima. Each will cross with members of the same species but not with members of the other. A pepo (zucchini, spaghetti squash, etc.) will not cross with a moschata (butternut, crookneck) or a maxima (hubbard, banana). There you have it, you now have some introductory Latin skills; you’re welcome.
In closing, if you are trying to continue the lineage of an important family heirloom or to recreate the most delicious tomato you’ve ever tasted, you are going to absolutely want to pay attention to recommended isolation distances. For those of us growing in urban environments, we are able to relax a bit on isolation distances. Your neighbor’s house, hedges and trees provide a significant deterrent to pollinators visiting your tomatoes and those of your neighbor on the other end of the block.
However, if you are keen to save some seed and build a meaningful selection, take it easy on that wild springtime urge to grow so damn many different types of every damn thing. Rather, simplify your selections, space them out appropriately, and confidently save and share your seeds.
James Loomis is the Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens.