farmer sunflower


Diversity is essential in helping plant and animal life withstand threats like diseases, climate changes, pests, and other unforseen occurences.

Food biodiversity is an integral part of creating a secure and sustainable food system. Plant diversity gives us options for raising the healthiest and most productive crops. No matter what changes happen in our food system, we will always be able to adapt if we have enough genetic diversity.

Seed saving, exchanging, using and selling are fundamental practices of maintaining biodiversity. Each and everyone of us can contribute in this very important conservation effort.

As we get into the seed-saving (and sowing!) part of the garden year, you may hear or read about different kinds of seeds — and the terms can be confusing. Say you want to save seeds from this year’s garden. Can you save seeds from any plant? Are some seeds better candidates for saving than others?

When you are buying or exchanging seeds what should you look for? What seeds what are open-pollinated seeds? Are heirlooms the best? Never fear — we’re here to give you a crash course in plant breeding so you can make the best decision for you and your garden.

How Plants are Fertilized

In a nutshell, pollen starts on the male part of the plant called the stamen, and it gets transferred to the female part of the flower called the stigma. The pollen then makes its way to the ovary, and — bingo! — fertilization happens. Now, the way the pollen gets transferred from the male part to the female part is what we’re talking about here, so keep reading. (And, no, you don’t have to have a parent’s signature to participate in this particular sex ed class.)

pollinator paintbrush


Open Pollinated, Heirloom, and Hybrid Seeds

Each method of pollination is slightly different, and impacts what seeds you collect and how. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Open Pollinated

Out in nature, there are plants that cross-pollinate (they need another plant) and other plants that self-pollinate (they don’t need another plant). These plants are all pollinated by the wind, pollinating insects, or other natural means — a process called open pollination. In the garden or grower facility, plants that cross-pollinate are isolated so that seed can be collected with the assurance that it’s true to type, meaning you know exactly what plant you’ll get from it year-to-year. Self-pollinating plants (lots of tomatoes and beans, for example) are super easy to collect seed from, without worrying if they will be true to type (they will). Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Black Beauty eggplant are good examples of open-pollinated veggies.

  1. Heirloom

Generally speaking, heirloom plants (and their seeds) are open-pollinated plants that are over 50 years old, often passed down from one generation to the next and from gardener to gardener. They’re often pre-World War II, and their traits tend to remain quite stable from year to year. One downside to heirlooms, however, is that the harvest can vary with less predictable results or varied fruit size on the same plant.

They are carefully saved, labeled, and stored, and they are the most cherished plants of most gardeners. Great examples of heirloom plants include Pink Brandywine tomatoes and Cayenne Purple hot peppers.

  1. Hybrid

A hybrid plant is one where a plant breeder controls the pollination by cross-pollinating two different varieties. Say one plant has great disease resistance, and another one has awesome fruit size — a knowledgable breeder will deliberately and painstakingly choose the plants with the most desirable characteristics, then cross-pollinate them with the hopes that the resulting plant will have all of the best characteristics of each parent. Great examples of hybrids include Big Boy and Early Girl tomatoes.

Hybrid plants are field-tested and trialed to ensure their success, and because of that time-intensive method and process, they are more expensive plants to purchase. And here’s another thing — you can’t save seed from a hybrid plant because, unlike open-pollinated and heirloom plants, the seed will not be true-to-type. So, making a choice to buy hybrid plants may not afford you the seed-saving practice you want, but you’ll undoubtably love its stellar traits.

How do I know which type I’m buying?

pea seeds

What you’ll mostly be seeing when shopping for seeds and plants are the “hybrid” and “heirloom” labels, but when you’re looking through catalogs, you’ll see all three labels. They will be clearly marked on the packaging or in the marketing description, with hybrid plants often including an “F1” label. Many seed companies are exclusively open-pollinated or heirloom, though, so if that’s what you are looking for, you could shop with confidence and without confusion.

You cannot tell an heirloom plant from a hybrid one simply by looking at it — appearance alone will not be a trustworthy indicator. Always read the labeling and plant or seed description if the type of plant you are buying and want to grow is of importance to you. Whichever type you choose, happy planting and seed-saving!

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Seed Saving PI 1
Hands taking seeds out of a sunflower with text
  • Mozart's Garden
    Posted at 17:39h, 16 October Reply

    Good information.

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