Monday, August 3, 2009

Save Heirloom Tomato Seeds For Better Health

     An old academic study has received new life among heirloom vegetable gardeners. Making the rounds is a research paper conducted in 1999 and released in 2004 at the University of Texas. The conclusion of that research: supermarket vegetables available in 1950 were healthier than the ones purchased in 1999. The vegetables' nutrient value, including protein, calcium, iron and riboflavin, has declined in recent decades while farmers have been planting crops designed to improve other traits, the study says.

     “We concluded that the most likely explanation was the changes in cultivated varieties used today compared to 50 years ago,” Dr. Donald Davis of UT-Austin's Biochemical Institute said. “During those 50 years, there have been intensive efforts to breed new varieties that have greater yield, or resistance to pests, or adaptability to different climates. But the dominant effort is for higher yields. Emerging evidence suggests that when you select for yield, crops grow bigger and faster, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to make or uptake nutrients at the same, faster rate.”

     Once again, another compelling argument for "GIY": Grow it Yourself!
For backyard gardeners looking for the healthiest tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes may be the best choice. Heirloom tomato plants come from open-pollinated seed strains that predate World War 2. If collected properly, these varieties should be just as tasty and healthful as the ones your grandparents grew.
    Tomato flowers are both wind and insect pollinated. Although the tomato that forms on the plant you purchased or started from seed will be as advertised (we hope), the seeds inside that tomato you grew may be carrying the genetic makeup of whatever happened to originally pollinate that tomato flower. So, those Brandywines, Bloody Butchers and other heirloom tomatoes will contain seeds, if germinated, that might more resemble the tomato plant that resided next door to your favorite heirloom. 

     Yes, even tomato plants covet their neighbor's wife...with a little help from that devil of a bee.

     And seed saving for future replanting is also iffy if you are growing hybrid tomatoes. A hybrid tomato is made by crossing two different parent varieties. Their crop of seeds usually do not come back as the same variety. Plus, hybrid varieties of tomatoes offered for the home gardener have been bred for many of the same characteristics as the varieties grown by large agricultural interests: higher yields, disease resistance and broader climate adaptibility. As that study alludes, the formation of nutrients in hybrid tomatoes for the home market may also be the sacrificial lamb in order for that plant to pump out a greater number of tomatoes.

     If you want to grow the same heirloom tomato variety year after year without purchasing new seed, here's how to save your heirloom tomato seeds, for planting next year: 
     Isolate your favorite heirloom tomato plant from other varieties to avoid possible cross pollination. Plant them by themselves about 30 feet away from other tomatoes. Not enough room? Surround the heirloom tomato plant with other tall growing vegetables, such as corn or pole beans.

     If you already have your tomato plants crowded together, there is one trick you can try this year to get a crop of heirloom tomato seeds that are true to their parent: Put a small paper bag around any new blossom before it opens; after the tomato forms, remove the bag. This will keep the other varieties of tomato plant that might happen to be flowering at the same time from pollinating your favorite heirloom.

     To save the seeds, pick the most luscious looking, ripe tomato. Cut it in half with a serrated knife at the equator and squeeze the pulp into a clean container. Place the filled container, with a lid loosely attached, in a warm location out of direct sunlight to promote fermentation, which helps dissolve the gel coating on the seed. Don't leave those seeds in the container for more than three days; they might germinate! Be sure the lid is loosely attached, allowing some air to escape. Fermentation could blow a secured lid off that sucker, creating quite a mess.

     Stir it once or twice a day for a day or two, and then pour or scoop off the scum at the top of the container. This floating material will contain tomato chunks and the bad seeds. 

    Then, add more water to the container and pour it through a screen or strainer. You may need to do this more than once or twice. It's just like panning for gold. Your treasure? Those nice, plump, healthy tomato seeds that will remain behind.

     Wipe the bottom of the strainer with a towel and pour the seeds out onto a hard surface like a paper plate or a coffee filter.  Don't lay them on a paper towel because the paper fibers will stick to the seeds.

     The seeds will need to dry for a couple of days, up to a week. Keep the seeds out of the sun in a cool, dry place. You should also move around the individual seeds a couple times a day to prevent them from sticking to each other. This will help them dry evenly too.

     Once they are completely dry, seal them in an airtight container. A glass jar  is perfect for this. Adding a dessicant can help keep the moisture level down. Make sure to label them so you'll know what you're planting next spring and then store them in a cool, dry place, such as under your bed.

      And now, you'll have your favorite heirloom tomato seeds, ready to plant for the next five to seven years, producing the most luscious, tastiest tomatoes that you'll ever savor. Nothing compares to the flavor of a homegrown tomato…especially if it's a nutritous heirloom tomato!

     Seed saving organizations, specialty seed companies and home gardeners are the ones who have kept heirloom tomato varieties alive for generations. Pass some of your saved seeds on to your children, too. 

Here's the video of how to save tomato seeds:

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