Fresh Facts Week 39: Dear Uncle (Questions about Seeds)


I received this thoughtful letter this week:

Dear Uncle. I was wondering if you would ever write about seeds and if there is importance to pure seeds. I read your newsletter this week about cultures and who gardens, etc, and I realized I don’t garden because I don’t trust seeds anymore. I hear you can’t buy them “untampered” with and that they only last a season (modified) so you have to buy more seeds. 

   So bottom line, I am uneducated And if you are so inclined, I’d love to know what you think of the GMO, Monsanto rumored world of…well… seeds. Thank you, Gina.**

P.S. Coming up on 5 years I believe with you guys maybe longer. It’s my Saturday ritual.

**Name changed to keep me from embarrassing anyone.

So let’s jump into a birds and bees discussion here and we’ll start with peaches since that’s what I do.

Simplistically, all plants make seeds and in nature, they are “open pollinated” meaning wind and insects move pollen among different plants of the same species so there is diversity amongst the population. That’s wonderful from a biological perspective but a pretty tough way to grow peaches. Some would be big, others small, one tree ripe in May, the next in September.

So what peach breeders do is quite similar to cattle. You like the characteristics of this cow, and that bull so you mate the two to get a superior calf. You take the pollen from this specific peach and touch it to the stamen of that peach to get a specific result; flavor, size, timing, appearance etc. The difference will be in the seed; you have to plant and grow the seed to see the result, (it won’t be in the fruit that year.) Then when you like the result from this sexual cross, successive generations are asexual or taken from the buds of the tree you like and they will always be the same. Your roses and most all perennials are produced this way; make the controlled sexual cross to get desired results then mass reproduce asexually.

Now annuals are typically open pollinated, but when plant breeders want to develop specific traits; yield, disease resistance or whatever, they will plant the two together under cover to isolate the cross, harvest the resulting seeds and then go plant and evaluate. When you get what you want, you reproduce that seed in an area far enough away from the same species where it can’t be cross pollinated. I grew lettuce seed in another life and it was quite interesting.

The next method is “hybrid” and it always requires that this plant is crossed with that one. The hybrid corn revolution before I was born requires you plant 2 rows of one specific seed next to say 6 rows of another. You cut the tassels (pollen) off the 6 rows but leave the two as pollinators. It’s still sexual propagation but in a very controlled way. The resulting seed has very predictable uniform results and doubled and quadrupled corn yields in the day. The thing is though, while the first generation is awesome, the next open pollinated generation isn’t. In other words, you’d be disappointed if you saved that seed for planting the next year. You can tell because the seed packet will say “hybrid.”

The above methods require pollination albeit selective and function with nature’s design to achieve the desired result.

I was going to reduce the font to cram in a discussion of genetic modification, but you all deserve a more thorough understanding next week. Thank you Gina for the spark.

Author Uncle Vern

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