Every fall my wife and I are faced with an excruciating task that takes Solomon’s wisdom and Attila the Hun’s brutality. We clear our summer garden (tomatoes, squash, peppers and basil), in order to plant what we enjoy all winter. There are always tomatoes or peppers that will ripen given a couple weeks longer. Oh, what to do?
To ease this dilemma, we started saving seed. Favorites from this year can magically reappear next year with a little care. For example, Camalay tomato is local, grows and produces well in the Sierra Foothills, and makes the perfect BLT. We got our first seeds from a FoCuS seed-share event (https://focusnews.org).
Saving seed can be simple, if the plant is an heirloom or self-pollinating. Pick your best plant and let the fruit fully ripen. With something like peas or beans, shell and place in a clean paper envelope. Label with the variety and harvest date, and store in a cool dry place in a sealed mason jar. Tomatoes are a little harder because the small seeds are surrounded by a gelatin-like substance. Put them in a mason jar with enough water to cover, add a paper towel over the jar, and fasten with a rubber band. Swirl the seeds in the water every day or so. After three to five days the water will look like it has a little skin over it. At this point, skim off the water and rinse the seeds in a wire sieve. Spread the seeds on parchment paper (not paper towel – they will stick) and let them dry, making sure all seeds are separate. Then, into the envelope and jar just like the peas.
Some plants, like squash and corn, are cross-pollinated and have male and female flowers. These varieties don’t breed true; there is no telling what kind of fruit you will get next season. Professional seed growers separate the growing areas for their seed plants, sometimes by miles, to prevent cross-pollination, allowing them to breed true.
Hybrid varieties like ‘Beef Master’ and ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes are produced by cross-pollinating different varietals. Saved seed may be viable, but the tomato that grows will not be the same as the parent plant. Hybrid seed packets are marked “F1” (Filial 1), meaning the first generation from two cross-bred parent plants.
Some flower seeds, like California poppies, are also easy to save. We pick the finger-like seed pods when they are ready to harvest and put them in a container until they pop (if not contained, seeds will go everywhere). Then, we separate the little black seeds from the pod remains. Our yard is full of poppies in season and my wife, “Nancy Poppy Seed,” collects as many seeds as possible—sometimes a pound or two. We spread them wherever she thinks they will grow, alongside the road or in willing neighbors’ yards. After all, it is the state flower!
Seed saving can be easy and fun, and preserves our biological heritage for future generations. Those tomato seeds your grandmother gave you may turn out to be a lost heirloom that makes a heavenly BLT.
Jim Bliss is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.