Organic Gardening: This fall, try saving your own seeds
My friend Pasquale Ciccodicola on Detroit’s east side has been saving seeds for years, mostly from two plants: his cherished ‘Ronaldo’ tomatoes – somewhat akin to a San Marzano – and the green, ‘Trieste’ lettuce – a bitter but tasty green variety. “It’s my attachment to the past,” he says. “It’s also a real cultural thing. I grew up in an environment where the men of all the family groups were always in competition with each other in the garden…”
In addition to making wine and engaging in other communal tasks, Ciccidicola’s father Ronaldo–after whom the tomato is named – cultivated these plants with other gardeners who hailed from the Ciociaria region of central Italy. Over time they produced tomato varieties like the Ronaldo, but also the related ‘Ernesto’, a huge plum tomato whose namesake was a stocky machine operator and family friend.
These plants form a living connection between Ciccidocola’s his home in Detroit and his family’s roots. They are also delicious and well adopted to Michigan growing. Beginning gardeners are often told to shy away from seed-saving and leave it to the professionals. However, the rewards of saving your own seed suggest maybe it’s something more of us should try.
Saving seed can be hard and the proliferation of hybrids makes it more difficult. Not to be confused with GMO seeds – where the genetics of a seed have been altered in a laboratory–hybrids are developed using standard breeding practices that go back centuries. And hybrids certainly have their place in the garden. Indeed, all seeds are in a sense ‘hybridized’ over time – either by nature or people.
But seed from hybrids will not usually remain ‘true to type’. It will revert to one of the varieties used to make the hybrid, which may not be at all desirable. Home gardeners should instead look for heirloom or ‘open pollinated’ varieties, which will reproduce roughly the same characteristics as the parent plant if handled properly.
Of course, some seeds are still difficult for amateurs to breed. The beginner will do best with self-pollinating crops like tomatoes because the introduction of genetic material from other plants doesn’t need to be controlled.
In conversations with farmers I have also heard that seeds saved from their own tomatoes evince more vigor than catalog-bought ones. Judge for yourself, but it would seem to follow that by saving seed from the best tomatoes – grown in one’s own soil – selects for plants that will continue to thrive there.
Now is a good time of year to look for large and attractive tomatoes or fruit from plants that are growing especially well and have resisted disease. There are any number of criteria the grower can judge with. Mark the fruit you wish to save from with a piece of string or tape and allow it to become extremely ripe before picking.
After harvest, run the seed-rich goop inside the tomato through a wire strainer, washing away any vegetable material. The remaining seeds will have a slimy covering that inhibits germination and needs to be broken down. Do this by placing the seeds in a jar with a bit of water and letting them ferment for several days. Put a piece of cheese cloth or a towel over the jar to deter fruit flies.
After a moldy surface has formed on the top of the liquid in the jar, scoop off any seed that has floated to the top. These are not viable and can be discarded. Rinse those that remain in the mesh strainer again and allow them to dry on a plate. Placing them on any sort of paper towel isn’t recommended because this draws water out of the living seeds. I store my seeds over winter in a paper envelope placed inside a jar in the refrigerator. This keeps them cool without exposing them to the humidity that can diminish viability.
Other seeds that are good for beginners are lettuce, beans and peas. Under ideal conditions, these last two especially can be left to dry out on the plant and then put directly in an envelope.
Lettuce however, needs to ‘bolt’ or flower in order to produce seed. Once the flowers have died, store the top of the plant in a brown paper bag until its dried out and shake out the seed. This will generate some chaff or dead plant material, which can either be cleaned by hand or just ignored as it’s not likely to inhibit germination.
Granted – even at its easiest – seed saving is more work than clicking a few boxes on a catalog’s website. Yet, I was reminded of the importance of the enterprise at a recent seed saving workshop at this year’s Great Lakes Tribal Food Summit in Dowagiac, Michigan. Not only do heirloom crops form an essential link with one’s cultural heritage, they are also increasingly important in world where seed is controlled by a small number of companies. Retaining some ownership of seed is important emotionally, but also in practical terms. Climate change is altering weather and growing conditions and the seeds that survive in the future may come from our own gardens. It’s important that we preserve genetic diversity and foster a new generation of seed-savers to ensure abundance for future generations.
For those interested in learning more about this topic, the book "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth (Chelsea Green Publishing) is an excellent introduction.
You can reach Brian Allnutt at firstname.lastname@example.org.