If you grow your tomatoes from seed, it’s economical and very rewarding to save seeds from your favourites for future growing seasons. There are different schools of thought about the best way to go about doing this, and I thought I’d try one of the methods that I hadn’t yet attempted. In previous years, I popped out the seeds, allowed them to dry out, then saved them. Many people do this, and have no problems. Mine germinated alright, but they might have been a bit slower than usual. Hard to say, since my memory ain’t what it used to be.
Regardless, I figured I should at least try the fermentation method, since those who promote it say that the seed coats of tomatoes are covered with germination inhibitors and you’re doing the seeds a favour by removing them before drying. This should give a higher germination rate as well as a speedier germination.
So, I squeezed the seeds into a container.
Then allowed them to sit outside, covered with a hanky, for a few days. There’s a thin layer of mold on the surface here. That’s a good sign.
This mixture was dumped into a fine-mesh strainer.
Tomato seeds were washed, and the chunky fleshy bits were taken out or forced through the strainer.
Then the seeds were placed on a plate to dry.
And now they’re dry and fuzzy, ready for next year. These are seeds from the Silvery Fir Tree tomatoes. I’m happy with this variety. They are great container tomatoes with pretty feathery foliage, and are ready before any other slicing tomato. The cherry tomatoes beat them, of course, but that’s to be expected. I’m looking forward to growing them again next year.
The next step is to do a quick germination test – put them on wet paper towels until they germinate, see how many out of 10 actually sprout. I think I’ll wait until I have a few varieties saved up, and test them all at once.
My younger daughter and I are both seized by the compulsion to save seeds whenever we can. She’s a huge fan of collecting cherry, peach, and apricot pits and has amassed quite the collection so far this year. She might have to start saving up her pennies for some land, if she wants to plant them all! In the photo above she’s helping me gather garlic bulbils from the scapes that I allowed to grow on a few of my garlic plants. Bulbils take a few years, once you plant them in the ground, to form the garlic bulbs that we are accustomed to seeing. I’d like to try it, though, so I’m saving them.
Among my friends and neighbours I might be slightly eccentric and obsessive about seeds, but among seed savers I’m barely a beginner. Many people go to great lengths to squirrel away extra seeds, or unique varieties of seeds. I remember a long time ago, hearing about a woman who had saved so many seeds. Her family, when they were cleaning out her house, found them in every conceivable nook and cranny. She was saving them up, just in case.
Today there are organizations dedicated to the preservation of seeds, like Seeds of Diversity in Canada, and Seed Savers Exchange in the United States. If you become a member, you are then entitled to buy seeds from other members. All these different varieties are listed in the main catalogue that gets printed once per year. Thousands upon thousands of different seed varieties. Heaven!
It was good to see an article in the National Geographic this past month that brought the importance of seed saving and genetic diversity to light. I’d like to touch on and expand a few points they brought up.
The availability of our food may be in danger, by our own doing. Today we have so little variety, compared to variety 100 years ago, among the different types of vegetables and fruits we grow. Obviously we didn’t intend to threaten our food supply. Originally, certain varieties and hybrids were created and bred in order to help increase food yields and thus support a growing population. Intentions were noble; however, lack of genetic variability is now the problem. Most of the wheat in the world is defenceless against a stem rust fungus called Ug99, due to lack of genetic variability among the wheat.
This is how diversity protects us: it allows most of the crop to survive while a smaller portion fails due to disease or pest. Many of us have heard about the great Irish potato famine in 1845. The reason most of the potatoes in the country were destroyed by blight is lack of variability, or diversity. Everyone was growing the ‘Lumper’ potato. Lumper couldn’t handle the fungus, and so everyone in the country suffered. Millions died or were displaced by famine. That’s why it’s a good idea to mix things up, and grow many different varieties of the same type of vegetable. The more diversity we have, the better. In my opinion, if Lumper was only one of, say, ten varieties grown, there’s a good chance that most of the crop would have been saved.
The article discusses a food bank in Norway, in the permafrost of a mountain 400 feet above sea level and 700 miles from the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of 1,400 seed banks in the world, and it serves as a backup vault to preserve the varieties that could potentially contain any number of genes resistant to future diseases and pests. I think this is a great idea, but I also think it’s important to grow the seeds as well, to keep them viable. That’s what organizations like Seeds of Diversity and Seed Savers Exchange are promoting with their member catalogues. The more people grow the unique and heirloom varieties, the deeper the gene pool. Increased diversity means a greater chance that we won’t all starve.
So what can you do? Well, you already know that I think everyone should be growing something edible if they can. Trying some heirloom varieties is one way to help out. If you have the space to grow a few varieties, that’s good too. Then, if you’re really into it, save the seeds for next year.
If you can’t do these things, then support farmers who are growing heirloom varieties and buy their produce. The food ark is funny that way – if we want to save varieties, we need to eat them. Seeds can only be stored for so long until they are no longer viable. If people want to eat the heirlooms, they will be grown by farmers. Your vote is counted when you buy the food. Or the seeds/seedlings to grow it.
Last week, it was time to take the mesh covers off of my selected tomato plants. As you can see in the photo, many plants were becoming cramped under the light fabric. I felt it was important to cover them, though, in order to prevent any accidental cross-pollination of the tomatoes I wanted to save for seed.
In reading more about tomato plants and saving their seeds, I discovered that the idea of tomatoes cross-pollinating is controversial. Or has been, at least. People’s experiences vary, depending on the type of tomatoes they grow. Basically, the likelihood of crossing has to do with the length of the style. The style is the female part of the plant: it accepts the pollen. If it’s long and extends out past the male parts of the same flower, then it’s more likely to be cross-pollinated. If it’s shorter than the male anthers, it’s not very likely that any pollen other than its own will do the job.
In order to determine whether your tomatoes are more or less likely to cross-pollinate, you’ll need a magnifying glass to investigate the physical properties of the flowers. Or, you could do as I did and just cover the plants to be sure. Or, grow only one kind of heirloom or open pollinated tomato. <gasp!>
I noticed last week that tomatoes were forming under the covers, so I took off the mesh and marked the tomatoes that were formed so I would know later which ones to save the seeds from.
I am so looking forward to harvesting these seeds. Almost as much as I’m looking forward to trying all 22 varieties of tomato in my garden!!!
When the time comes, you can expect another post about the various methods of saving tomato seeds – there’s some wonderful controversy about that, too.
I love seeds.
The more I have, the better I feel.
I collected seeds from my Grandma’s Lilac tree, just to have a piece of history. In the photo above, the Lilac seeds are second from the left. Next in line, third in, are seeds from her Clematis. I’ve never tried to grow either one of these, but I’m sure going to try. My sister let me swipe the seeds from her Lovage plant, which were actually about six feet in the air on really tall stalks. These are on the far right in the photo. Last but not least, the seeds on the far left are taken out of a bundle of sweetgrass, given to me by a CSA farmer when she was showing me her medicinal garden.
Seeds are so important. They carry the genetic blueprint to the next generation, and provide us with the means to feed ourselves and our families. Not that all of us are growing all the food we need to survive nowadays. We’ve come a long way from the days of the early homesteading pioneers. I think seeds are just as important, though, and the preservation of unique and rare varieties will only happen so long as people are actually growing them. It’s a bit of a paradox: if we want to preserve heritage breeds, we need to eat them. And save a few seeds for next year.
Here are a few ways that you can be a seed scavenger:
- when you eat a pepper or tomato or any other fruit veggie, save some of the seeds to grow your own
- if you have herbs in your garden, let a few go to seed and save some seeds for next year
- you can also do the same with flowers!
- when you’re out, keep your eyes open around flowers or other plants that you like, and if you see a seed pod, bring it back with you if you can.
Tomatoes were not always as well-loved as they are today; for a time they were considered poison. They were grown as a conversation piece in a garden, but not for eating. Oh the waste!! What a fantastic fruit. I’ve been reading The Tomato Handbook by Jennifer Bennett, so much of the information in this post can be attributed to her. Historical information, that sort of thing.
I learned that the Latin scientific name, Lycopersicon esculentum, can be translated literally as ‘wolf peach edible’. Apples were called wolf peaches in the time when they were thought to be poisonous, because they are in the same family as deadly nightshade and other poisonous plants. One of these is called monkshood, which they sometimes called wolfsbane because it was so deadly it killed even the strongest and most vilified predator they knew. So that’s where the ‘wolf’ handle came from. It’s pretty obvious that the shape would give it the ‘peach’ portion of the name. And ‘edible’ is to reassure people that tomatoes are, in fact, not going to kill them. Contrary to everything they had been taught.
And the name ‘love apples’? Well, apparently tomatoes were thought to be an aphrodisiac. Hm…. well, I do have a hubby who cooks a mean pasta sauce… but is it the tomatoes that turn me on, or the fact that he’s cooking supper? Hard to tell. Jury’s still out on that one.
So, what about the useful information for today’s gardens?
Well, there are some basic qualities you should be aware of when you’re picking out love apples for your edible garden.
1. Hybrid vs. Open Pollinated
If you grow open pollinated tomato plants, you will be able to save the seeds and rest assured that you will get daughter plants that are like their parent. The tomato will breed with itself to produce the same kind of tomato. If you grow a hybrid, though, you will likely not get the same type of daughter plant from the seeds you may collect from the fruit. This is because a hybrid is a cross between two specific kinds of tomato in order to produce a tomato with exacting qualities. The genetics are a jumble, so you don’t know what you’ll get when you plant the seeds. There are many good qualities to recommend hybrid tomatoes. AND being hybrid does NOT mean the tomato is GMO. You can make your own hybrid with two varieties in your backyard if you want. However, if you want reliable seeds for saving you’ll want to make sure you’re growing open pollinated tomatoes.
2. Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Generally speaking, indeterminate tomatoes grow on the large, gangly plants that keep producing tomatoes a few at a time all throughout the summer until frost kills them. They need to be staked, and sometimes pruned. They are used in greenhouse production because they can be strung on twine and grow to 20 feet tall, and keep producing tomatoes. Determinate tomato plants tend to be small and bushy and compact. They flower and produce all their fruit at once, and then they’re done. They don’t need pruning; in fact, you should not prune them because they need all their leaves for energy production. What type you get will depend on how much room you have in your garden, and how you want your plants to grow. Do you want to stake them? Do you want them to ripen all at once? That’s a great quality in a paste tomato used for preserving sauce, but maybe not so much for a salad tomato. Or, maybe you want both. Totally up to you. There are lots of good varieties on both sides.
3. Disease resistance
If you’re looking through catalogues you’ll often see letters in the descriptions of tomato plants, that stand for various diseases that those tomatoes have bred resistance to. This is another useful thing to consider, especially if you have a part-shade garden. Most diseases can grab hold more easily when tomatoes are grown in more damp conditions. So, if you have a less-than-ideal garden situation, consider the tomatoes with more letters after their name.
4. Days to Maturity
You might want to grow a few different kinds of tomatoes, but you don’t want them all ripe at once. Take a look at the days to maturity, and choose varieties that have longer and shorter seasons so it spreads out the harvest a bit.
Best of luck with your tomatoes! Do you have any favourite varieties already? Have you found some new ones this year that you’re going to try? I’d love to hear about them, and it would be great to share with other readers too. Thanks!
Tomorrow is the Organic Stone Soup event. If you have time to come and learn more about local organic food with fun hands-on activities and family story-telling time, plus yummy organic soup, please come to Guelph! The event is sponsored by the Canadian Organic Growers. There will be a mini farmers’ market, plus some demonstrations/take-home items for the kids.
I’ll be there doing some organic gardening demonstrations. My take-home activity is a planted bean seed. In the photo above you can see my daughter modelling her trial run. I have a jar of “Surprise Me” bean seeds, which is a mix of purple, green, and yellow beans. Children will get to fill their container with soil and plant one or two of the seeds, then guess which colour the beans will be. The containers will be taped shut with masking tape so nobody ends up disappointed when their lid pops off and the contents spill all over the inside of the van.
Come if you can! Saturday, March 19, from 11 am until 2 pm at St. George’s church in Guelph: 99 Woolwich St.
Today I went to buy seeds. The ones you see in the photo were not on my list, but I couldn’t resist. They were $1.99 each, and twice the size of the usual seed packet. Lots of seeds inside too. The little wee hot red peppers looked so cute I just had to buy them to try them out. And the ‘Sweet Horn’ (Corno De Toro Giallo)? OF COURSE!! Leeks, I didn’t have – but now I do! Same with the onions. I have lots of green bunching onion seeds, but none of the regular bulb style onion.
Since there’s a bit of a language barrier between me and the seed packets, I’m not sure if they’re untreated or not. I guess I’ll find out if there are any obvious treatments when I open them up, but because I’m not sure they won’t be for sale. At least not this year – if I save my own seeds then someday down the road it’s possible. For now I’ll enjoy them and keep you posted.
And speaking of keeping you posted, I should say that I finished setting up the other half of the greenhouse shelves today in the scorching heat of the sun! Hubby had set everything up so I just needed to wedge the shelves into place. They set up and tear down fairly easily, and are braced on the sides of the greenhouse. Quite a nice piece of engineering, I have to say. He told me that if he was charging me what customers of his company usually pay for his engineering services, I would owe him $1,000 for the day.
I can’t wait to get them fully operational. I’m not sure how well you can tell in the photo, but the shelves have sides all the way around. This is to hold gravel/soil and a heating cable, so I can warm my seedlings from the bottom. I really want to get some seeds out there soon, as experiments, to see how well they grow. But we still need to purchase the cables, and possibly a thermostat of some sort (more engineering….).
I’ve been working like crazy to pull all the pieces of the seed starting kits together, and I’m happy to say that the instructions are written. At least the first good pass of them, anyway. I will probably edit them in a day or two.
Since last post I’ve also decided to include organic compost in the kits, for when the seedlings get transplanted to the outdoors. It balances the box a little better, and gives added value to the kit.
I’ve ordered boxes for the kits, and they’re arriving today sometime. Now I just need to bag soil and compost and seeds. Lots of little pieces and labour involved in putting these kits together, but I hope it will be worth it for me and for those who might be interested in them.
Starting yesterday, my time will become a more precious commodity due to all the seed starting that has happened and will be happening over the next month or two. It’s about to get pretty crazy around here! I’m also hoping to have a greenhouse open house in April, for those who might be interested in seeing the operation in action. I will be sending out that information in my email newsletter, so if you’d like to stay informed about that please sign up. There’s a link on the right ->
Since this post is a bit of a miscellaneous type, I thought I’d also let you know how my plants in the egg carton are doing. If you watched the seed starting video, you’ll know that one of the suggestions was to use these plastic egg cartons as a seed starting container, after poking holes for drainage.
As you can see, the Sage is quite happy. The plants are beginning to form true leaves, just tiny yet but they’re coming! Faster than I expected, actually.
The Rosemary that I planted in the other container is still ‘sleeping’. I checked the package, and it could take a month to germinate! I’m not worried yet. We’ll see how it goes.
I have some other baby seedlings to show you:
These are tomato seedlings that I planted in anticipation of the Organic Stone Soup event in Guelph that’s happening March 19. It’s a 3 hour event that emphasizes local organic food; there will be farmers and educators and people making ‘stone soup’. I will be there demonstrating how to grow your own food. It’s a family-friendly, hands-on event designed for kids and grownups both.
I’m hoping these seedlings will be sturdy enough to ‘transplant’ as part of the demonstrations! Cross your fingers.
First of all, it costs a lot of money and it will take a lot of my time to do all the paperwork and documentation. I didn’t take this into consideration when I set my prices for the seedlings, and I don’t feel right about increasing the prices now. I feel like it’s not fair to everyone who has looked at the catalogue and figured out what they wanted to buy.
Second, I want to make sure I do a good job of it, and I feel that having a ‘practice year’, where I follow all the rules to the best of my ability, will help me be better prepared for when I get certified for real.
So please consider me to be unofficially organic. I have gone far out of my way to ship certified organic potting soil to my yard, I use certified organic amendments like composted cow manure and fish emulsion fertilizer, and I use organic seeds wherever possible. I don’t use any synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
My plants will be labelled so you know which ones are 100% organic (non-certified, though) and which ones are started from conventional seeds. Where I use conventional seeds they are guaranteed untreated and non-GMO.
I hope this delay in certification sits well with everyone; I’m doing my best to be as certifiable as possible, and learn as much as I can this year, so when next year rolls around I will be ready for it.
I’ve put together a 5-minute video for anyone who would like a little help getting started in the world of indoor seed starting:
It’s my first attempt at a how-to video, maybe a little rough around the edges, but hopefully it will convey the information you might be looking for.
And there’s more to come!