Saving Seed from Heirloom Vegetables

anovelhomestead(5)January 2, 2014

Hi, there :).

I'm really interested in growing heirloom vegetables, but I'm worried about my plants cross pollinating. We had our first garden this year and I grew three different types of heirloom pole beans. I planted them in different mounds with corn stalks as their trellis, but after doing a bit of research I'm worried they may have been cross pollinated. Is this possible?

I also read pepper plants can become cross pollinated as well. The main solutions seem to be either planting the different varieties 500' apart or use some type of bagging device to prevent insects from pollinating them. This seems like a whole lot of work. I'm mainly interested in growing heirloom seeds because I love the idea of preserving a part of history and saving my own seeds to pass on to other avid gardeners. It seems a bit disheartening to realize saving true heirloom seeds may be pretty difficult.

I guess I'm just curious how other heirloom seed savers combat cross pollination. I may be over thinking this a bit, but I guess it's disheartening to think I may not be saving heirloom seeds.

Thanks for any advice!!

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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

First step in seed saving is to understand which species of each plant family will readily cross and which will not. Part of that is understanding which flowers and vegetables are self-fertile (self-pollinating) and which are not.

EX: tomatoes and peppers are self-pollinating and do not depend on wind or insects for effective pollination. So 90-95% of the seeds produced will be pure. To insure 100% purity you either plant only one variety or best, bag blooms and save those seeds only. There are FAQs here about how to do that and it is quite easy to do. Those who want only absolute purity do it all the time. But the majority of seed savers aren't that obsessed with absolute purity since we save only for our own use. If trading with others then purity is important.

Squash on the other hand readily crosses within its own species but not with the other 4 species in the squash family. To prevent cross-pollination you grow only one variety at a time OR you plant squash from different families OR you cover/seal the blooms and hand pollinate.

These are just a couple of examples.

Second is the selection process you use to save seeds. For example, you never save from only one fruit on a plant. Instead you select several different fruits at different stages of production throughout the growing season to save from. That increases your odds of purity.

So is it possible your pole beans crossed? Some is possible but lots of CP it is unlikely as tbeans self pollinate. Best seed saving results would come from growing only one type at a time in one year, save those seeds, grow another type the following year, etc. Since seeds are viable for many years you aren't losing anything.

If you simply must plant multiple varieties and spacing isn't possible you can use insect barriers to cover, delayed planting to avoid blooming times conflicting, and even dominant wind direction planting.

Third lesson is about learning to cull crosses but that is a whole other discussion.

Hope this helps.


    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 4:33PM
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ZachS. z5 Littleton, CO

As Dave said, the self pollinating and self fertile nature of some plants makes them far less prone to crossing. All perfect flowers are self fertile since they have both male and female parts in the same flower. This increases the likelihood that when it is pollinated, the pollen is transferred only between the same plant, considerably limiting crossing.

Not all self fertile flowers are self pollinating though. For example, tomatoes (I'm going to have to disagree with Dave on this) are not a "true" self pollinator.They generally do require outside influence to release the pollen from the anther and deposit it at the stigma. The vibration caused by the buzzing of bumblebees while feeding (there's a name for this that I can't think of right now) is perfect for this type of pollination. So, a bee carrying pollen from a Cherokee purple it just buzzed at could carry some of that pollen to the mortgage lifter planted next to it and cross the two (this is compounded by the fact that literally every tomato cultivar is the same species, Solanum lycopersicum). Of course that is a purely scientific answer and the actual likelihood of this happening in the real world has far more variables involved.

I would worry even less about beans as most garden grown snap beans and peas are truly self pollinating. in They will produce a viable seed without outside action due the fact their anthers and stigmas actually touch within the flower (so that when the pollen is shed direct from one to the other). That's not to say that crossing is impossible (otherwise there would be no hybrid beans for sale) just the likelihood of it happening is even less then in a tomato.

I'm also going to have disagree with Dave as to the interspecific hybridization among squash. While there is no crossing at the family level (a watermelon can not pollinate a cucumber) and in general no ability cross within the different genre of the Cucurbitaceae family, a few different studies have shown that there is some degree of intergeneric compatibility between some species of domestic Cucurbita. The most prevalent I believe being between C. moschata, C. Pepo, and C. argyrosperma (C. pepo will very easially cross with C. texana and C. fraterna, but both of them are wild types and not generally found in the home garden). C. moschato is actually believed to be a bridge between wild and domestic squashes based on is high level of compatibility with other species. This should not however alarm you. I don't think the compatibility is so great that much more then a small percent of the time will it actually result in a viable crossed seed.

In reality, interspecific, and to a slightly lesser extent, intergeneric breeding does happen, both in the wild and in domestic settings. The question is, will differences in phenotype resulting from a cross be apparent to the naked eye? In some cases yes. The alleles will show incomplete dominance and a cross would be apparent at the F1 generation. In other instances though alleles will show complete dominance and the resulting F1 will be identical to the more dominate of the two parents. Such was the case in Gregor Mendel's classic pea experiment. Crossing a purple and white pea flower, all of the resulting F1 pea flowers were purple and white pea flowers did not show back up until the F2 generation.

So what does this mean for the home gardener? In some instances we may save seed from an inadvertent cross and the following season we would see the effect of the cross. In others however, the "visual" effects of the cross may not show up until later generations after we saved seed again (I would suspect this to be a much more prevalent problem with crosses in the same species rather then merely the same genus).

Say we again pollinate our unsuspected F1 (which looks to us to be identical to a pure butternut squash) with an actual genetically pure butternut. The completely dominate alleles could potentially repress the recessive ones again and we may never know that we in fact are breeding an impure cultivar, at least the genotypic level. The next question is does it matter? If it looks like a butternut, acts like a butternut, and tastes like a butternut, how much should we worry about the genome of our garden plants?

So I told you that story to tell you this one: First of all, this is a scientific answer and the reality is that studies done in a lab and growing vegetables in your garden are two totally separate entities. Secondly, I wouldn't be too worried. Most of our garden crops will remain true to type without much help from us. The vast majority of the time, you will be fine. There are a few cases where cross pollination is a real risk (corn and same-species squash right of my head) for the most part your going to be saving true seed. If by chance you have 3 out of 100 seeds that do not grow true, I don't think that is enough to worry about, even when sharing seeds. It may also be important to note that many of these accidental crosses have actually ended up with desirable outcomes. But, If you are still worried about saving 100% genetically pure cultivars of OP crops the preventative measures are not usually difficult, and many plants do not require much, if any.

This post was edited by ZachS on Fri, Jan 24, 14 at 17:56

    Bookmark   January 24, 2014 at 3:23PM
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I too am concerned about cross-pollination. Can I plant Scropion peppers and Haberno in the same garden and successfully save seeds?


    Bookmark   February 5, 2014 at 7:36AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Can I plant Scropion peppers and Haberno in the same garden and successfully save seeds?

Probably but there are several different varieties of both so if you are using one of the hybrid varieties they may not breed true anyway.

If you want a 100% guarantee of seed purity and they are not hybrids then just bag some of the blooms. See the FAQ on preventing cross-pollination.


    Bookmark   February 5, 2014 at 3:45PM
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This webinar from Seed Savers Exchange talks about cross pollination issues in peppers. Great info on seed saving!

Here is a link that might be useful: Pepper Seed Saving Video

    Bookmark   February 12, 2014 at 11:15PM
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Dear Zach S.,

I completely agree with your approximation of crossing C. Pepo and C. argyrosperma. The attached article notes that crosses of C. Mixta (C. argyrosperma's old name) and C. Pepo are able to cross and can be more resistant to pests than the origional C. Pepo.

Here is a link that might be useful: Plant Resistance to Insects in vegetable s for the Southern United States

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 1:43PM
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How long after harvesting seeds form tomatoes and peppers can they be planted? I would like to use seeds from this seasons harvest to plant a second crop at the end of the Summer since we have a late Winter here.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 2:35PM
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