One can marvel at the simplicity of the humble act of planting a seed. You cover it with soil, water it, give it sun, and a few months later you have delicious juicy tomatoes. Same, really, when you buy baby tomato plants, sticking with the tomato example, and simply place them in the ground and watch them grow. Leave the complicated stuff to the plant and stand back and watch it unfold.
Perhaps you think the heirloom tomatoes your cousin gave you are the most delicious variety you’ve ever eaten, and perhaps you’d like to eat it again next year but you’re not sure if you’ll ever find that variety again. Those end-of-the-season tomatoes that have already peaked contain enough seeds inside to have a go at trying to harvest them, keep them, and next year plant them yourself with your very own saved seeds and, voilà! You’re making BLTs for another year with the same tasty tomato.
It’s a shame it’s not as simple as that.
Master Gardener Gretel Anspach of the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association spoke about seed saving to a group gathered at the Taber Library on October 5, and likely put a damper on some of their big plans for saving seeds from this year’s harvest for next year once Anspach spilled the beans on the actual complexity of the pursuit.
Did you know that if you plant a variety of different tomato plants in your garden they would almost certainly cross-pollinate with each other? Which means that amongst tomato varieties X, Y, and Z, if you preferred X and planned to harvest its seeds and save them for next year, you would likely wind up with a hybrid of X and Y, or X and Z – meaning your tender juicy tomato could look like your favorite X variety, but actually taste like Y.
Oh yeah. Because genetics.
Anspach started at the beginning. We usually buy seeds because we can grow something new every year. No need to worry about the genetics stuff, and we don’t have to think much about saving the seeds after because we can just buy them again next year. But those who save their seeds do so because heirloom varieties (heirloom meaning a cultivar that originated at least 50 years ago, maybe 100, or it’s just been passed down generations) are interesting, you know they worked out in the past, some of those heirlooms are no longer available, and of course, it’s free!
But in order to collect a viable seed, you first need a plant that can produce fertile seeds that can be pollinated, and the seeds must be harvested from ripe fruit. Then to get the seeds that will breed true, the plants must be open pollinated (not hybrids, not clones) with sufficient enough separation from other varieties amongst a large population of its own kind. For example, corn needs at least 200 of its own variety – and one mile of separation from another variety — to ensure it will breed true!
There is a seed saving movement of sorts in today’s world, with heirloom seeds being prized above hybrids, along with vast conspiracies that governments and mega agricultural corporations will control the food supply, limiting the varieties of seeds and altering life on Earth as we know it, says Anspach. “And none of that is necessarily true,” she said.
True, there are far fewer varieties of some vegetables; for example, the Seed Savers Exchange lists 2,299 types of beans in its seed catalog, while the seed supplier Johnny’s Selected Seeds only lists 36. For tomatoes, the Seed Savers Exchange lists 9,153 varieties; Johnny’s lists 134.
“People save seeds because it’s interesting,” said Anspach. “It’s just cool knowing that that seed has been in the family for thirty years.”
The trend in America is to breed produce so it looks good, and we buy it usually because of how it looks. But as fruits and veggies are bred to look perfect, less emphasis is put on how it actually tastes. An heirloom might not be the most attractive of the variety, but it likely possesses a taste so good that for decades someone has been keeping that strain true.
Anspach recommended contacting the Mass Horticultural Society, or even Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston for free advice and information on any questions about seed saving. Trust just about any Internet source that ends in ‘.edu’, says Anspach.
“And go forth, and plant.”
By Jean Perry