I grew out a few new varieties of tomatoes this year. Four new cherries, a black, a white (really a pale yellow), esterina (yellow) and skakura (red). All were an attempt to find cherry tomatoes that didn’t split on the vine, after picking, and in the display box at market (looking at you Sungold – love you, but dang…). I also ended up with an accidental cherry when growing out some saved seed from a German Pink. I always put my German Pink’s near my cherry tomatoes, and it was clearly a cross with sungold. Kind of a fun slightly larger very round bright orange cherry. And I threw in a Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomato from a plant sale, because I was swayed by its amazing looks. Turns out its not much on flavor in our growing environment. Tough skin, not terribly sweet, and the plant struggled to keep up all season while EVERY other tomato plant I had did just fine. So definitely a dud for me.

In my ongoing search for a reliable baseball sized red tomato with little splitting, I tried out both Nepal and Kanner Hoell. And I added a new paste tomato, that some touted as just as good or better than San Marzano called Opalka (it’s not, at least in my growing conditions).

Some of these were flops. But some were definitely a hit (I LOVED the Kanner Hoell, which blew me away with its production and flavor). Some were definitely worth saving seed from.

Before you save seed from anything in your garden, you need to know a few definitions.

  • Open Pollinated – When pollinated by itself or its same type neighbors, seed saved will come back “true to type”. In other words, if you plant those seeds, you’ll end up with the same variety as what you saved seed from.
  • Hybrid or F1 – Hybrids are the result of a cross between unrelated parents. Hybrids are not inherently bad or good. In fact, sometimes they are indispensable when a breeding program is seeking a variety resistant to certain diseases. Issues with hybrid seed can be two fold. Seed saved from hybrids will not be “true to type” when grown out. It will be a mix of genetics from the two parents, which are sometimes wildly different from the offspring. And hybrid seed can be patented, which means legally, you HAVE to buy new seed from the manufacturer/grower of these seeds, rather than trying to save seed and grew them yourself. And often, this means buying from parent companies like Monsanto. Most regenerative agriculture growers and small farms prefer to not to support these Goliath companies.
  • Heirloom – There is no “official” definition for this term, but generally, it means an open pollinated variety that has been passed down through the generations and/or grown out over and over again in a certain climate, where the seed has subtly adapted to the local growing conditions. These varieties often come with great stories of being carried over an ocean when someone immigrated, and then passed down over many many years. To be called an heirloom, the seed needs to have been in circulation for a minimum of about 50 years. So heirlooms, by definition, are always open pollinated.
  • Self-Crossers. Plants (usually plant families) that tend to be self fertile. This means they do NOT need another member of that variety around in order to form fruit, and the seed from that fruit will be true to type, as long as the variety wasn’t a hybrid. In general, nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant), legumes (peas and beans) and lettuce (go figure) are self crossers – but some are more so than others
  • Out-Crossers. Plants that require a second pollinator from the same or closely related varieties in order to form fruit. Seed grown out from these varieties will often be crossed with its neighbors unless certain precautions were taken in order to preserve the genetics. Out-crossers include the cucurbits (summer and winter squash, melons, cucumbers, gourds), brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radish, arugula, kale, turnips and anyone else in the mustard family), and the amaranth family (spinach, beets, and chard). Also included as out-crossers are members of the parsley family (carrots, parsnips, parsley, celery etc.), corn and onions. Some, like corn, are extreme out-crossers, throwing pollen up to 2 miles!

Helpful crop breeding chart on self vs out-crossers HERE from Seed Savers Exchange. Deep dive into seed saving? Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed is considered the go to resource.

So, back to tomatoes. Tomatoes, as mentioned, are generally very self crossing. If you look closely at their flower structure, you can see that the stigma (the female receptive part) is basically enclosed and covered by the stamens (the male parts that produce pollen). So its very hard for bees or wind to accidentally get pollen from the stamen on one flower to the stigma on another flower. Hence, they are mostly self-crossers (my crazy orange cherry cross not withstanding). From a talk I attended at the National Heirloom Expo, tomatoes are thought to be about 97% to 100% self fertile. In this same talk, by Joseph Lofthouse, I learned that to ensure you get a good sampling of self-crossed seed, you should collect seed from three tomatoes of the same variety. For a FASCINATING look at Lofthouse’s work to create an out-crossing tomato (encouraging genetic diversity in the face of climate change) check out this piece on landrace gardening (and then go down that rabbit hole, googling his name, for about 4 hours). Very interesting work!

This year, I saved seed from the Kanner Hoell, the orange cherry cross, Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine and Nepal (not as early as I expected, but good production and flavor), and one from Anthony’s Passionate Heart – a tomato gifted to me by Frog Hollow Farm. I was a HUGE Anthony Bourdain fan, and loved the story of this tomato.

Here’s what you do (more detail in the narration below)

  • Chose tomatoes to save seed from. This can be the earliest ones to get ripe, the best tasting, the biggest, the prettiest…whatever traits you want to preserve. If I have multiple of the same variety planted in a block, I like to chose fruit from a middle plant, as there is less chance of a cross with a different type. In order to keep the varieties straight, I write right on the tomato with a sharpie when I’m picking.
  • Cut tomato through its equator and gently squeeze out the seeds and gel (or use your finger to remove most of this mix). Place seed/gel in a small container. Write the name of the variety on the container in permanent marker. (It comes off of glass with rubbing alcohol later).
  • If the tomato isn’t particularly juicy, add a bit of water to the mix.
  • Let seeds sit at room temperature for a day or two until the surface starts to form what looks like mold (but is most likely a harmless white yeast called kahm). This brief ferment removes the gel coating from the seeds.
  • Rinse seeds/gel/yeast/remaining liquid in a fine mesh strainer until all you have left is seeds.
  • Spread seeds on a coffee filter or paper towel to dry, writing down variety on the surface so you don’t mix anything up.
  • Once dry (I usually give them a day or two, moving them around and unsticking them from each other) place into a small zip top bag, writing variety AND THE YEAR on the bag. (Snack bags work well, or your hobby store will have small bead/jewelry bags that work well too.
  • Store in a cool dry place, or in the fridge or freezer for longer term storage (though I’ve had tomato seeds germinate that were 10 years old, that were only stored at room temperature. They have a long shelf life even when mistreated.

That’s it. Until next year my beauties. I’ll miss you!

© 2019 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away from ever having enough tomatoes to eat fresh every day, but are secretly kind of glad we’ve had a frost and the “tyranny of produce” staring me down from the counter and the walk in wanting to be processed is over.