Saving Seeds: A Different Point of View

Today we present another article in our non-fiction writing contest – By Kate in GA

All ‘preppers’ or ‘survivalist’ know that the only seeds you should be saving are from heirloom plants. But is that really accurate? I have a different point of view. There may come a time when you are faced with a barter opportunity and the only thing offered to you is hybrid seed. They may be carrots, green beans, squash or tomatoes or something else entirely. Do you turn down the barter because they are hybrid seeds? What if you no longer have any seeds from that vegetable?

My answer is “it depends.” The simple fact is some seeds saved from hybrid plants make very acceptable second generation plants able to produce good quality vegetables/fruit. The trick is if you don’t practice saving seeds from hybrid plants now, you won’t know which ones are viable and which aren’t.

While I will give you my point of view, different growing environments can bring different results. I would never recommend going out and purchase hybrid seeds for everything in the garden. However, it is very doable to select one hybrid variety of one vegetable/fruit and try saving seeds from it. Do this each year and you will soon have a very good knowledge of which hybrid seeds will produce acceptable second generation plants and which won’t.

Let me start with a common mistake many people make. Hybrid seeds are not necessarily GMO seeds. The word ‘hybrid’ means two plants have been crossed to make a new plant that has some of the traits of each parent plant. Hybrid seeds work well for novice gardeners to grow plants that are resistant to common diseases they would otherwise experience. Sometimes, it is also advantageous to grow hybrids plants in areas of the country where heirloom plants would not normally do well. Growing carrots in the South comes to mind here. In the South, gardeners can be much more successful growing hybrid varieties that are heat tolerant.

So what hybrid seeds have I had the most success with? Peppers and tomatoes. It makes sense that these both do well since they are cousins. The first time I grew chili peppers (a long time ago) I went to a big box store and bought hybrids. At the time, I was experimenting with making my own insecticide and wanted to try it before I started storing seeds. The peppers produced extremely well. When I sliced them to dry, I noticed that each pepper had a prolific amount of seed as well. (I don’t eat them so I didn’t know this.) I took some and placed them in an envelope and threw them in the back of my kitchen closet. (This is my standard process for saving all seed. I don’t do anything fancy – dry them on a paper towel for a day or so and put them in an envelope. No soaking or removal of pulp or anything ‘special’. In my experience, it isn’t necessary.)

The next year, the seeds germinated quite quickly. They also produced very well. They only difference I noticed from the parent plant was the peppers were smaller in size. This fact didn’t bother me at all. All these years later, I consider the seed stable because they now produce consistently – year after year.
For the tomatoes, I saved seeds from a grape tomato hybrid. I bought the seeds in a big box store. They were from Burpee. The second generation plants produced well and produced good flavor. While I didn’t grow any third or fourth generation, a friend from church did. (I gave her a tomato plant the first year I grew them. She let the ones that fell off the plant stay in the raised bed all winter (she didn’t do fall cleanup) and they germinated the next year. This continued for four years.) She is not an expert at gardening; I usually must help diagnose problems with her garden one to two times each year. I told her that the original seeds were hybrids and the flavor of the tomatoes would probably diminish each year they grew. However this tomato had no problems with disease or bugs and produced in abundance! She told me the tomatoes had wonderful flavor from year to year.

The last success I would like to mention is with Honey Bear Squash seeds. This year, I have 3rd generation plants growing. The plants are producing decent size acorn squash. I haven’t grown these long enough to state if the seed is stable or not, but all signs with the plants in the garden this year point to a stable seed. If they also produce well next year, I will call them stable. Of course, the final test is the taste.

Let me mention some hybrid seed failures I have had. The first one that comes to mind is carrots. I had a heat tolerant variety. I let the plant overwinter in the garden and nurtured it through the second summer. I was quite excited to see the flower stalks start growing in July and waited with anticipation to save the seed. This was a total failure. The seeds were sterile. Nothing germinated. I had a similar experience with a few different hybrid green bean varieties as well.

Next year, I am going to try saving seeds from hybrid broccoli. I am going to plant some this fall and see what happens. Currently, I have growing one row of second generation cotton plants from hybrid seeds. I am excited to see if the second generation plants will actually produce useable cotton!

To conclude, let’s go back to the barter scenario I mentioned. Would I accept the hybrid carrot seeds as barter? They would need to be in the unopened original package with a seed harvest date within 3 years of the current date. If the package looked good and did not look like it was tampered with, then yes, I would – even knowing that seeds saved from them would be sterile. The barter price will be the equivalent for only one year’s worth of carrots, since I know they will not produce additional generations. If they did not meet all of these criteria, I would not accept them.

Try expanding your gardening horizons by experimenting with saving seeds from hybrid plants. This knowledge could help to keep your garden producing during times of trouble!

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  1. WILDBILL says:

    Hybrid seeds are also good to have on hand as a backup source in case your heirloom seeds didn’t grow as expected.

    • WildBill,

      I agree!

      • TPSnodgrass says:

        My wife is a hardcore heirloom seed saver, however, we also use hybrids as the Back-up IF, the heirlooms don’t sprout as they should. Ou garden is a mix of a small amount of hybrid, and major amount of heirloom. So far, it has served us well.

        Excellent article from THE Weed-destroyer Himself.

  2. PlantLady says:

    Kate: Thank you for bringing up this subject!
    Let’s start with some definitions:
    Heirloom: This just means folks have been growing them a long time. Be aware there are heirloom hybrids.
    Open pollinated: Seeds from a stable variety that when planted result in pretty much the same thing.
    Hybrid: A cross between two varieties resulting in something different from the two parents. Each fertile seed may produce something different.
    Hybrid seeds you buy: These result from specific crosses made between two specifically bred lines of parent plants, that produce a predictable result. Each fertile seed will produce a nearly identical plant.
    Fully half of the seeds I store and grow are hybrids. I look at them as my store of genetic diversity and generations of improvement in disease resistance, improvements in yield, flavor, ability to be stored and myriad other factors. If you store only open-pollinated seed, that is it, you have “one”…and if you plant it you get the same thing (pretty much). If you plant seeds saved from hybrid plants, you may get something like either parent, any grandparent or something from an even more distant ancestor. This is NOT a bad thing – it gives you diversity so that if a variety you have is susceptible to a new disease, or new insects migrate to your area or we have a spell (year or years or decades) of unusual weather…chances are in that diversity will be something that will grow well and still produce food for your family. It also gives you the opportunity through selective breeding to produce a variety suited best to your location and introduce “hybrid vigor” and disease resistance to your lines. If you are stuck with your one (or even two or three) varieties of open-pollinated seed for every crop you grow – you are in trouble because that is all you have. That specific variety (or varieties) may not contain the genetic material that would confer heat or cold tolerance, drought or wet resistance, early or late bearing, resistance to certain diseases or insects, or contain higher amounts of anthocyanins (antioxidant precursors for higher health benefits), vitamins or minerals, etc. You can specifically cross your open pollinated varieties with hybrid varieties to hopefully add disease resistance, vigor or any other trait you choose.
    LANDRACES: This is my goal. Landraces are groups of closely related but not genetically identical varieties of plants. Many folks may have heard about landraces when dealing with grain crops. When you grow landraces of crops, you are hedging your bets – which is what we will need to do when we have to grow everything we eat. If you plant a landrace group of seeds, some may do better in heat, some may do better in cold, some may resist certain diseases, some may bear heavier, some may bear earlier/later, some may contain higher nutrients, some just plain taste better. That way you aren’t relying on that ONE variety to ensure your survival…you will have many to better your chances of getting something to eat.
    And you might not be aware that most of our seeds available commercially are now in the hands of a very, very few companies…and that Utility Patents are now being granted for specific traits rather than just specific varieties. And seed-trading groups and libraries run by like-minded folks are being shut down. I REALLY don’t like the idea of the source of our foods (seeds) being controlled by any small group or the government.
    A valuable source of more info on this critical topic is at:
    Especially important is the Open Source Seed Initiative, which is trying to keep seeds available to all without any restrictions:
    Sort of like a Second Amendment for food – every bit as important as the original!!!

  3. I am so happy to hear that there is not one good way to save seeds. That information about floating seeds and drying on paper towels intimidated me.

    • Linda W,

      I have never had a problem saving seeds this way. I truly believe all that ‘extra’ work is not necessary. Before there were people on this earth, there were plants. Those seeds managed to germinate without any help!

  4. Travis Riley says:

    The first year after the event I will plant the same hybrids I plant now. I will also plant a different garden of non hybrids. As you mentioned hybrids are more difficult to grow. A crop failure from disease could be fatal when all the food stores are gone. I will learn how to grow non hybrids but will not risk failure when I am scaling up to sustain my family on what I can grow alone.

  5. Won’t heirloom and hybrid cross pollinate and then all be hybrid?

    When I am seed cruising, I hear people oohing and ahing over “Organic” seeds. Am I correct in thinking this means nothing.

    • You are correct. IMHO it means nothing. However, since they are ‘certified’ organic, they can (and do) charge more.

      • Linda W,

        I forgot to answer your first question. The correct answer is, “It depends.” If I was planting something that I knew needed assistance with pollinating (like squash) then it can make a difference. Those need to be separated. However, they only need to be separated if they are in the same family of squash. Currently I have Cucurbita moschata and cucurbita pepo in the same raised bed because I know they won’t cross with each other.

        Let me also add that I have purchased heirloom seeds for yellow crooked neck squash and had some of them turn green because the company grew them too close to the zucchini (both are pepo’s). No worries for me, they will go back to being yellow in a few generations.

        Things that self-pollinate (like tomatoes and green beans) it doesn’t matter if they are planted together.

        • PlantLady says:

          You can also “separate” varieties that might cross-pollinate using time – by planting varieties whose bloom time is separated by two weeks or more. Or if using varieties with similar bloom dates, you would plant one variety two weeks (or more) later. Nobody tells you bloom time, tho’…so you use the maturity dates. That means you could closely plant a 70-day corn the same day you plant a 90-day corn and not worry about cross-pollination. But if you wanted to plant a 75-day corn and an 85-day corn, you would plant the 85-day corn a week or two later.
          Plus, you really need to know your neighbors well so you know what they are planting…because some crops need to be isolated by 1/2 mile or more!

    • PlantLady says:

      The main point of “organic” seeds is that you are assured they have not been treated with fungicides, insecticides or the like, as many conventional seeds are (especially corn).

  6. PlantLady says:

    Kate: When you were talking about your third generation squash, and not certain if it was stable…it seems to be generally accepted that it takes around 6-10 generations to get a truly stable variety.
    And everyone, don’t automatically assume that old seeds aren’t any good…some can last and produce far longer than you might imagine. I have planted seed up to 10 years old with great results…although some seem to be useless after a year (onions come to mind). And read (I think in the Smithsonian magazine) that some grain seeds around 2,500 years old, found in the pyramids in Egypt, have been successfully grown!

    • Plant Lady,

      I just read of a squash plant they found in a tomb somewhere – 800 years old, planted it and it grew.

      It was a variety that went extinct. Lot’s of seeds are good for years later than the recommended times.

      However, I do agree with you about the onions. I can’t get them to germinate if I keep them 2 years.

      • Let me clarify, they found seeds that were 800 years old.

        • Plant Lady,

          One more response to your comment:

          I do see your point about a generally accepted idea that 6 – 10 generations are needed to truly call a variety stable. However, I can’t imagine that I will last 10 years when the world ends. So, for me, I call it stable at 3 to 4 years. If ROL isn’t re-established within 4 – 5 years, we will all have more to worry about than the taste or size of a fruit from a 6th generation plant started from hybrid seeds.

          • PlantLady says:

            Kate: I was surprised it was that long – just found out myself. But it was a professional seed grower writing, rather than us “just folks”. Have so much to learn yet!
            Unfortunately, I have a really good imagination and can easily imagine what it will be like someday. Especially as I read a lot of history and science fiction, and paid serious attention to what my grandfather and mother-in-law told me of their youth during the Great Depression during my elder care years. That is why I prepare…to the point the local Amish think I go too far (since I buy all their old stuff at auctions). But, then, I am planning to thrive, rather than just survive. I believe that when the coming Darker Ages arrive, we are looking at a multi-generational event. And at that point, seeds for food plants will be worth more than anything but ammo and livestock. Nobody will care how old they are, or if they are open-pollinated or hybrid as long as they produce food (hehe).
            I am going to get some of the potato (walking) onions to get around the problem of short-lived onion seeds. Can’t imagine trying to cook anything without onions if you should have a crop failure or failure to seed just one year! And will be getting some True Potato Seeds to try – not the “seed potatoes” you cut up to plant, but true seeds. Much easier to store than the potatoes themselves, and able to be stored for years. Not very widely available at all. I have some pods forming on the blue potatoes I planted this year, so will als0 try those next year.

            • Plant Lady,

              I agree with you! That is why I question the process of everything I do here. I am constantly wondering if there is a better way to do something (preferably one without electricity)!

              • PlantLady says:

                Yep agree completely! I am not even trying to hold on to technology (except for solar lighting) at this point. Trying to make everything work in a sustainable manner, with what I have available on site…while I can learn from failures without it being lethal (hehe). And since we are income-limited (read “poor”), even my food storage is a bit different than most. I mostly store only those items I cannot produce myself – chocolate, spices, citrus products, olive and coconut oil, etc. When I went to a food storage class at the local LDS church and talked about how I do things, found my best friend when she came over and told me “thanks a lot – now we have to change everything.” Not one had a Squeezo Strainer, and I couldn’t believe they all had tons of wheat stored and not a single hand-cranked pasta machine among them. Gosh, I wouldn’t have room to get into the house if I had to store all the pasta we need already made up!
                I would much rather use the space to store seeds! I want to end up with enough to provide my entire neighborhood with enough to get by…that way I wont have to protect my gardens from hungry folks as much.

  7. This is a GREAT post. The only thing I can add is this source of organic, heirloom seeds that cost about the same as any other seed catalog:

  8. Encourager says:

    Great article! Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    • Leonard and Encourager,

      I am sorry I didn’t see your posts earlier! I would have responded sooner –

      Thank you both for your comments!

  9. Interesting. I’m old enough to remember helping my grandparents when they were winnowing black eyed peas that had been dried in their hulls. First, seed stock was removed, and the rest was stored for consumption. Loved to beat the tow sacks full of peas to break them to make the chaff. Been a few years. They saved seeds to everything. Oh, this was before there were such things as “heirloom” plants and seeds. I remember them saying, “Oh, I think we will plant hybrid corn this year.” Seeds? Something is always better than nothing. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have “anything.” Just me.

  10. There are many solid hybrids, obviously, this doesnt keep me from stashing heirloom, however, as you stated. I also grow other types because in my area some heirloom versions wont grow, and some hybrids will.

    Thank you again

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