The 101 on Saving True-to-Type SeedWhether you are new to gardening or are an experienced grower, the COVID-19 crisis had an unexpected effect. More citizens seek to grow fruits and vegetables for their families and communities. Seed houses across the nation (Great Lakes Staple Seeds included) face an unprecedented demand, experiencing shortages and long delays in order processing. With this new reality though comes the glorious opportunity to gain self-reliance and sustainability in personal food production – develop your own seed stock! While seed saving is now a “new old” skill to master, generations of gardeners, including perhaps your grandparents, grew their gardens from saved seed.
Beyond the obvious situation why produce your own seed stock? Simply put, the best source of seeds for your garden is your garden. Home grown seeds hold within them the "memory" of the growing conditions experienced by the mother plants. With each successive generation grown from self-collected seeds, a variety builds upon its seed memory, adapting to the micro-climate of its garden. Every year grown enhances its resilience to meet environmental stresses that arise. Developing your own seed stock also ensures open-pollinated varieties remain available when hybrids and PVP varieties are increasingly dominating seed house inventories.
So let's get started!
True-to-type seed carries the expected, desired characteristics and qualities of the parent plants. You plant an Ampuis pepper seed, you expect an Ampuis pepper plant to grow.
Understanding the following basic botanical facts helps you successfully save true-to-type seed.
- A seed is created through fertilization.
- Fertilization requires pollination.
- Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of the flower.
- 1 grain of pollen = 1 seed.
- A flower is either complete/perfect or incomplete/imperfect.
- Complete/perfect flowers have both male and female parts in one blossom. The flowers of beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers are complete/perfect flowers.
- Incomplete/imperfect blossoms have either male parts or female parts but not both. Squash, melon, and cucumber blossoms are incomplete/imperfect.
- Plants are grouped scientifically according to their physical and genetic similarities.
- Plants have long scientific names based on their scientific groups.
- Plants belong to large groupings called families. A smaller group within a family is a genus. The next smaller group within a genus is a species group. A variety is a group of individuals that share distinctly unique physical and genetic traits. Family >> Genus >> species >> variety.
- Gardeners commonly use a plant's variety name.
- Fertilization occurs between plants in the same species group, not across species groups.
- Plants with annual life cycles grow from seed, produce their own seeds and die all within one growing season. Biennials take two growing seasons to complete their life cycle.
The key to saving true-to-type seeds is knowing the plant's species. If varieties do not share the same species, cross-contamination of pollen will not happen. Each variety produces seeds that are true-to-type.
If varieties share the same species, know the flower type and means of pollination to understand how to harvest true-to-type seeds.
- The flower structure of beans, peas, and tomatoes means Mother Nature plans on true-to-type seeds with very little intervention on our part.
- The more open nature of pepper flowers means a little more effort is required on our part, such as bagging the blossoms, to prevent unwanted cross-pollination.
- Due to the flower structure of the squash family (winter squash, summer squash, cucumbers, melons, watermelon, gourds) there is a great chance of cross-contamination. Seed savers use techniques such as hand-pollination, isolation by distance, and staggering maturity times to harvest true-to-type seeds.
- Wind pollinated crops such as corn require considerable intervention / action on our part to maintain seed purity.
Life cycle is primarily a matter of scheduling – the time required for harvest of mature seeds. Biennial root crops require over-wintering in storage in northern gardens.
The Squash Family
Remember, cross-pollination happens at the species level. It happens within a same species level, not between species.
A plant labeled C. pepo "Thelma Sanders" is one variety that belongs to the genus Cucurbita (C.) and the species pepo. A species can have many, many different individual varieties.
You can "safely" grow 1 plant variety from each of the 4 common domestic squash species (Cucurbita argyrosperma, C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo) next to a watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), next to a cucumber (Cucumis sativus), next to a melon (Cucumis melo). Those 7 varieties will not cross-pollinate. They do not share a species level.
Now keep in mind that squash blossoms are imperfect, either male or female. "Help" is needed to move the pollen from one to the other for successful seed set. In nature, pollinators, typically bugs, are the helpers. This means when your neighbor grows a different set of 7 varieties, cross-pollination can happen if a pollinator goes between the two gardens.
The Cabbage Family
What makes the cabbage family challenging for seed savers is that one species is represented by seven different crop types. Cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collards and broccoli are all Brassica oleracea. Additionally, these crops are biennials. Most small-scale seed savers only allow one Brassica oleracea to flower at a time.
When saving seeds from your garden, it is essential to maintaining a variety's healthy gene pool that you save seeds from healthy plants displaying the characteristic varietal traits. It is always beneficial to save seed from as many of these plants as possible.
Despite all our intentions, there is always the chance that Mother Nature decides to counter-act our efforts to keep seeds true-to-type. Central to stewarding a variety is knowing its characteristic traits and preventing flowering for plants that do not meet those criteria. This is known as roguing and it can be through as drastic a measure as removing the whole plant or by manually controlling flowering within specified timing. If you do find evidence of a cross-pollination event, don't give up, just try again! It is an absolutely wonderful feeling to harvest a crop planted from your own home-grown seeds.
The following PDFs by groups such as Seeds of Diversity, Seed Savers Exchange and Organic Seed Alliance are great, easy to understand resources to assist your seed saving efforts.
These files are in PDF format which requires a reader; if you need one you can download Adobe Acrobat here.
Micro Seed Banking Primer - Seeds of Diversity - describes proper seed storage