Saving seeds to lessen pain of saying bye

October 02, 2004|By ROB KASPER

LIKE A LOT of people with dirt under their fingernails, I have a difficult time each fall saying goodbye to the garden. I get teary when I can't spend my weekends getting dirty. This year, I thought that saving the seeds of some of the heirloom tomato plants would make parting less sorrowful.

Saving your tomatoes seeds, I learned, is not for the faint of heart. If the word "scum," as in "pour the white fungal scum from the cup of fermenting seeds," makes you queasy, then seed saving is not your cup of tea.

Also there is the odor of the fermenting seeds. At best it is funky. At worst it scares away most living creatures, except flies.

Despite the smell and scum, this week I busied myself with the ritual of saving seeds from some heirloom tomatoes.

Why? In part, "book learnin'" made me do it. One night while stretched out on the family room recliner, I was flipping through what I call my "garden porn," books showing big glossy photographs of vegetables. This particular work was 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden, by Carolyn J. Male.

After gazing at the luscious pictures, I started reading the chapter on saving seeds. "In many ways, saving seeds by fermentation is a rite of passage for heirloom tomato growers," Male wrote. "Not until you have squished the fruits in your hands and grown accustomed to the particular smell," she continued, "are you a true heirloom tomato aficionado."

That sounded like a challenge. I had a few heirloom tomato plants in my garden -- Brandywine and Pineapple -- that I had pretty good luck with this year and would like to grow again next year. I also liked the ring of the phrase "crops grown from seed." It made me sound earthy, a player in the progeny sweepstakes.

The idea of saving seeds has been around for centuries. It was what people did before there were garden centers selling plants at the mall and Web sites that offer step-by-step instructions, at the click of a cursor, on how to save flower and vegetable seeds.

Despite its storied history and recent online presence, seed saving was a gardening trick I had never tried to master.

I quickly learned that the techniques used to save seeds can vary from gardener to gardener. Some, for example, are open fermenters, letting their tomato seeds get funky in the great outdoors, resting in topless containers. Others ferment indoors, with their vessels covered with perforated plastic wrap.

There was agreement, however, that a saver should pluck seeds from the best and brightest of the crop, the prize of the litter. So about two weeks ago I squeezed the seeds from four very good looking and very ripe heirloom tomatoes into four clear plastic cups, the kind that usually hold a slug of chardonnay or zinfandel. Since tomato seeds tend to all look (and smell) alike, I had written the names of tomato types on the cups. This seemed like precise, scientific behavior. The trouble was I only knew the names of some of my tomatoes. Last spring, when I planted the crop, I meant to record the name and location of each plant. But a big rainstorm rolled in during planting, and the data never got filed. As a result the labels on my cups varied from the precise "Brandywine," and "Pineapple" to the vague "Mystery Red," and "Red [growing] by the fence."

I added a little water to each cup and set the cups outside, resting on an interior span of a wooden backyard fence.

This was exactly the type of spot that Male's book recommended, a place where the smell and fruit flies wouldn't offend humans and where no critters -- Male's book warned about skunks and raccoons -- could bother the seeds.

Fermentation, I learned, is nature's way of lowering the pathogens in the tomato seeds and removing the gel capsules that surround the seeds and inhibit germination. It is messy and stinky, but then again, so is a lot of nature.

The fermentation process should last at least five days, according to Male. It could be longer, she wrote, if the temperature is below 80 degrees. When a white fungal layer shows up on the top of your cup, it's a good sign.

Thanks to a cool spell, my tomato seeds didn't start getting fungal until they had been sitting on the fence for about 10 days. My wife kept threatening to throw the unsightly cups in the trash, but I held her off by telling her that we had to let nature, and the fungus, work at its own pace.

One morning this week, I took the next step in the ritual, skimming off the fungal layer from the cups, a procedure that is as unappealing as it sounds. I added a little water to the mixture, which at this point looked like a weak Bloody Mary. The good seeds, the viable ones, sank to the bottom of the cups. The bad ones floated. I dispatched the floaters, caught the good ones in a strainer, then set them on paper plates, marked with the names of the tomatoes, to dry.

Drying, I learned, is a crucial step. It has to be conducted in a cool, non-humid environment.

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