Seed me, Seymour!

I just put in a big seed order at Big enough to wonder how long it will take to actually get ahead in the whole I-grow-my-own-food-and-save-money thing. But I have so many plans! So many. Not only are we seriously expanding our “production” this year but idea is to invest in plants that I grow and eat now, and also cultivate and save seeds for next year. (Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas!)

That’s one of the reasons I ordered pricier seeds from–you can’t save hybrid seeds. Well, you can save them, they will just break your heart over and over again. So I’ve heard. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand why this was. I just drank the kool-aid and repeated that little nugget as if I knew what I was talking about. So I did some scholarly-type research on the Google.  I came across a couple of articles, coincidentally on the Seed Saver site, and thought they were a good starting point.  If interested, check out this article that was useful and straightforward and this other article that was a bit more complex but a pretty good and short read.

The gist of it is that hybrids are really controlled inbred plants. In the lab or field, two plants with a very narrow gene pool are crossed to produce a seed with the chosen, desired characteristics of the two parents.  The key word is controlled. Very smart scientist-type people who understand a lot of stuff about genes know which traits are dominant and which traits are recessive.  The parents will be selected for desired traits that will come through, either because one parent has the desired dominant characteristic or because both parents have the desired recessive characteristic.  The child of that coupling gets planted and grows, resulting in a plant that has the desired, controlled traits of mama and papa plant.  BUT… now that little hybrid plant has been let loose like a college girl on spring break.  There are untold numbers of influences out there–some good, some bad, some that are very nice, but just not that exciting.  That innocent little hybrid plant is vulnerable to any local yahoo indiscriminately spreading his dirty pollen wherever it will land.  This is called Open Pollination (OP)–which is actually a good thing in the plant world–and on Melrose Place.  So when that hybrid plant makes it seeds, those seeds carry who-knows-what genetic traits.  The site explains that if you want to  “save [corn] seeds for future planting, considerations must be made to prevent cross-pollination…. [Corn] uses the wind to distribute its pollen from the tassels of one plant to the developing ears of another.” In order to “maintain the genetic purity of a cultivar, that is, keeping the variety true-to-type, great isolation distances are required.  Depending on climate and geographical features in your area, separating varieties by up to one mile is required.”

Okay, so why does this work with OP seeds and not seeds from hybrid plants. The oversimplified answer is that you allow natural selection for your area to win out.  The seeds that you share likely already have some genetic markers that will make it dominant and vigorous over whatever else is out there.  Whereas Hybrid plant seeds have very narrow genetic traits and there is nothing about them designed to thrive in your environment.  Hybrid seeds are bred for certain characteristics–i.e, fruit size and yield– that are not conducive to environmental factors, meaning that they require a lot of help in the form of pesticides and water to survive. They are not tough because they have not had to survive season after season fighting the course of natural selection. They are delicate little lab creations that often require substantial assistance.  The off-spring of those hybrids, tend to be weaker and less adaptive, since their gene pool has been severely reduced.  There is a lot less diversity and, as a consequence, if you plant the seeds from hybrid plants you might get a few good plants over the course of hundreds of seeds.

Planting the seeds of hybrid plants essentially sets you back to the beginning of time.  Okay, slight exaggeration.  But, this is kind of the first step for farmers who have historically cultivated seeds going back hundreds of years. Dr. John Navazio in the above-referenced article tells a story about tomatoes that explains this process.  The tomatoes that were brought over to Europe several hundred years ago from the Americas were all cherry-tomato sized.  Somewhere between 200 and 300 years ago–after Europeans got over the idea that tomatoes were poisonous–farmers began selecting their desired traits.  The tomatoes “disseminated across the landscape in very diverse climates and were selected for new varieties by the humans who decided to give them the extra effort and domesticate them, the climatic influence that is natural selection, and then good old recombination in genetic terms. … How did they go from cherry tomatoes to these big beefsteaks in just 200-300 years? ….Every farmer, every eater, was a seed grower and they were totally tuned in to watching for variation and picking the best. It was plant breeding at its best by people who were in tune.”

This, of course, is what plant breeders try and speed up and control–with much success.  It would not now take 200 years to develop a beefsteak tomato from cherry tomatoes.  However, what you can’t get from hybrid is the genetic diversity to be resilient to your area.  So getting to the point where you have seeds that produce a general specific plant is just the first step.  The next is to plant it in your yard/garden/farm. Locally sourced, open pollinated seeds are genetically resilient. They are “adapted to the challenges of the specific geographic regions where they came from because there was always … strong natural selection on the material. People were not pampering it, people were not watering it with sophisticated irrigation, and so when you put plants under stress … you really start to see the variation. Then you have an opportunity to work in concert with natural selection if you care to improve your crops just like our ancestors did.”

I know…this topic is a bit mind-boggling.  My husband said it was too technical.  I think he lost interest pretty early on.  Though to be fair to me–and plants–he loses interest pretty quickly in most things early on.  However, I really wanted to understand why hybrids were not good source material for seeds.  And I wanted to try and explain it in a way that made sense.  I hope you stuck with me.

A company like Seed Savers sells seeds of plants that you can in turn collect seeds from or otherwise propagate with a high rate of success. They also sell non-gmo, untreated seeds with a huge collection of organic seeds. They promote and encourage heirloom varieties and encourage communities to exchange their own seeds. I’m in! I hope you are, too, and that we can start trading seeds.  Now… we have all learned that your seeds might not be the perfect seeds for my area, but that if they are open pollinated, they should at least produce enough diversity to result in some plants that are vigorous for my geographic region.   And then I can collect the seeds from those vigorous plants the next year–and so on and so on.  As Dr. Navazio explains, “Genetic resources need to be preserved and carefully managed. But they do constantly co-evolve with the humans who select them and who use them. If you have vital varieties that really work for people, that really feed people, then there is a constant interplay of the farmer, the variety, and selection, both natural and farmer selection, as well as adapting to all of these changes.”

What are you growing this year?


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