In the beginning, the tomato was a tiny pea-sized fruit on a weed, that grew amongst corn. Over many generations of plants and people, the largest-fruited tomatoes would have had their seed saved and replanted. Gradually the average size increased and the big salad tomato we know today was created through very basic selection for size. Nothing fancy or scary here.
And using the same basic technique we now have heritage / heirloom varieties. A cared for variety of tomato that has been bred from the general pool of tomatoes and refined by this simple selection technique over many, many generations to reliably have a specific set of qualities. Maybe they were chosen and selected for flavour, maybe early ripening, maybe colour, maybe they just did very well in that particular area, that sort of thing.
These genetic lines have become so stable and loved that they have been named. ‘Black Russian’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘San Marzano’, ‘Rouge De Marmande’, for instance. They are open pollinated, by bees, birds, bats and wind, still able to thrive in nature, with a healthy range of genes. Each generation is reliable like the one before. You know what to expect when you plant a Green Zebra tomato. You can save their seeds, plant these and then grow another generation of Green Zebras, on and on.
This is what we can do in our own backyards.
This is ‘seed saving’. It is what humans have done for countless generations. You can do this with your favourite lettuce or pumpkin. Save the seeds from great tasting strong plants that grew for you, and be able to grow the same wonderful flavours, season after season.
As we move deeper into an era of a climate crisis, you may want to become practised, at the free art of seed saving open pollinated local seeds for food security. Open pollinator plants allow for maximum genetic diversity and health. The best seeds are the ones that have thrived or adjusted over many plant generations to cope with our humidity, heat, drought, high rainfall and local pests. We call these locally adapted. If you grew a big tasty salad tomato that the fruit fly ignored and that also survived drought followed by one of our ‘rain events’, you would have something uniquely well suited to our region. Most large tomatoes don’t do so well here.
As we now know, when the world looks shaky, people panic-plant and that means seed stocks sell out. Having easy availability to seeds, because you saved them yourself means you can plant when you want. It means you can trade. You can eat the excess, if they are beans or peas or potatoes!
The main downside to seed saving is the extra time and space the plants need in the garden. They generally need more time to go past the eating stage, up to a year in the case of carrots, for growing and also then maturing the seedpods. This is space that would otherwise be planted out with edibles in or nearing their eating phase. Some plants, like pumpkin, need different varieties separated by large distances, like 400m, to ensure they don’t accidentally cross – if you want to keep the seed true to type. You may also have to get crafty to keep rodents, birds and insects from feasting on your developing seed stock.
The basics of seed saving are simple enough. Only allow your best plants to grow their seed pods to full maturity before picking. In the case of cucumber and other fruiting vegetables, that often means leaving a few vegetables to become enormous and go way, way past their eating stage, before harvesting and scooping out the seeds and drying. Some edibles, such as pumpkins, melons and tomatoes are thankfully ready for seed saving at their fully ripe eating stage. In the case of leaf or root vegetables, allow the plant to go to flower, be pollinated and set seedpods. Let the pods mature and dry as much as you can before harvesting, and then continue drying them afterwards as well.
To get started, some of the easiest seeds for beginners to learn seed saving are:
Beans, peas, snowpeas
Wait until the pods have at least turned yellow before picking. Dry the pods by hanging in a warm breezy place then pop the seeds out. Keep drying the seeds for another week or two. Before storing, freeze for 48 hours to kill any weevils or their eggs otherwise they will feast on your seed supply. Bean and pea seeds last from 3 to 10 years.
Lettuce doesn’t easily cross with other lettuces, though it does happen. A tall plant in between varieties should be enough to keep a line pure, if that’s what you want. Try to save seed from the ones that go to seed the slowest, otherwise, you’ll develop a line of early bolting lettuces. After pollination, the flowers begin turning fluffy white. When about two thirds have done this, cut the whole stalk, bag it and hang upside down in a gently breezy place. The little long oval seeds can be rubbed free when fully dry and sieved or winnowed from the large amount of chaff and white fluff. Lettuces seeds last for up to 5 years.
No seeds to see here. Propagate by cuttings or saving tubers for replanting.
Different varieties do cross with each other, although a row of tall plants in between will be enough to prevent this. Scoop out the insides of very ripe tomatoes and leave to ferment in their jelly for a couple of days. This helps prevent diseases in the plant. When foam forms, wash and dry them thoroughly. Tomato seeds keep for about 4 years.
If you want to become good at saving your home grown veges get yourself a copy of the Seed Savers Handbook by Michel and Jude Fanton, founders of The Seed Savers’ Network. I cannot recommend this highly enough. No, I don’t get a commission, it’s just a comprehensive go-to resource for saving and storing seeds of edible backyard foods, written for Australia and New Zealand.
Bellingen Seed Savers are another worthy resource where you can learn from people with lived experience. Based in the Bellingen area and covering Dorrigo, Megan, Gleniffer, Fernmount, Brierfield, Urunga, Coffs Harbour, Emerald Beach & Coramba and places in between. A huge amount of local knowledge is shared in this group at garden gatherings. Anyone can join in.
Your local community garden is another great knowledge bank, find and connect to your local community garden
Our food seeds are our heritage and our right. Open pollinated, locally adapted seeds are our food bank. We should know how to grow edible plants from seed for our own good. These seeds should belong to everyone, not just a few multinational corporations.
We can save our own seeds.
Artwork and words by Fiona Morgan
Notes – Seed Saving
1. Fanton M& J. The Seed Savers Handbook. The Seed Savers’ Network; 2008.
2. Hartwell R. What’s the Difference? Open-Pollinated, Heirloom & Hybrid Seeds [Internet]. Seed Savers Exchange Blog. [cited 2021 Oct 14]. Available from: https://blog.seedsavers.org/blog/open-pollinated-heirloom-and-hybrid-seeds
3. Tomato. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 14]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tomato&oldid=1047114392