Here is What Happens When You Save Hybrid Seeds

Reader Contribution by Don Abbott
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I recently came across a “Seeds Explained” infographic stating, “Seeds from first-generation plants can’t be saved and planted”. That’s not exactly true. You can save and grow hybrids (a cross between two distinct varieties) into plants (for the most part). Sometimes the hybrid either creates sterile offspring or doesn’t produce seeds at all.

I’m sure you’ve seen seedless watermelons, cucumbers, or zucchini. They are hybrids crossed for this purpose. Some of these (like Burpee’s ‘Sure Thing’ Zucchini) don’t need pollination to produce fruit. Seedless vegetables mitigate “bees in the greenhouse” or “pollinator shortage” situations. Except for these examples, seeds produced by hybrids will produce viable plants. They just won’t be exactly like their parents.

‘Snarky orange cherry’ tomatoes

My Hybrid-Saving Journey

Back in 2012, I was not the savvy gardener I am now. Starting my own tomatoes seemed daunting and I instead purchased them from a reliable local greenhouse. As anyone who doesn’t have a garden plan, I bought whatever tickled my fancy. Of the starts I procured, six of them were ‘SunGolds’, an orange-yellow cherry tomato known for its sweet flavor.

For some reason I got confused, thought they were determinate (i.e. only grow so tall then stop), and thus didn’t give them any support. Needless to say, I had tomatoes sprawling all over my garden’s floor (“watch your step”). By the end of the season, I made the decision to start saving seeds, but knew better than saving ‘SunGolds’ because they were F1 (first generation) hybrids.

The following spring, as I was putting in my garden, a little patch of volunteer tomatoes caught my eye. It was obvious they were ‘SunGolds’ by the orange shell that remained. A little voice in my head said “Save these and let’s see what happens.” I don’t know why I listened to Mr. Curiosity but there I was, moving the patch with a shovel and splitting it up into four pieces. Each of the 4 were then planted 5 feet apart (this time with cages – genius!). As the sections grew, I thinned the plants until I got down to 4 healthy specimens total.

As the summer progressed, all four resembled their siblings with no distinction between them. It wasn’t until they started to produce fruit that I could tell something was different. Two of the plants grew tasty orange-yellow cherry tomatoes like their parent, and the other two yielded ordinary flavorless red cherry tomatoes. My less-than-scientific guess is one of the hybrid’s parents is an orange variety and the other is a red.

Seed-Saving, Round 2

Of course Mr. Curiosity wanted to see where this was all going, so I saved seed from the two “superior” orange-yellow tomato plants. I didn’t know what to expect the following season. Would I get the same orangish fruits or a maybe a 1-for-1 mix of orange and red tomato producing plants? The only way to tell was to grow them out.

Growing out this next generation, a question I asked myself was, “Are these considered ‘SunGold’ tomatoes?” After thinking about it (and doing some research), I realized since they are not the original hybrid cross, the answer was a big “Nope!” They would be considered my own variety. Then came the next question, “What should I call them?” After a little (but not too much) thought, I settled on ‘Snarky Orange Cherry’ tomatoes. My variety would be as snarky as I am.

My extensive research (a whole two or three Internet articles) indicated this new variety wouldn’t be considered “stable” until the 7th generation. For me, that meant 6 or 7 more years of effort. Would it be worth it and did I have time for that sort of thing? Mr. Curiosity thought so. What did I have to lose, besides space in my garden (and my sanity)?

‘Snarky Orange Caprese’ tomatoes

Generations 3 and 4

I would love to say the next 2 years were event-free but that would be lying. Over the winter of 2013-2014, I decided to try an “experiment” where I grew my second generation Snarky Orange tomatoes inside using a hydroponic system called an AeroGarden. I’d grown tomatoes with this method before, but not with my own saved seed. These Snarky Orange tomatoes I grew there ended up being larger than the original SunGolds plus they had a greenish hue around the top of the fruit. Figuring this was a result of the hybrid growing out process, I named these “Snarky Orange Caprese” tomatoes as they were about that size. So now I had two different varieties – very cool.

In 2014, I took cuttings from the new “Snarky Orange Caprese” indoor plant and placed them in the garden along with my Snarky Orange Cherry tomatoes. For us here in Northeastern Ohio, that year was cool and wet, perfect conditions for tomato blight. I only saved seeds from one Snarky Orange Cherry plant which seemed to be immune to the blight, and from a few of the Snarky Orange Caprese plants that did okay but not great. It was a miserable tomato season for everyone in my area, though other vegetables (turnips, cucumbers, potatoes, and green beans) did great.

Last year (2015) was a much better season for tomatoes, especially the Snarky Orange Cherry. I planted around 20 plants and collected seeds from many of them. We had lots of rain early in the season and then drought the rest of the year into fall. I did only a little bit of watering and my Snarky Orange guys produced like champs. We had loads and loads of little round orangeish tomatoes. They garnered a 2nd place out of 6 quarts of cherry tomatoes at the county fair (I so wanted first place). We even had professional photographs taken of them. They are now feel more like my children than some silly homegrown tomato variety.

As for my Snarky Orange Caprese tomatoes, these didn’t turn out like I thought they would. I planted over a dozen of these along a fence row away from the others. They did okay but not as well as the Snarky Orange Cherries. As they fruited out, I observed something odd — 1 out of 3 every plant produced pinkish-red tomatoes. It was at that moment I figured out what originally happened that first year.

I grow a red medium-sized Amish tomato with greenish shoulders. My belief is that the SunGold crossed with these red tomatoes but not all the seeds crossed (nature is so weird). Tomatoes are normally considered “self-pollinating”, but I’ve read that an organic garden with lots of pollinators will increase your chances of hybridization. Thus, the indoor tomato plant just happened to be a hybrid (what are the chances?). Long story short, I didn’t save any of these seeds whether they be orange or pink, and now I’m down to just one single variety.

Current Season

This season will be the ‘Snarky Orange Cherry’s 5th generation. I’ll be planting a dozen or so of these in 2016 and the line will continue. Mr. Curiosity will force me to purchase some ‘SunGold’ starts, allowing for a comparison the two types. Even if the ‘Snarky Orange Cherries’ aren’t an exact copy (which I don’t expect them to be), they are wonderful variety all on their own. So the next time you grow your favorite hybrid or spot volunteers in your garden, consider saving the seed. You never know where it might lead.

If you interested in purchasing some Snarky Orange Cherry tomato seeds for yourself, please feel free to visit my site.

Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of Don’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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