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.
I don’t know about you but with the gorgeous fall we’ve been having, I still have my tomato and pepper plants in the ground, not to mention all of the cool season crops that continue to produce. A few light frosts have nipped my basil but other than that, this has certainly been the longest growing season that I’ve known since moving here. I feel grateful that our garden continues to produce (although there are certainly days when I want it all to be over!).
I hope you’re having the same problem we are in terms of being inundated with tomatoes this season. In that vein, I wanted to share some of the recipes and preservation techniques that I use to extend garden tomato eating well into the winter.
As long as we have garden tomatoes, there is nothing better than fresh salsa. Here is the simple recipe I use:
3 medium tomatoes (diced, I keep the seeds in the mixture)
1/3 cup onion (we prefer red but white or yellow will be equally delicious)
¼ cup cilantro
1 small jalapeño (finely chopped)
½ cup sweet peppers (this year we have all sorts of lunch box and mini red bell peppers that we use)
¼ tsp cumin
Lime juice and salt to taste
Often, I will just throw all of these ingredients into the food processor, adding the onions and peppers first. I add the tomatoes last and only pulse it a few times so it doesn't get too soupy.
Of course, if I am really scrambling during harvest season and the tomatoes are getting soft or going bad, I will throw a bunch of whole tomatoes in a bag and chuck them in the freezer. I find I do this a lot with cherry tomatoes. I then defrost them and cook them down for sauces. To save space in your freezer, you can puree the tomatoes in a food processor before putting them in containers or bags to freeze.
Dehydrating is another great option for food preservation and one of the better ways to retain many of the nutrients in the food. Roma tomatoes are excellent candidates for dehydrating because they are more fleshy than juicy. I often have them as a healthy snack or throw them into a pesto dish - again, another easy meal.
What I don’t do is a lot of canning. I find that after dicing the tomatoes, boiling them down, straining them and prepping the jars, my kitchen has exploded. If you’re like me, tomato sauce is smeared across the counters, on dishrags and on oven mitts and all I have to show for it are 6 pints of canned sauce. For me, it’s a lot of effort, time and energy for very little yield. I always like to weigh the input of time/resource use vs. my output. I’m sure if it were done in larger batches, all the water, energy and time would be worth it but I prefer the taste of my other preservation options, so it’s my last resort.
One of the principles in permaculture is to not only obtain a yield (e.g. tomatoes from the garden) but to extend that yield in time. In cold climates, learning how to preserve food is especially important. There is nothing more disappointing to the palette then a tasteless pale red tomato from the grocery store in the dead of winter. With the preservation techniques that I use, we are eating tomatoes from the garden well into March.
If you have any special ways that you preserve your harvest, I would love it if you shared them in the comments below.