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

Friday, September 9, 2022

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 you've grown out several plants of the same variety, save seeds from multiple plants to keep  genetic diversity.
 
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 - Left) 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.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

Family Heirlooms - Saving Your Own Seed

Llyn, with a variety of bean seeds
In the Sharing Gardens we probably save about 80 - 90% of our own seeds. It really isn't that difficult to do and it is very gratifying to experience this deeper level of "local food self-reliance". If you have a garden plot that is separated from other gardens by at least 500 feet (to prevent unwanted cross-pollination) you can save your own seed. Even if there are other gardens nearby, there are many crops you can grow that will not cross (tomatoes, beans and onions, for example) so don't let that stop you.

There are many good reasons to save your own seed:
  • It will be more adapted to your local growing-conditions
  • You can "select" for certain qualities/characteristics (early ripening, sweetness, cold-tolerance etc)
  • The flowering plants provide food for pollinators
  • You have better control over the quality of your seed
  • You are not as dependent on supplies being available from outside sources
  • It's fun!
Chris, winnowing lettuce-seed.
Always start with Heirloom (or "open-pollinated") seed. "Hybrid" seed is developed in a carefully controlled environment that crosses unique qualities between parent-plants to yield consistent, specific results (like early-ripening "Early Girl" tomatoes). If you save seed from a hybrid plant, it is likely that it will revert back to one, or the other's parent-qualities and not give you the desired outcome. Many seed-companies will label their packets, or inform you in their catalog descriptions so you know what you are starting with;  or you can do an on-line search and have your "shopping list" handy next time you pick out seeds, or starts. Of course, once you start saving your own, you always know you've got "heirloom" seed.

Some plants easily cross-pollinate with other plants of the same family (see below). It is difficult to control the outcome of these crosses and, you won't know the results until you grow out the seed the following year. For example, many gardeners have had the experience of having a squash seed germinate in their compost pile, grow to gigantic proportions and discover at harvest time that their "zucchini" is funny shaped, or has a woody skin or poor flavor. These variations are due to cross-pollination. Peppers also cross easily so, if you grow hot- and sweet-peppers close to each other, the seed you save may either have "sweetened" your hot peppers, or "heated" up the sweet.
    Sometimes these crosses are beneficial, creating a variety that is an improvement over either of its "parents" but beneficial "crosses" are rare. Often (unless you know what you're doing) you'll end up with something that isn't quite as good as either of its parents.

    Squash-blossom with bees.
    Examples of plants that easily cross-pollinate:
    • Squash - with other squashes (some varieties won't cross with each other but for specifics, do more research HERE)
    • Cucumbers - with other varieties of cukes
    • Melons - with other varieties of melons
    • Peppers - with other peppers
    • Lettuce - with other lettuce
    • Broccoli/Cabbage/Kale/Cauliflower - with each other
    • Chard/Beets - with each other
    If you wish to save seed from the plants listed above you either need to learn which varieties cross and keep them far away from each other when they're going to seed, or grow them on alternate years.

    Some plants won't easily cross, even with other plants in the same family. Tomatoes are a good example: you can grow two, five or ten varieties in close proximity with each other and the seed you save will almost always have the same characteristics as the plant you picked it from. On rare occasions we've had tomatoes that were a 'cross' from two varieties of plants we grew the year before. (Though we haven't experienced it ourselves, we've heard that 'potato-leaf' varieties such as Stupice or Brandywine are especially susceptible to crossing.)

    Brandywine Heirloom tomatoes
    Examples of plants that won't easily cross-pollinate:
    • Tomatoes
    • Beans
    • Peas
    • Onion family (includes garlic, shallots, leeks)

    Can my garden seed cross with "weed" seed? Yes! There are wild relatives of domestic vegetables that, if flowering at the same time, can 'cross' making your seed produce fruit that is woody, or bitter or has other undesirable characteristics. Learn to identify your local weeds (especially if there are big, open fields of them nearby). Consult expert sources to learn of techniques to avoid this problem (i.e. hand pollinating, bagging the flowers, timing your bloom to avoid the wild varieties' blooming. etc). Examples: Wild lettuce can cross with domestic lettuce; Queen Anne's Lace is a wild variety of carrot.

    Dustin saving sunflower seed
    Can I "save seed" from produce I buy from the store? Sometimes, but not always. Tomatoes are often hybridized (and being "organic" does not mean they grew it from heirloom-seed). Melons are often from hybrid seed, and they may have been grown in a field next to other melons that they could have crossed with (true with squash as well). On the other hand, we have gotten excellent bean seeds at the bulk-food section of the grocery, and grown fantastic sunflowers from bulk-seed (raw and unsalted, and still in the shell -- of course.) See the article below, if you want to grow potatoes from grocery-store "seed".

    This post just covers some of the most basic aspects of seed-saving. For more detailed info, read our posts below and/or consult other sources through books or the internet.

    Please leave us comments about your own experiences of saving seed below. It's great when we can all learn from each other!

    Here are several posts we've written that include information on saving seed: (click on the bolded text.)

    Tomato Seeds: Tomatoes are a good plant to start with if you're learning to save seed. As long as you know that the plant you're saving from is not hybrid (see above) you are bound to be successful!



    Lettuce: Just be sure you save seed from only one variety of lettuce at a time (it crosses easily if plants are closer than 50-feet apart). With one plant you can save enough seed to keep you, and your whole neighborhood (!) supplied with seed for several seasons to come.


    Peas: are easy (if you can restrain yourself from picking every last ripe pea-pod <smile>). Be sure to follow the instructions in the post and, once the seed is fully ripened and dry, freeze the seed to prevent pea-weevil larvae from ruining your batch.


    Scarlet Runner Beans: Beautiful red blossoms, big seeds (easy to harvest and dry) and the most delicious bean we know of...what's not to like!





    Potatoes: If you're already growing potatoes, saving seed is as simple as sorting out the smaller egg-sized ones and storing them till next season. You can also find seed-potatoes in the organic section of your grocer's in the spring.


    Saving your own seed is only one of the many benefits of a sharing-type garden (one big garden, instead of many separate plots). To read about how a sharing garden works, and many of its other benefits, CLICK HERE- Overview of the Sharing Gardens).


    Ismael trimming dill seed-heads; lettuce going to seed in lower-left corner.


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    Thursday, September 1, 2022

    Re-Purposing Things

    (Re-posted from 2011) Most people have heard of the terms: Reduce, Re-use and Recycle. I just heard of a new term for something I've been doing for years and that is to "Re-Purpose". This means that you find a new purpose for things than they were originally intended, thereby keeping them out of the waste stream. Gardens provide fantastic opportunities for re-purposing. Below are some pictures of some of our re-purposed items.

    Seedling starts in tofu containers. We drill holes in the bottom for drainage.



    Cut a hook-shape off the ends of plastic coat-hangers. These make great hooks to keep soaker-hoses in-place.


    Twist-ties have hundreds of uses in the garden. Here we are fashioning a pole-bean trellis out of bamboo.



    Here in the country, bailing twine is plentiful. We clip the bails close to the knots and then tie the twine end-to-end and wrap it around pvc-pipe for use in staking out rows etc. (A great rainy-day project or when it's too hot to be in the garden and you need an excuse to sit in the shade for a bit.)



    Lastly, ever wonder what to use empty soy-milk containers for? We rinse them out really well, and pull them out flat (open up the folded corners and they flatten easily). You can cut them with scissors or, if you have access to a chop-saw, you can cut the ends off ten or more at-a-time.



    When we first transplant young seedlings of lettuce or kale or any tender, young plants that are susceptible to cut-worms, slugs, bunnies or intense weather, we use the containers as a collar around the plant.

    Check carefully to remove any slugs or unwanted bugs from around the base of the plant. Also pull away any clods of dirt or leaves they may be hiding under (you don't want to trap the pests in with your tender seedlings!) Open the container and  slip it around the plant and pin it in place with slender stakes, bamboo branches or some other narrow sticks at two corners. Make sure the collar comes in contact with the soil to keep insects from crawling underneath.  This technique also provides a micro-climate for your seedlings, protecting them from high winds. The foil liner of the containers reflect sunlight so the plants receive plenty of sun while they're small.


    Soon they'll be peaking over the top and you can gently slip the collar off. Milk cartons work too. Milk cartons are also excellent to save for freezing applesauce and other liquid/semi-liquid foods. Because of their shape they are a very efficient use of freezer-space.


    We'd love to see and share your ideas. Send us a photo and a short description and we'll share your ideas with others through our website. Just drop us an email: ShareInJoy@gmail.com -- Our website is http://www.TheSharingGardens.blogspot.com/

    Below is a link to an interesting article about a guy who gave me the idea for the term: re-purposing. He has built a sail-boat out of soda and water-bottles (called "Plastiki"). He's using it to bring awareness to the environmental problems posed by single-use plastic bottles.
    http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=3717