Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tomato Love: Saving Seeds

When you find a tomato variety you just have to grow again because it is so delicious, or when you find an individual tomato plant that stands out above its sisters in health and productivity, you can save seeds to keep this plant's true-to-type children in your garden for years to come.

Here's how you do it:

Early in the season, when the flower buds are strong but not yet blooming, place a poly "wedding favor bag" around a flower bunch prevent any cross pollination. If a flower sets fruit inside the bag—remember, tomatoes are perfect flowers and can fertilize themselves—remove the bag and place a twist tie or similar on the stem. That is the fruit you'll save seeds from, as you know it will be pure, without any crossing with any other variety.

Once the fruit ripens to dead-, soft-, almost-exploding-all-over-itself-ripe, remove it from the plant and bring it somewhere you can work. Cut the fruit open and slip the pockets of seed and gel into a small bowl or mug, scooping out as many seeds as you can. Feel free to slurp up any remaining tongues of flesh you have left over after scooping out seeds.

Add a splash of water to the small bowl of seeds and gel so you have at least a quarter cup of liquid. Set the bowl somewhere warm but not in the sun—in an unused part of your kitchen (yeah, right), or perhaps in a shed or shady, protected place. Let the bowl set and grow mold. Depending on the temperature and time of year, that floating layer of mold can take anywhere from a day to three. If it's hot, like it is here in the summers, add water if it looks like the bowl is drying out before mold forms. Why the heck do you need to do this? Each seed in a fresh tomato sits in a tiny purse of its own gel that contains a hormone preventing the tomato from germinating inside the warm, wet fruit while it's still on the plant. However, after falling to the ground, a tomato rots, and that rotting process frees the seed from it's protective pillow, allowing it to germinate when the weather, moisture, and warmth are right. When we save seeds ourselves, we've got to emulate the rotting process by using very ripe fruit, collecting seed, and letting it mold over.

Once a thin layer of mold forms over the surface of the tomato-seed liquid, add a little more water to make it easier to work with, then carefully pour off most of the liquid. You'll have a collection of healthy seeds on the bottom of the bowl, where they've sunk. Add some more water to the bowl and swirl it around, then dump the contents of the bowl into a small, fine mesh strainer. Rinse the seeds under running water, agitating the seeds as necessary to free any clinging clumps of flesh. After the seeds are free of debris and drained, gently dump them on a piece of parchment paper.

Use pencil to label the variety name on the parchment paper, and place the paper somewhere inside your house to dry. A couple times a day, stir and break apart any clumps of seeds that form. The seeds are like velcro, and they'll want to stick to each other.

If you live somewhere warm and dry, like we do, the seeds will be thoroughly dry in a week or ten days; somewhere else, you may need to wait longer for the seeds to completely dry.

Once dry, place them in a labeled container that works for you (small sealing ziplock bags, little snapping boxes screws come in, tiny jars), and place that container somewhere even-temperatured and dark, where the seeds can survive with decent viability for seven years.


Deepa said...

Something quite lovely about moving with you through the process of seed harvesting. Slow, measured, patient, and loving indeed :)

Christina said...

Thanks, Deepa. Loving is a good word--I do care for the varieties I grow, the varieties, not the individual plants. I feel very connected to strains with histories and narratives, and I want so much to be able to protect and maintain some of these varieties.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I'm ready! Have had a sh!t load of tomatoes this year. We made a bed using your lasagna method (or someones). It worked. Now I've discovered this mid size fruit that has the most delicious flavor. Since I'm a lazy azz gardener I didn't properly label my plants. This seed saving advise is timely.

Christina said...

PA: Hooray for a sh!t load! That's fantastic! I'm glad you found varieties that fit both your palette and your garden.