Wednesday, August 27, 2014

molding the next generation (of tomatoes)

In July I wrote a post about open-pollinated seeds and why they're awesome. Now I'm putting a bit of that into action.

Last week, I decided it was time to gather some of my tomato seeds for next year. I'm growing a saucing type called Sheboygan, which I got from Uprising Organics. Sheboygan is a delicious tomato. When I taste it next to the other (hybrid) varieties I'm growing, it's a no-brainer--Seboygan is far and away the best. It's bright and sweet and tomatoey. It's what I was using when I made my tomato candy.

But it also has a few problems. The stem end isn't ripening with the rest of it, which means that only about 75-80% of each tomato is usable. The plants are really viney--probably closer to the natural state of tomatoes, but many varieties have been bred to be bushier, because they're easier to support. Sheboygan requires a lot of trellising. It's also an heirloom, which means that it's prone to cracking. And finally, the plants are lacking some vigor. They are yellowing and kind of sad looking, even as they pump out amazing tomatoes. So all in all, I love Sheboygan, but if I'm ever going to grow it as my primary tomato variety, it needs some work.

Sheboygan in its greener days
Luckily, thanks to seed selection, I can pick plants and fruits with the traits I want (or fewer of the traits I don't want) and start moving toward my more ideal tomato. Dealing with all those "problems" at once is overwhelming, so for this year I started with the most obvious one: plant health. I chose the plants that looked the greenest, and from those I gathered the biggest, nicest fruit, as ripe as possible but with no cracks.

I took them home, cut each tomato in half, and squeezed the seeds into a bowl.

Then I left the bowl on the counter for a few days to ferment. Tomato seeds, as you've probably noted, are encased in a jelly-like sac. To save the seeds, you need to get them out of that sac, a step that is done by fermentation. I didn't take a picture of the bowl of seeds after they'd been fermenting for a few days, so I'll paint one for you. It was covered with a layer of whitish mold and a cloud of fruit flies, and it smelled terrible.

Luckily, it's easy to separate the good seeds from all that goop. I added some water to the bowl, stirred it around vigorously, then let things settle a bit. Good seeds sink, so after a moment, I poured the moldy water, hollow seeds, and fermented tomato gel off the top. I did this step several times, and before long I had a nice collection of wet but otherwise clean-looking seeds in the bowl, which I dumped onto a small plate.

Then it was just a matter stirring them around from time to time so they don't stick together, and waiting for the seeds to dry. It only took a couple of days.

Voila! Tomato seeds!
A great thing about saving tomato seeds is that you still have the rest of the tomato left over, which you can make into something tasty, like a frittata.

colorful cookery
This year I'm going to try saving tomatillo seeds for the first time. It's supposed to be even easier than tomatoes (as long as you have a food processor, which I do) because there's no fermentation step. I plan to save seed from two of the three varieties I'm growing this year, Purple and DeMilpa. Yesterday I selected the fruits that I wanted to use, and now they're going to sit on my counter for a few days, to make sure they're fully ripe before I begin.

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