10 August 2011

Go ahead, save seeds from your hybrid tomatoes!

Everyone knows you can't save seeds from hybrid varieties. It is practically the first thing you learn as about seed saving. Too bad it isn't true. Not only can you save seeds from a hybrid tomato and many other vegetables and flowers, the result will usually be something you'll like better than the hybrid you started with.

F1 hybrid varieties were first created because they have hybrid vigor, which is just another way of saying that they aren't inbred. Inbreeding, as we all know, isn't a good thing, generally resulting in unhealthy individuals. That's why we don't marry out sisters and why purebred dogs don't live as long as mutts. F1 hybrid varieties are a way to bring the health of mutts to a uniform variety. (How that works).

In the plant world, however, things are a little different. Some plants, like corn, are called outcrossers and act like us and dogs. Their flowers are set up in a way to maximize the chance that they get pollinated by another, hopefully unrelated, plant. These types of plants show very strong inbreeding depression, so hybrid varieties are significantly more vigorous than an inbred equivalent. Other plants, including tomatoes, peppers, beans, and lettuce, are selfers. Rather than working hard to get the wind or bees to carry their pollen to another flower, they just self pollinate, naturally inbreeding in the most extreme way possible. As a result, their genomes have adapted to tolerate inbreeding, meaning hybrids varieties don't show significant increase in vigor.

Why then, hybrid tomato varieties? Why do seed companies go to all the effort of hybrid seeds when a inbred variety would work just as well? Simply put, because you “can't save seeds from them.” Introducing hybrids is a way for plant breeding companies to protect their varieties from other companies taking what they've created. Since 'Early Girl' is a hybrid, the only way to produce more 'Early Girl' seeds is to have access to the two parent plants used to create it, parent plants that you can bet Burpee is very careful no one else is ever going to get ahold of.

When you save seeds from a hybrid variety like 'Early Girl', you'll get a range of different plants, none will be exactly the same as 'Early Girl' itself. Fruits will be a little bigger or smaller, sweeter or tarter, everything will differ to some degree. However, the traits you saw in the F1 parents plant will be essentially the C average for what you'll see in next generation. Despite the variability, it usually isn't hard to select out a plant that is very similar to the hybrid variety you liked so much.

It is even easier, though, to pick out a plant that you like better than the hybrid variety it came from. Professional breeders have create varieties based on what they think the average gardener and will grow over as wide a part of the country as possible. But you aren't an average gardener, and you only garden in one spot. Maybe you'd like something bigger for slicing on a sandwich or something smaller for eating out of hand, sweeter or more acidic, drought tolerant or the ability to grow through chilly wet weather. Grow out at least half a dozen seedlings from a hybrid variety, and you get the chance to customize it for your climate, your soil, and your tastebuds. Keep saving seeds from your favorite individuals, and after a few years, you'll have a new variety, one that will perform and taste better for you than the hybrid it came from. Give is a name, share it with your friends, pass it on to you children, and you've just created your own heirloom.

Go ahead. Save those seeds!

12 comments:

Green Zebra Market Garden said...

Great thoughts! Now if I could just find a hybrid that I liked enough to do this with...

Carlie said...

Way to bash that myth about hybrids not being seed-savable. That drives me crazy every time I hear it.

Nice illustration photo too. Made me smile to see all that variation.

Greensparrow said...

Green Zebra,
Well, that's why you make your own hybrids! How's that going, by the way?

Carlie,
Thanks! The photo is from a population I grew last year. Variation like that is SO much fun. I love tasting my way through them.

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Amen. I've been grafting tomato plants for my CSA which is run by a former grower for the large Mexican operations. I bought some F1 Maxifort rootstock plants for the initial graft batch, at $21 per 50 seeds from Johnny's. We're planning to let some a couple of the rootstock plants grow and set fruit to harvest the seed and experiment with what comes. It may not be as vigorous as the Maxifort, but may do just fine for grafting purposes. He grows over 200 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and 42¢ a seed plus grafting materials just isn't viable.

Greensparrow said...

Susan,
That's an interesting situation. I would be a little worried you'd see too much variation, and some of your seedlings will be more vigorous than others. Maybe you could grow a bigger population of ungrafted seedlings next year so you can start picking out the best of the bunch.

Greensparrow said...

Susan,
I've been looking around, and Maxifort is actually a hybrid between a regular tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and a completely different species, Solanum habrochaites, so the seedlings will probably show a HUGE range of variability. Be prepared for some of your seedlings to work great, and some not so well, and try and get seeds from the good ones.

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Thanks for the tip. The grafting question is interesting because most grafts serve two purposes: (1) A guard against soil-born diseases and (2) to increase yields. When growing with heirlooms the latter is a desirable outcome, but admittedly not as important as the first. Personally, I'm pushing to just graft the heirlooms most prone to disease or poor yields as I don't think we have the time or acreage to experiment, but it's not my farm.

meemsnyc said...

Interesting take on it. I've been wanting to save seeds from some of my hybrids but was afraid of the outcome. I just might try this with the Sungolds.

Anonymous said...

One can totally save seeds from a hybrid. But the offsprings will not be like a parent.
People tried to dehybridize Sungold tomato for years. There are multiple discussions at Tomatoville about this but the overwhelming majority thinks that even the best "kids" taste nothing like the original hybrid.

Cassy said...

Brilliant idea.
Thanks for sharing.

Cassy from Acoustic Guitar Lessons

Chris. said...

As a second year gardener I have become interested in saving my seed for next year, and I thought half the seeds I just got in the mail would be useless for this. Thanks for this article!!

MontanaDirtMan said...

I find this to be too much fun! I got a hold of a really old pack of Burpee's Pixie hybrid tomato (which is a determinate bush type) about 6 years ago. Even tough they were pre UPC code on the package they some how decided to germinate. I started saving seed from the "mutants" each year, the first seeds saved went crazy with everything from cherry sized to beefstake sized on one plant and last year was amazing. Two different indeterminate plants with gorgeous fruits one round and one sort of Roma shaped both with excellent flavor and texture, so yes go have some fun with hybrids!