In a video from this past winter, I talked about my Top Ten Tips for Gardening on a Budget. One of those tips is saving seeds. In addition to saving you money, saving seeds allows you to set up more of a closed loop system on your property, working towards less and less inputs that you need to buy or bring onto your site year after year. Just like you want to grow and build fertility on your site so you don't have to import manure and compost, you also want to figure out strategies where you are buying less seed and saving more from the plants that you grow. This not only sets you up to be more food secure but saving seed allows you to start selecting for varieties of vegetables that are uniquely adapted to your environment.
Of course, you may curse me for adding yet another task to your fall garden checklist :-) ; I completely understand that it's a busy time of year. At first glance, seed saving can seem like a daunting endeavor. So, as always, I suggest starting small. Don't try to save the seeds from every single type of vegetable you are growing. Instead, choose a couple to begin with and grow your seed saving operation from there, as your skills and interest increases.
Some seeds are easier to save than others too. So what better way to start seed saving than by making up a batch of fresh salsa (a favorite in our household). While cutting up the ingredients for your salsa, you can save the seeds of two of the easier seed saving plants: tomatoes and peppers. Making a batch of fresh salsa = saving seeds for future batches of fresh salsa. Win, win. In permaculture, this would be called 'stacking functions', in other words, getting multiple yields from one task or element. In this case, making salsa gives you delicious food while at the same time allowing you to save seed.
Ideally you are saving the seeds from some of the first tomatoes to ripen.This means that you will progressively be selecting for earlier ripening tomatoes. If that's not possible, still select those that have a good shape and taste. Also, be sure to only save seeds from open-pollinated and/or heirloom varieties as opposed to hybrid varieties.
While you're cutting your tomatoes (be sure they are all from the same variety), just take the seeds that are left on the cutting board and put them into a small glass. Add a small amount of water to that glass and let the seeds ferment for about 4 days, stirring each day. This fermentation process protects against seedborne bacterial canker. After the fermentation process, wash your seeds and dry them on a piece of paper for a couple weeks.
I recently heard from one of the foremost seed saving experts, Cheryl Moore Gough (co-author of the Complete Guide to Saving Seeds), that though recommended, she finds that this fermentation process is not even necessary. Cheryl just takes the seeds out and dries them on a paper towl and that's it.
Again, as you're cutting up the ripe peppers for that delicious salsa, set aside the seeds that you already have to scrape out of there. Spread them on a piece of paper to dry. Once dry, they are ready for storage. Pepper seeds are viable for 2 years whereas tomato seeds are viable for 4.
With all seeds, remember that cool, dry and dark is best for seed storage. I store my seeds in our basement, for example, in reused seed packets and label accordingly. This is a good short-term storage option, especially because we have such a dry climate. For longer term storage, moisture-proof sealed containers are better such as glass jars (e.g. mason jars) or freezer bags.
If you want to get more involved with seed saving, I highly recommend the book, The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Bob Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough. Cheryl is a local Bozemanite and a fountain of knowledge on seed saving.
September is the time for tomatoes...probably our family's favorite harvest of the season. There is nothing quite like biting into a garden tomato just plucked from the vine, the literal fruit of your labor over the spring and summer months.
This year, I planted about forty tomato plants and plan on preserving them in a variety of ways. All of these plants were started from seed at the end of March to mid-April under fluorescent lights. They were later moved out to my small 6' x 8' greenhouse and grown into healthy seedlings. My tomato repertoire this summer includes my standbys: heirloom 'Purple Cherokee', 'Earliest Paste' romas, and ‘Brandywine’, plus a few newer varieties like heirloom 'Blush' tomatoes, 'Polar Baby', and yellow cherry 'Galina’ tomatoes. The more diverse the varieties, the better chance of getting a decent yield from at least a few...although of course my ultimate goal is to get a yield from all of them! Some varieties are best fresh like the Cherokees and Galinas. Others, like the Romas, are great for dehydrating since they have more flesh than seed.
When I first moved to Montana eight years ago, I was told that it was difficult to grow tomatoes, or at least to get ripe ones. Up for the challenge, I started my first Montana gardening season with a small plastic-covered hoop house and soil rich in goat manure. That combination did the trick and my first summer yielded a bumper crop of delicious tomatoes that had us eating fresh salsa from August to November. I have been hooked ever since.
So how do you ensure that you're not left with only fried green tomatoes on the menu?
Here’s the quick scoop:
In mid-to late August (or right now), sever a third of the roots on your tomato plants, cut back on watering, and pick off any remaining flowers and a lot of the new vegetative growth. This stresses the plant out sufficiently to encourage it to put all its energy into ripening the fruit that is currently on the vine. In addition, because our cold nighttime temperatures are the real challenge to fruit ripening, cover the plants with frost cloth starting around now (late August/early September). With these methods, I have managed to get a significant yield every year. For those last green ones that won't be able to ripen outdoors before a hard frost hits, I typically take the whole plant inside and hang it upside down in our storeroom, allowing the fruit to ripen that way. The tomatoes don't quite taste as delicious as sun-ripened tomatoes but they are still a significant cut above the store bought ones! Alternatively, picking the fruit off the vines and storing them in paper bags with a ripe banana will also do the trick.
If you have any tried and true methods for getting your tomatoes to ripen on time, please share them in the comments below!
Happy harvesting and salsa-making,