When I started learning about growing vegetables, I thought I could just save any seed I like and use them again in the following years. Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that. At the time, I was growing both hybrids and heirloom plants. So in this article, I want to talk about the differences between them. And explain why Heirloom plants are better to produce viable seeds.
Heirloom plants can produce viable seeds because they are open-pollinated. Open Pollination ensures the seeds breed pure, so the following generations share most of the traits from the parent generation. Heirloom plants are great for producing your own seeds.
Let’s start with the basics, what is an heirloom plant anyway?
What is an Heirloom plant
Heirloom or Heritage plants are loosely defined as seeds that have been passed down for multiple generations. These plants usually originated before the year 1950 and were quite common back then. Some Heirloom varieties are much older. Sometimes heirloom and organic seeds get confused with one another. They are not mutually exclusive; seeds can be both heirloom and organic. Organic is more about the way of producing the seeds, whereas heirloom describes its type.
Heirlooms convince with their great taste and high production value. They can come in very unusual shapes and are generally less disease and transport resistant, making them less attractive for large scale commercial farming.
But where do these seeds come from?
- Family Heirlooms: Most of these seeds are a family heritage that has been handed down for multiple generations and constantly regrown and selected to improve the desired traits.
- Commercial Heirlooms: Sometimes, these seeds were sold, making them a commercial Heirloom. These seeds are still widely used even though most of these businesses ceased to operate.
Let’s start by looking at the differences between heirloom and hybrid seeds.
What’s the difference between Heirloom and Hybrid seeds
So in short Heirloom plants have been around for quite some time. Saving the seeds from Heirloom plants is a common practice, but what about hybrids?
Hybrid plants are a cross between two parent-plants, for which the label F1 is usually referring to the first generation of hybridization. The issue with reproducing hybrid plants comes from their unstable nature. Often the next generation (F2) doesn’t share the same traits as the first generation. So the benefits of choosing a hybrid plant might be lost during reproduction, defeating the entire purpose.
The difference between generations isn’t always noticeable by eye alone, sometimes only taste is affected. Other times the fruits like Cherry Tomatoes might come out regularly sized, or in a different color.
So the question becomes why are Heirloom plants stable to reproduce? And why are they far more likely to produce true-to-type offspring compared to hybrids?
The Offspring of Hybrid plants tend to develop different traits because they are usually self-pollinated. That in itself doesn’t cause the issue, but self-pollinated plants tend to lack genetic stabilization. For that reason, their offspring might develop a random array of traits (both active and dormant ones) from the parent plant.
You will probably have a harder time producing viable offspring from hybrids, but it’s not impossible. After going through enough generations, the hybrid plant might actually become stable. There are some factors you have to be aware of before you start saving hybrid seeds though. Esp. the risks that come with back-crossing in plants like Zucchini, so make sure you do some research for your specific plant before saving its seeds.
How are Heirloom seed pollinated
Pollination plays an important role in seed production and viability. The type by which a plant gets pollinated provides some helpful information about the plant itself.
Heirloom plants are usually open-pollinated. So their pollen is carried by the wind, birds, insects, and other Pollinators. Plants that are open-pollinated slowly adapt to their environment and can continuously be improved by saving seeds from the best fruit of the season.
If you want to save true-to-type seeds from an open-pollinated variety, make sure there is no other plant from the same species close to it. Otherwise, there is a chance that the seeds are a hybrid between those two plants. In most cases, this is not a bad thing, just make sure to label your seeds accordingly.
Why you should save seeds
But why go through all this effort if you can just buy new seeds in almost any store? Saving your own seeds comes with a couple of benefits over store-bought seeds, let’s take a quick look at a few of them.
- Saved Seeds can adapt to local climate: Regrowing seeds in the same environment for multiple years give them time to adapt to your local weather patterns. This can help to establish plants in rough climates, and help to overcome changing seasons and weather around the world.
- Better tasting fruits: Heirloom plants have some of the tastiest fruits you can find. The most important traits for those plants are high yield and fantastic taste. They usually aren’t optimized to deal with extended transport times and long shelf-life, giving more room for amazing tasting fruits.
- Save Money: Saving Seeds cost next to nothing but can keep you going for the rest of your life. While seeds are generally not that expensive, buying them will add up throughout a lifetime.
- Grow rare or unique seeds: Heirloom plants are often passed down within a family and can’t be bought in the store. These seeds are a real treasure; they have their own history and provide a unique growing experience. This is also a great way to produce something that is truly your own, as no one else might have the same seeds as you do after multiple years of seed saving.
- More Biodiversity: Open-pollinated plants help to introduce more Biodiversity in your local ecosystem, esp., naturally accruing Cross-pollinations help to create new varieties. I also tend to plant more if I’ve got the seeds lying around, making my garden more diverse in the process.
- Learn a lot about your plants: Following your plants from seed to fruit and back to seed is a precious lesson for every grower. It helps to understand how and where your food comes from and also provides you with lots of insight into the plants you are growing.
- Producing seeds is easy: Collecting and saving seeds are quite easy to do, and a single plant provides enough seeds for the years to come.
- Preserve seeds for future generations: Some seeds are almost extinct, but preserving those seeds and passing them down will help to keep some of the rare varieties alive. We would have a lot less crop-diversity if not for the dedicated growers, who kept their heirloom plants going for multiple decades.
- You can influence the plants you grow: You can choose what traits you want to select in your plants, unlike store-bought seeds, where just get what you buy.
How to save Heirloom seeds
Saving seeds can be an intimidating task if you’ve never done it before. But luckily, it’s actually quite easy once you get the hang of it. There are a lot of different ways to save seeds, and most of them work great. It’s best if you just try a couple of different methods and see what works best for you. So how do I save my seeds?
Not all seeds can be collected the same way; I generally divide seeds into two groups. Dry Seeds come from flowers and can be found in plants like lettuce, beans, and brussels sprouts. Wet Seeds are found in fruits, so plants like Tomatoes, Cucumbers, and Zucchini are some excellent examples of this type of seed.
So how do you save your seeds and what is the difference between saving seeds from both these types?
Dry Seeds are plants like Carrots, Lettuces, Beats, Beans, Broccoli, Radishes, Herbs, and flowers
Dry seeds are generally found on plants that don’t bear any fruit. To harvest their seeds, make sure to let them complete their whole life cycle. For those plants, you want to let them produce flowers -or bolt. The seeds you wish to collect can be found in those flowers, so once they mature, pick the flower heads and separate the seeds. Bean-like seeds are handled in quite a similar fashion, simply let the seedpod dry on the plant and collect the dried seeds.
Step by Step guide:
- Let the plant mature: Usually, we pick and eat vegetables like Lettuce and Carrots way before the life-cycle of the plant is completed. However, seeds are only produced towards the end of a plant’s life. You have to let them continue to grow beyond the point when you usually would harvest the plant so seeds can start to form.
- Help the plant to produce flowers: Vernalization is an essential step for the plant to develop flowers and seeds. Biennial plants require two months below 15°C (59°F) to enter the final stage of their life-cycle. Your root vegetables can survive winter in Zona 5a and above, but might need a hand in very rough years. Other plants produce flowers within one growing season; for those, no additional steps are required.
- Wait until the seeds are ready: You can harvest the seeds when the flowers of your plants start to dry up. At this point, take a scissor and cut off the stems. All the Flowers developed at different speeds, so don’t worry if some of the seed pods aren’t fully matured. To harvest seeds from Beans, simply leave the seedpod on the vine until its completely dried up.
- Collect and store the seeds: I prefer to collect seeds indoors, so the wind doesn’t blow them away. Gently pick apart the mature flowers onto a sheet of paper. Next, simply separate the seeds from the leftover flower part and store them appropriately.
Wet Seeds are from plants like Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Zucchinis, Eggplants, Squash. All these fruits have a protective coating around the seed, which is necessary to survive digestion.
For fruit-bearing plants, let the fruit mature on the plant for as long as possible. Once the fruit is fully matured, pick it and start to separate the seeds. To preserve the seed, let them ferment for a few days, dry them up, and seal them in a plastic bag.
Step by Step guide:
- Make sure your fruit is completely ripe: Let your fruit stay on the plant for as long as possible. Pick the fruit, once its skin starts to develop some wrinkles and make sure it’s not rotting yet. By letting the fruit stay longer on the vine, you ensure the seeds get enough time to mature.
- Separate the Seeds: Once inside, open up the fruit. The outer skin might be really though, depending on the type of fruit, making it quite hard to cut into them. Once the fruit is open, I use a spoon for scratching out all the seeds into a mason jar (or any other container). Next, you need to ferment your seeds to remove the protective layer around the seed. For plants like Peppers, Zucchinis, and Squash, it’s a lot easier to save the seeds. There is no need to ferment them simply separate the seeds and place them onto a paper towel to let them dry for a couple of days. Once most of the moisture is gone, you can simply store them as mentioned later.
- Ferment the Seeds: Fermenting seeds is actually quite an easy task, simply add about 250ml (1 cup) of water to the mason jar. Now you just have to wait for 2-3 days to help the process stir the jars once or twice a day. Remember to label your jars; otherwise, you might mix them up. After the seeds finished to ferment, remove anything floating on the top, this is a mixture of unviable seeds and the leftover of the protective coating. Empty the rest of the mason jar into a fine strainer and rinse the seeds to remove any leftover gunk.
- Dry the Seeds: After your seeds are clean, you want to dry them. I usually spread out the seeds on a couple of paper towels. Make sure the seeds aren’t stacked on one another; otherwise, they might mold. Put them in a dry, cool place without any direct sunlight (they might sprout). I usually place them near the oven or heater.
- Store the Seeds: All that’s left to do now is to store them properly
So, now you have some beautiful seeds to grow next year, but how do you store them?
How to store Heirloom seeds
Properly storing your seeds is the most critical step when you produce your own. Otherwise, they might start to germinate way too early or die off, making all the work go to waste.
The best place to store seeds is in a dry, cool place. It’s essential to reduce the moisture around your seeds. The best way to do so is by using plastic bags.
I tend to write the variety directly on the bag or add a small paper with the name on it. I also like to add a little checkbox to note if the seeds come from a cross-pollinated flower. After growing the first batch from the seeds, I can go back and write down if the plants are true-to-type or not.
How long will Heirloom seeds last
So now we have collected our seeds and stored them properly in a dry, cool place. But how long will they last?
Seeds can last for several years before the germination rate reaches almost zero. Normally seeds younger than six years will grow just fine if they are stored under the right conditions (dry and cool). Older seeds might have a very low germination rate but are often still viable.
But sometimes seeds can last a whole lot longer, here is an awesome video from MIgardener sprouting 87year old seeds.
Where can you get good heirloom seeds? There are a lot of great online seed companies, but the one I can recommend the most is Baker Creek. Their seeds are high-quality, and they offer a massive arrangement of different varieties. However, prices are a bit higher compared to some other sites.
Fermenting lids: A great way to deal with excess fruit flies during fermentation, is to use fermentation lids (Link to Amazon). These lids let the gasses in the jar escape but prevent flies and other insects from entering.
Cross-Pollination bags: Cross-Pollination bags are a great way to prevent pollen from getting to your flowers. They are very cheap and easy to apply, and hardly any effort. Here’s a link to amazon if you want to check them out.