Saving Seeds – Selecting parent plants

“Healthy soil produces healthy plants and healthy seeds.” So states Robert Johnston in Growing Garden Seeds. As founder of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a thriving supplier of high-quality seeds in Maine, he should know. “When raising garden seeds, this healthy condition is potentially passed into future generations, improving the quality of the seed and, hence, the produce.” The use of compost is one way to make sure that the soil has adequate nutrients.

Selecting parent plants is one of the first things to think about when preparing to save seeds. The parent plant should be healthy, vigorous and productive. Food from the plant should be tasty and have the qualities that the gardener considers important. Saving seeds from the best plants over a period of years can produce a strain that yields better, larger, earlier and tastier crops than the original seeds.

Some of the qualities to consider in choosing the parent plants are as follows:

  • Early-bearing ability
  • Size
  • Flavor
  • Insect and disease resistance
  • Plant vigor
  • Lateness to go to seed
  • Color
  • Yield
  • Ability to germinate and thrive in cold weather
  • Storage life
  • Texture (tenderness, juiciness, seediness)
  • Special qualities (absence of thorns, spines, strings, paste tomatoes should be meaty)
  • Resistance to drought, wind, smog, dampness or other stressful atmospheric conditions.

It’s important not to base a choice on just one characteristic, but to wait until mid season to judge the performance of the plant. This will indicate what type of plant will grow from the seed the next year.

Seed catalogs can be an excellent resource for selecting the characteristics of plants. While most seed companies promote their own hybrid varieties, they also sell non hybrid seeds at lower prices.

A hybrid seed is the result of a cross between two genetically different parent plants and usually will show more vigor than either of the two parents and often more vigor and uniformity than similar non hybrid varieties. Commercial hybrid seeds must be produced each year by crossing the inbred parents. This adds to the cost of the seeds, and that is why they are more expensive. Inbred parents are used because they have uniform characteristics that are wanted in the hybrid plants.

Hybrids, while often superior to non hybrids in terms of yields, are of little value to the seed-saver since the seeds cannot be saved and planted again. Seeds saved from hybrid plants will revert to a lesser type than the original, and characteristics will vary widely. When you look through the seed catalogs for seeds to save, purchase and plant only the non hybrid, open-pollinated varieties.

Non hybrids varieties often do not have the vigor of hybrids, but in the long run they are more reliable and will continue to produce the same offspring year after year. Genetic heritage is more diverse with the non hybrids; therefore, the seeds are less likely to be totally wiped out by disease. With the controlled, uniform hybrid crops this can and does happen.

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