Published January 2005

Gardening catalogs have been with us for weeks, and many gardeners, myself included, have already picked out and perhaps received their seeds for the spring planting.  It wasn’t always that way.  Once upon a time most green thumbers gathered seeds from their own gardens, dried and put them away in a cool, dark place, and used the lot for the next years planting.  Pumpkin and squash seeds, green beans, sweet corn, onions, lettuce, and plenty more were carefully labeled and put in their own little packets.  We don’t do that much, anymore.

 The problem is a simple one.  Other than the fact that many gardeners don’t want to take the trouble, most of the seeds we plant each year are F-1 hybrids.  Whether they be Early Girl tomatoes or dark purple peppers, they’re hybrids and that means they had two parents (even more) that were selected for anything from resistance to disease to thickness of skin and ease of commercial picking.

 If you dry and plant seeds from F-1 hybrids you’re likely to get anything, a miserable plant that was one parent, or another than might or might not be useful.  The other choice is to plant and keep seeds from open pollinated plants, most of them old timers, and usually called heirloom types.  These heirloom plants have been around for anywhere from 20 to over 100 years, producing faithfully the same vegetables that your grandfather enjoyed.

 If heirloom plants have a problem, it’s that they too often don’t have the disease resistance or perhaps tough skin needed for commercial picking, but might instead have a delicious flavor that your elders once treasured.  Tomatoes are a classic example.  Buy some at your supermarket these days and if you close your eyes and bite, you’ll possibly not know that they’re tomatoes.  They’re not bred for flavor, but for ease in picking, etc. and are likely to taste like cardboard.

Even with open pollinated plants, you can get differences, and some gardeners like those differences fine.  Plant your own and choose only seeds from those that are very early and/or flavorsome, and/or have other attributes that you particularly treasure and you’ll end up with a plant ideal for northcentral Ohio, but maybe not good for Maine or Alabama.  But that’s okay, because those folk are picking their own special plants and developing some ideal for their own climate.

There’s nothing wrong with F-1 hybrids if you pick them carefully, and each year most of those I plant are exactly that.  Particularly if they’re disease resistant and have other useful attributes.  But this year I saved open pollinated pumpkin seeds and some years I save others like those for acorn and butternut squash.  Bean seeds are worth a thought, too. 

In years past I’ve more than once chosen green bean seeds from catalogs that were supposed to be wondrous and produce heavy crops with little injury from insects or disease.  And often enough they didn’t grow well or even sprout.  I still plant those seeds most years, but now I plant an old time reliable in a row or two like Blue Lake or Tendercrop, which are almost certain to grow and produce.  Also such ancients as black seeded Simpson lettuce and Detroit dark red beets or always productive Little Marvel  peas.  It’s fun to experiment and nice when you win, but the old time open pollinated types will always have their place.

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