Saving seeds -- 8-18-14

(This week’s wildflower is red clover, also known as Trifolium pratense. For an enlarged view, click on it.)


In the aftermath of the Big Tomato Contest — won by Esther Albin with a Beefsteak tomato that weighed in at 2 pounds, 9 1/4 ounces — we decided to look at a practice that some contestants have been using for many years. It’s saving seeds, and while I’ve done it before, I thought it was a good idea to look again at how it’s done.

Saving seeds is essential to preserving those so-called heirloom varieties, the ones we think of as curiosities now, but which our ancestors depended on for a reliable crop every year.

So which seeds can be saved? According to Organic Gardening magazine, only those from open-pollinated varieties. Seeds from hybrid plants won’t reproduce reliably. What you get from seeds from a hybrid won’t won’t necessarily be the same thing you enjoyed this year.

How are hybrid seeds produced? The best explanation I found was at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. ( produce hybrid seeds, breeders find two plants with characteristics they would like to have in a single plant. After growing the “parents” for several years to get plants with the best of each characteristic — such as flower color — the two are bred together, producing an F1 hybrid.

The catch, as they say, is that it may take years to produce the sort of parent plants that a breeder wants to combine. But, say the Aggies, scientific improvements have allowed for the addition of other characteristics that boost disease resistance and make it easier to harvest the crop mechanically.

But unless your backyard garden includes a robot vegetable picker, it might be better to stick to open-pollinated varieties. You can tell by inspecting the seed packet, which will say “hybrid” or “open-pollinated.”

Now, let’s look at how to save seeds from open-pollinated tomatoes. Use thoroughly ripe fruit and cut open, squeezing or scraping out the seeds and pulpinto a non-metallic container. Allow the stuff to stand for a few days until it ferments, then rinse off the sediment until the seeds are clean. Allow to dry on paper towels or a newspaper, then store in a jar in a cool, dark place.

For the Aussie tomato given to us by Donald Slifer, who said he’s been growing them and saving the seed for 40 years, I used a slightly different technique. I cut the tomato in half, then squeezed it onto a paper towel. I compressed the pulp until all the liquid flowed out, then put the seeds on another paper towel to dry. I have nothing against the fermentation technique, but I know myself. If I put a slumgum of tomato goop aside to ferment in an out-of-the-way place, it might stay there until next spring.

Texas A&M’s Web site also says that it’s possible to save the seed for beans (all kinds), cucumbers (though cross-pollination might be a problem), squash (see previous item), peppers and eggplant. The A&M site has instructions for all of these. Another possibility: Depending on where you live, local extension offices may have workshops on heirlooms and seed saving, so call them for a schedule.


Questions: There’s a plant in my yard that has what look like tiny paper lanterns on it. A friend of mine tells me that inside are berries that are edible. Is this true?

A. The plant you’re looking at is more likely Physalis, or ground cherry. All the information I’ve been able to find says the ripe fruit of some varieties is edible, but not all aste good and in some cases, parts of the plant are poisonous. I would leave these alone, unless you buy the seed from a commercial seed dealer.

Q. People tell me I can’t use dog and cat poop in the garden or the compost pile. Why not?

A. Because, according to a variety of sources, including the National Resources Defense Council, raw pet manure may contain parasites you don’t want in your food supply. And even in a compost pile, the natural heat the pile generates might not be enough to kill the bad “bugs” inside the pet poop.

Q. I’m done with my garden for this year. Can I just let what’s left of the plants sit there until next spring? 

A. It’s not recommended, because those husks become an overwintering shelter for diseases and certain bugs that either lay their eggs or use the plant structure as a shelter. If the plant looks diseased, such as with late blight on tomatoes, trash it. Otherwise, you can compost them. Sometime in the next month, we’ll get into how to make (and tend) a compost pile.


(Did you enjoy this column? If so, please e-mail constructive criticism and/or suggestions to


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