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Selective Seed Saving: Plant hybridizing anyone can do

Updated on July 24, 2014
Zinnia
Zinnia | Source

Selective seed saving is a natural consequence of hunting and gathering. It had to be an accident when a sack of collected seed gets wet, sprouts and then discarded when it became inedible that led early humans to realize they could concentrate a food crop where they wanted in an organized way. It had to have been an Ahhhh Haaaa moment for the first gardener to realize that he did not have to travel miles a day locating few and far between food plants. This is an understandable possibility. It is only natural that if an extra rich area of grain was discovered all of it would be gathered and saved for future needs. Accidents happen.

This is only one scenario of possible agricultural beginnings. Clearly it is more economical to stay in one location than to move and follow food supplies throughout a long and difficult existence. No matter how it happened over the many long centuries we did finally learn to garden and produce plant foods in enough abundance to support growing family and communities. This is where selective seed saving comes into our picture. Certainly many would not have the time or even knowledge for controlled hybridizing. I’m not saying we did not know how to do this only that if we did it was not something common food producing peoples would have done. They did however have the ability and knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation of how to collect, save and prepare seed for a new season’s planting.

Selective seed saving then would have relied upon a folklore method of operation. We would know through story and allegory how to perform this task. This advice has been found in old preserved writings. Saving seed for the next season would become a natural consequence of gardening. Saved seed was power. It meant the difference between life and death. In addition to personal seed saving, community officials had the means to protect and then distribute seed safely in the event of political upheaval or war.

Another Zinnia
Another Zinnia | Source

Selective seed saving reflects fashion or cultural trends too. By saving seed from plants we considered representative of ideal qualities we could over a longer time than controlled hybridizing still affect change. For example a particular cabbage may have the texture a cook likes in a dish but may not like the bitterness. The wish for a sweeter cabbage with the same firm texture then would result from years of seed saving for these qualities. Let this be your guide. Let your wish and desires guide you to save seed from plants you select that represent your idea of worth. I have used this technique for years so that I now have two types of cleome. I have one that produces a deep reddish purple flower. I also have seed that produces a pale lavender flower I call my ghost cleome. Each stand is separated by a distance great enough to reduce cross pollination. I save seed from the most representative individual cleome that most closely represents the color I want.

Purple cleome
Purple cleome | Source
"Ghost" cleome
"Ghost" cleome | Source

In the photos for this article you will notice most are zinnias. I love these flowers. They fill in the riot of color needed in the yard after my daylilies are ending their flowering. If zinnias were a food plant I would eat those plants I did not want to save for seed so that the ones I like have more room to grow. In other words our ancestors would have eaten the weak and small examples of a food plant first. This would provide more room for superior plant growth for the rest of the crop. The natural seed collection then would come from the last standing food plant of a particular type. As a cash crop, people in markets purchased the nicest foods leaving the weak. This is another reason I believe was the way we evolved our seed saving strategies.


tag in zinnia
tag in zinnia | Source

You will notice in these images that I have some colored plastic markers on some of the plants. Because I am not removing the weaker like a food crop I want to make sure I save seed from those plants with a tag when it is time to do this. These tags are such that I do not see them nestled in the luxurious growth during peak bloom. I mark them on occasion throughout the bloom season. I have a small amount of labels and tag the stems of those flowers I think are exceptional that day. Sometimes it is the form. I like zinnias that are fully double and large. Sometimes I mark a flower because of its color. While I do not particularly like yellows and oranges I do mark a few that have nice form and size. I want to have an abundance of color next year and I am assured this without even knowing how color is passed from one generation to the next for zinnias. If I mix all my saved seed together and all colors are represented from the previous summer in my mix then I am assured of the widest possible color possibilities.

Late summer when the plants are all dying back and the seed heads are ripened I can see the plastic tags and know which plants to save seed from. I find that I save more seed from plants that have more individual tags that those plants that have fewer tags. Still I try and save seed from each and every zinnia I have tagged. I avoid saving seed from untagged plants. In this way I am gradually producing a flower I like. For me this means bright, fully double, large and with the least amount of mildewed leaves. I didn’t have to know anything more about what seed to save than what I most wanted next season in my garden.

It is not too late to begin an active seed saving program this year. It is economical, educational (for you and young children too) not time consuming in any way except perhaps when it comes to cleaning the seed. Even this is not terribly hard. More about this aspect and how to dry and prepare the seed for next season will be in a future post. For now, it is enough to identify and prepare to collect some seed yourself this summer and fall. This technique works for all open pollinated seed I wish to save and collect. I use this technique for my vegetables and flowers I do not have time to personally make a controlled cross.

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