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Program Coordinator, Master Gardeners
University of Illinois Extension
535 South Randall Road
St. Charles, IL 60174-1591
Master Gardeners – Kendall County
Join the Master Gardeners on National Seed Swap Day
Saturday, January 27, 2018
10:00 am - 12:00 noon
7775 IL Route 47, Yorkville
Not all Seeds Grow Up the Same
Saving seed from a hybrid plant will not give you that same hybrid again. Open pollenated and heirloom plants do come true to type. With open pollenated plants, the DNA from the female flower dominates. As long as heirloom plants do not get cross- pollinated from a hybrid, they too will come true to type. So, some caution is in order when you receive your swapped seeds. They may be exactly what you wanted or maybe not, depending on how isolated they were during flower pollination.
Open Pollinated Seeds
Open-pollinated, also known as heirloom or standard, plants are varieties that have stable traits from one generation to the next. Open pollinated plants are fairly similar to each other but not as uniform as hybrids. Because most were originally chosen for only one or two specific characteristics, individual plants of older heirloom varieties may differ greatly in size, shape, or other traits.
Open pollinated varieties are usually grown in fields where they self and cross-pollinate. Wind and insects carry the pollen from one plant to another. Plants that cross-pollinate must be isolated from other plants of different varieties so they will produce seed that is "true to type." Beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes are self-pollinating so they are easier to continue year to year without having to isolate them from other varieties of plants.
Crossing specific parent plants produces a hybrid seed (plant) by means of controlled pollination. These hybrid seeds are often called "F1" or "F1 hybrids." The terms "hybrid" and "F1" are strictly defined in the seed industry and, when used in seed catalogs, do not apply to plants crossed in the wild.
Some people think of a hybrid as blending two different plants, like mixing a red flowered plant and white flowered plant to get a pink flowered offspring. Unfortunately, the laws of genetics prevent it from being that easy. Most hybridized plants require the cross breeding of carefully chosen parent plants. The resulting seed will produce plants with very specific characteristics. Hybrid plants are very consistent from plant to plant and year to year. Hybrids carry a combination of traits from the parent plants.
Based on desirable traits, breeders select specific male and female parent plants. The plants selected to be the female seed-bearing partner have their pollen bearing anthers removed. They receive pollen only from those plants selected as their partners. By controlling the pollination, the resulting offspring will have identifiable genetic characteristics from both parents.
Producing hybrid seed is more time consuming and expensive because the plants must be hand pollinated. In addition, plant breeders may work for years to find the right combination of desirable traits they are looking for in a plant.
The breeder of the F1 hybrid variety can be the exclusive source of that variety. Only the breeder knows exactly what two parent plants are needed to produce the seed. Other breeders can try to duplicate a hybrid, but only the first breeder knows the exact combination used. Of course, it is through the process of trying to breed new and better varieties that unexpected new ones are found.
Saving "store bought" seed is an easy thing to do. Gardeners typically fold the seed packet over, paperclip or rubber band the seed packets together and put them somewhere until next year. Where you store them can make all the difference in future success. The kitchen junk drawer or garden shed are not good spots. Seeds are alive while stored so the better the storage environment, the higher survival rate you will get. The family refrigerator is going to be the best place. Stored in their original seed packets or a sandwich bag, they should go into a tight sealing container. Tradition suggests a wide mouth-canning jar with ring and a new lid. If you have a lot of seeds to save, maybe two canning jars – one for veggies, one for flowers. The canning jar is "air tight" and slows seed respiration. The temperature in the fridge also slows respiration. This way the seed uses up less energy and saves the rest for germination. A good guideline to remember is the larger the seed, the longer it can be stored. This may help guide you as to what kinds of seed to save. Snap beans are relatively easy while lettuce seed is not.
Before it is time to sow those saved or swapped seeds in the garden or indoors to grow out as a transplant, a germination test is helpful. No matter how well seeds are stored, there will be a reduction in the germination rate. If you look at the seed packet, you will find the germination rate and what year the seed was grown for. Typically, for every year of storage there can be a 10 percent reduction in germination. As mentioned already, very small seeds do not last in storage past one year, and if the seed does, then the germination rate will be substantially reduced. Nothing worse than sowing the garden row or seed flat and having a complete failure. To test, place a sample of seed between moist paper towels, and place that inside a plastic baggy to retain the moisture. Remember, the number of days needed to germinate is on the seed packet. For example, if you have 100 seeds and you test 10, and 8 of them actually sprout, you have an 80% germination rate with the remaining seeds.