Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya
Suppose you are an avid supporter of local food. You get your vegetables from the local farmer’s market or CSA, your eggs from your neighbor’s free range chickens, and your bacon from a pastured hog farm where you know the pigs by name. Maybe you’re thinking about taking the next step toward really, really local food–growing it in your own backyard. Or maybe you’ve been gardening for a while and you’re ready to try your hand at saving seeds from your favorite vegetables from season to season, in the process creating locally adapted lines that thrive in your region without the need for heavy applications of pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers.
Well, I am here to help and encourage. Saving seeds from our best vegetables and growing them ourselves is a serious exercise in ProFood principles. ProFood is a growing movement invigorating local and sustainable food systems. ProFood is pro-farmer, or pro-gardener in the case of backyard growers, and saving and growing your own seeds keeps you in control of what is planted and keeps corporations like Monsanto out. It is pro-consumer, pro-cooking and pro-eating, all of which are supported by learning to grow and prepare food ourselves, bringing the freshest, tastiest local produce to the table in the process. ProFood is also an entrepreneurial movement spurring innovation and change within the food system by focusing on developing an alternative, local system and the home grower can become the first link in that new chain. And don’t forget, when those bushels of tomatoes come rolling in around August, you can foster a wonderful ProFood sense of community involvement by sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors.
Tomatoes are generally the first vegetable that people think of when they consider a backyard garden. They’re tasty, popular, and generally easy to grow. The only issue is that some people may be turned off by growing them from seed or saving tomato seeds because it seems complicated and time-consuming, so they resort to buying transplants instead. Problem is, many transplants that you find in stores come from big, commercial nurseries hundreds or thousands of miles away, which may go against the grain of the local, sustainable food movement. Your food dollars are still flowing out of your community, even if the food in question is not quite ready for the plate.
The solution is growing and saving your own tomato seeds. It’s not an arcane science or incredibly difficult, I promise. It’s something anyone can do. You can save seeds this summer from the plants in your garden or even from tomatoes you’ve purchased at the farmer’s market– any ripe tomato will do (see note below about tomato varieties). If you’re saving from your own garden, be sure to select the biggest, healthiest, tastiest plants you have to ensure you’re passing along a robust genetic line. Decide how many tomatoes you want to save from (I usually figure 50-75 good seeds from a Brandywine type, less for smaller tomatoes). From there, it’s just three easy steps involving only about twenty minutes of actual hands-on time to save hundreds of seeds.
Step One: Collecting the seeds
The easiest way to collect seeds from a tomato is simply to slice the fruit in half across the equator and squeeze the ‘goopy guts’ into a bowl. Use your fingers or a spoon to scrape out any stragglers.
Step Two: Fermenting
This is the step where many would-be seed savers get confused or intimidated, thinking it sounds way too complicated, but I’m here to tell you it’s not! You simply have to provide the right environment (a jar and a bit of sunlight) and Mother Nature takes care of the rest. Fermenting is an essential step to remove the jelly-like goo surrounding each seed in order that the seed may germinate and to destroy any disease-causing bacterial or fungal spores that might be hitching a ride.
Transfer your tomato goop into a clear jar, preferably glass, and add a bit of water– you want the consistency runny. Cover the top of the jar with a breathable material like cotton cloth. You can use plastic wrap if that’s what you have on hand, just make sure to poke a few holes in it first.
Now just leave it on a sunny windowsill for about three days. Try to remember to give it a little shake and swirl each day. The top of the mixture will start to look a little scummy and it will smell pretty gross– this is alright! It’s exactly what is supposed to happen. When the process is finished, you should see the good seeds on the bottom with a layer of thick pulp and mold sitting on top.
Carefully pour out the top layer of pulp (it’s great for the compost pile!) and floating seeds (these are not viable and will not germinate). Add a little more water to the jar, swish for a minute, and carefully pour out again. Repeat this until the water in the jar comes out clear. Then, pour the contents of the jar through a strainer to drain the seeds.
Step Three: Drying
The last step is as easy as it sounds. Arrange the seeds in a single layer on a breathable material like paper towels, coffee filters, or a paper plate. Leave in a warm place out of direct sunlight. It helps to have air circulating underneath as well. You can lay paper towels on a cookie cooling rack so that there is adequate air circulation all around or make sure to remember to give the seeds a stir every day so that all sides get some air flow. Depending on humidity, it could take a few days to two weeks for your seeds to be completely dry. You’ll know they’re ready for storage when they not only feel dry, but they are light and easily scoot across the plate or towel when you give it a little shimmy.
That’s it! Now your seeds are ready to be stored until planting time next spring. You can use the small paper or plastic envelopes found in craft stores, or make your own. Store them in a cool, dry place, preferably in an airtight bin to keep the humidity out. Make sure you label them well to prevent any later confusion!
A note about tomato varieties: For the very best results of your seed-saving efforts, try to find heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. These have been bred and inbred over generations to produce consistent and genetically similar seedlings. You can be sure seeds from your Cherokee Purple will produce Cherokee Purple babies.
Hybrid tomatoes are produced through cross-pollination of two different varieties and seeds from hybrids do not generally produce seedlings consistent with the parent type, or, in gardening terms, they don’t “come true” from seed. They tend to revert to the genetic traits of the hybrid’s parent plants, which may not be awful, but it will be unpredictable and probably not as desirable. Also, in a final note, many hybrids are patented or corporate owned. For instance, the popular Early Girl hybrid tomato is owned by Monsanto, whose life-patents and petrochemical dependence make them the very opposite of ProFood.
Check the Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirlooms, J.L. Hudson, Organic Heirlooms or Freedom Seeds for non-patented, non-corporate, heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.
Joya- Great article. Saving seeds is a great Pro Food act. As Pro Food evolves it seems to me that much of the education is about re-education. Our modern culture wooed us with convenience, and as a result we handed over control to the people willing to take it. Saving seeds is a way to take back some of that control.
Finding a local group of people who swap seeds can also be a help in the seed saving process. As well written as your post was there are people who would love an in-person, step-by-step of the process. There’s a group in my town that gets together once a month from January to May and trades seeds, holds demos for planting, and shares gardening stories. It’s always a lot of fun and it’s pretty educational, too.
Is that a Hillbilly tomato in the picture?
Stephen- Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are so right about the re-education aspect of food and self-sufficiency. It seems that many of the skills I’m learning in adulthood were just plain common sense to my grandmother, but that knowledge was completely lost by my parents’ generation.
Finding a good group of like-minded gardeners and seed-savers has been a life-saver to me. If I may plug another website for a moment, I use http://www.davesgarden.com to share info, swap plants and seeds, and connect face-to-face with other gardeners in my region. I think it’s wonderful that you have such an active group in your town!
Yes, that’s a Hillbilly.
Thanks again, Stephen!
Quite Contrary Gardens
I grow a nice variety of heirloom tomatoes at my home garden and when I researched saving seeds learned that unless you have each variety isolated then the seeds won’t be true. Can anyone verify or denounce this?
When grown next to each other without any precaution taken, there is bound to be a small level of cross-pollination. Heirlooms, because of their flower physiology, are less likely to cross than some modern hybrids, but even so you could expect a cross rate of about 5%.
There are several measures you can take to reduce the chance of crosses. A buffer zone of at least fifteen feet of other flowering vegetables or flowers is generally sufficient to prevent most crosses. Or, to assure complete genetic purity, you can bag blooms, ie cover them with a light material before they open and remove once the flower fades. You can use cheesecloth, nylon, tulle, or a floating row cover if you have any. Since tomatoes are self-pollinated, they do not need contact with a pollinator to set fruit, just make sure to give branches with bagged blooms a good shake to ensure mechanical pollination.
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Great article, Joya, thanks for taking the mystery out of growing tomatoes from seeds. Your pictures and simple descriptions are easy to follow.
A friend asked why his homegrown heirlooms were mealy the other day, and I wondered if the fact that a tomato is an heirloom makes it any less likely to become mealy or mushy. Do you know?
Some types of tomatoes may be more prone to mealiness than others. I’ve found that early producers that may start setting fruit while nights are still cool are often mealy at first. But, I find the main cause of mealy tomatoes in the garden is overwatering, which can be hard to avoid during wet summers like we’ve had in the Northeast.
Welcome to the growing stable of ProFood bloggers and blogettes. This is a really great piece, another milestone in ProFood’s development. Your voice is an important one and I foresee, using my swamiji foresight, great things from you. Your knowledge, coupled with your easygoing and no-nonsense writing style, is just the kind of thing we need to grow this community and repair America’s broken food system
Thanks, Zach! That means a lot coming from a ProFood ‘prophet’ like you!
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Thank you, thank you, thank you! I actually JUST sat down at the computer to hunt up the ‘how to’ of saving tomato seed. What a WONDERFUL piece, so encouraging, and I will definitely be passing this on!
Pro Real Food Blessings…
Thank you so much for the kind words! I’m glad you found it helpful.
Fantastic and well worded article on something that confuses even some seasoned gardeners. Will definitely be sending a link your way.
Thank you so much, Michael. I think a lot of times, we end up psyching ourselves out of trying things because they seem complicated from the outside. Sometimes the best thing to do is just dive right in!
Terrific ProFood article, Joya! I had no idea how easy it is to save tomato seeds, but I’m going to start with the very next tomato I pick.
I’m glad I could inspire you!
Seed saving is a very important skill that should be revived in these days of Monsanto and their ilk.
It’s also a great way to feel a connection with previous generations and simpler times.
You’re absolutely right. Maintaining freedom, choice and diversity in the food we grow is of the utmost importance. I hope that as more and more gardens spring up across the country and more people take to saving their own seeds, we’ll begin to rebuild the diversity of vegetables that we have lost to industrial food and create a new generation of regionally adapted ‘heirlooms’ and a new generations of farmers and gardeners with the knowledge and skills to keep them going.
What a great post. This is one of the next steps I’ve been wanting to do. Save my own seeds. However, I still have a lot to learn about cross pollinating and the such 😉
Thank you for sharing this link on Twitter! I LOVE IT … and can’t wait to use this technique for my own seed saving projects.