A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Saving Tomato Seeds

Striped German - Heirloom tomato
One of the missions of the Sharing Gardens is to educate people about the importance of seed-saving and to offer techniques to demystify this process. Today's blog covers the practical steps necessary for saving one of the home-gardener's favorite fruits: the tomato! If you're new to seed-saving tomatoes are good to start with because of their relative simplicity.

In order to save seeds that will "grow true" and produce fruit similar to the one you saved seeds from, you must start with an "heirloom" or "open-pollinated" (OP) variety (not hybrid). Hybrid seeds are artificially created by seed companies to produce plants with unique qualities (early ripening, bug resistance etc). The problem is that they don't "breed true". If you save seed from hybrids, next year's plants may or may not be what you want. If you wish to save seeds, choose seeds or starts that say "open pollinated", OP, heirloom or non-hybrid.
"Heirloom" tomatoes come in all types: here are large paste-tomatoes called "Long Toms"
OK, so lets say you have grown some beautiful heirloom tomatoes and you're ready to save seeds. If you have more than one plant to pick from, choose the plant that is healthiest, most robust, earliest to ripen and with the largest and/or best-tasting fruit. Then, pick one or two fruits that are the best examples of these same qualities.. If there are other people who harvest from your garden, put a twist-tie, or in some other way mark the fruit so no one picks it prematurely. We often use onion or citrus bags (plastic, stretchy netting) so we can actually cover the fruit, making it clear that it's not to be picked. Let the fruit come to fullest maturity possible. It's OK even if it starts to rot a little.

Black Krim (below) and Striped German
Here are two heirloom tomato varieties we saved for seed this year (right). We saved them as beautiful examples of color, juiciness and size. That's a Black Krim on the bottom and a Striped German on the top.

In saving seed, you wish to mimic nature's process. Have you ever noticed what happens to the tomatoes left in the garden after the first frost? They turn to a slimy mush, with the fruit eventually dissolving away from the seed. In the following year, robust little volunteers emerge from where the tomato rotted. The way we mimic this process: Remove the stem from your chosen tomato and put it in the blender with enough water to fill a quart jar. Whiz it in the blender, at a low speed, just long enough to separate seeds from fruit. Don't worry about the seeds. They have a protective gel that keeps the blades from harming them. Pour them into a wide-mouth glass jar. Be sure to swirl the blender as you pour the last liquid out so no seeds are left in the bottom. If you're processing more than one tomato variety in a row, rinse the blender well so you don't mix seed varieties. Label the jar so you remember the variety of seeds you're saving.

The next step is to leave them to "rot". To minimize fruit-flies secure a piece of cheese cloth over the opening with a rubber-band or canning-jar ring. Leave them in the open jar for 4-7 days. When it's warm outside, the process will go faster. Stir them once or twice a day with a chopstick to help separate the seed from the pulp. The pulp and non-viable seeds will form a layer at the top. The healthy seeds will sink to the bottom. Look for a nice scum to form on the top. Mold is OK. The picture on the left is of two varieties of tomato seeds in process. The ones on the right were just blended so no layers have formed. The ones on the left have been sitting a few days. The other picture shows the quality of the scum that has formed on the tomatoes once they are ready for the next step. Notice the bubbles which indicate a mild fermentation process.













The last step is to dry the seeds. Spoon out the scum and pour off most of the water. The viable seeds will have sunk to the bottom but be careful not to pour them out with the pulp/water. Add more water, allow to settle and continue to pour off excess flesh. Repeat this process till you've removed the majority of the flesh. Then pour the seeds through a fine-mesh strainer and rinse them in the strainer. Let them drip-dry and then tap them onto a piece of tin-foil, a jar-lid or other non-porous surface. We find that the lid to a plastic tub (like a yogurt container) works best as it's flexible and we can "pop" off the seeds after they've dried. Seeds will stick to paper towel or napkins. Transfer your label to the drying seeds and leave them to dry for a week or so. Be sure they are thoroughly dry before storage so they don't mold in the bag, envelope or jar.

Each seed-saver has his or her preference for containers to store seeds in. We use clean, small plastic bags or recycled plastic pill-bottles or other small jars. The most important thing is to keep your whole seed collection in a dry, dark environment with moderate temperatures, in air-tight containers. Avoid freezing or excessive heat. Stored well, tomato seeds can remain viable for many years.

Tomato seeds drying.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Herbicide Contamination Update

This is a great 'carrot-year' for us! Just in time to help loosen Bella (5) and Adri's (6) baby-teeth.

Hello Folks! The gardens are finally really thriving this year! We've put the 'herbicide contamination debacle' behind us and are thrilled to already be eating cucumbers, potatoes, summer squash, and tomatoes daily from the gardens. That's early for us! Both our local Food Pantries have begun receiving weekly deliveries of fresh, organic produce that, along with cucumbers and squash include cabbage, beets, carrots, kale, elephant garlic and lettuce.

We feel relatively confident that we have identified the source of the herbicide contamination that devastated so many of our seedlings this year. We had made our own potting-soil from a combination of composted horse-manure combined with last-year's compost (made primarily from leaves, grass-clippings, wheat-straw and vegetable scraps) and we weren't sure which ingredient was the cause of our problems. LINK to original article

We make our compost primarily from leaves, lawn clippings, wheat-straw and food-scraps.
We are reasonably certain that the horse manure was to blame. We have a friend who brings us his composted horse manure which we have used all throughout our gardens for several years with no ill effects. He has always been very careful to bring us loads from a pile that has sit fallow for many, many years. Coincidentally, the one time he brought us a load that was from a fresher pile was the load we used to mix up all our potting soil (at least 15, five-gallon buckets!).

Herbicide contamination of tomato.
The only places we've noticed the stunting effects of the herbicide were 1) in plants grown in the potting soil we made, 2) places where we dumped the potting soil in our greenhouses,  3) where we used that batch of manure to amend soil directly. None of the places that we have used the wheat straw as mulch, or the compost we made from it have shown signs of contamination  -- unless we also used the manure in those same spots.

Our last piece of evidence that supports our theory is that our friend used some of that less-composted manure on his tomato patch and all of his tomatoes are showing strong signs of contamination (and he didn't use any of our compost, or the wheat straw we thought might be the source).

It's becoming harder and harder to find clean sources of material to use as mulch, or to build our compost piles as more and more chemicals are being used to grow food, and showing up in the environment from other sources. This herbicide contamination was a real wake-up call for us!

Will we continue to use the horse manure from our friend? We've really meditated on this. It is our intention to demonstrate a "veganic" style of agriculture that uses no livestock manures, or commercial, concentrated fertilizers. It is important to us to use local materials - like leaves and grass-clippings to create soil-fertility. We don't eat meat of any kind and feel it's hypocritical to benefit from the by-products of an industry that is not sustainable and that we don't support philosophically. Recently we did turn down an offer for a load of goat-manure to be delivered to the gardens, for these reasons. We only used a 2-pound box of commercial fertilizer to get all our seedlings started this year, which is incredible when you realize how many hundreds of seedlings we started!

A pile of our finished compost - super-food for the gardens!
For now though, we're going to continue to accept Dave's donations of horse manure. Because he saw the effects of the contamination on his own plants, we're confident that he'll only bring us manure that is thoroughly composted. With the exception of the single contaminated load, Dave's been bringing us manure that's been composting for 20-years. We don't know how much nitrogen or other nutrients are left in it, but the composted manure has a beautiful consistency that really helps "fluff" our soil which has a high clay content. Maybe when Dave runs out of manure that's sit fallow for a long time, we'll wean ourselves off this source of soil-amendment.

Note: If you are using horse manure in your own gardens, be sure it has composted for a minimum of two years but the longer the better. Also, if the pile sits out in the rain and fresh manure is added on the top, it's possible that the rain can leach the chemicals down into the older material at the bottom. If in doubt, do not  add it to your garden, or use it to start seedlings until you test it. One website we visited recommended testing the manure/soil by planting peas or beans in it which are highly susceptible to contamination and will show signs of leaf-curling once the second set of leaves begin to form.

First ripe tomatoes - July 7th!
We're happy to report that, thanks to 'volunteer' tomato seedlings that we transplanted into our greenhouses, and Steve Rose's generous donation of surplus 'starts' that we have close to 100 tomato plants growing and the first Stupice plants began producing ripe fruit in early July - right around the normal time for our greenhouse plants!