Growing Heritage Vegetable and Saving the Seed to Share

There has never been a better time to embrace growing vegetables and saving and sharing the seed. Growing your own give you a way to stay on top of ever increasing food prices; means you can eat organically without the luxury price tag; reduce your food mile and single use plastics; plus gives you the opportunity to cook with a tastier more diverse selection of ingredients than the carefully curated selection offered in supermarkets. Really, it’s a win win situation.

Obviously garden centres offer an overwhelming number of options when it comes to choosing veg seed, however if you make your decisions cleverly, each packet of seed can be a one-time purchase, supplying lots of seed for years to come for you and many other. It requires a careful choice because the majority of seed offered in the UK are F1’s, also known as hybrids. These plants are an unstable cross between 2 parent plants chosen for specific characteristics such as disease resistance or dwarf height for example. The reason we call them unstable is because if you save this seed, it will not grow the same plant again but will revert back to one of the parent plants. This may not seem like a big deal; a tomato is a tomato, right? Well what if one of those parent plants was selected purely because of its height and it is a low to no fruiting variety, or grows totally tasteless fruit? It would make for a highly disappointing growing season. No, what you need to be looking for are open pollinated heritage or heirloom varieties, anything that is not a hybrid will do. In my opinion, the truly interesting, delicious and inspiring crops are all heritage varieties, so it is worth spending the extra few minutes doing your research or reading that seed packet.

It gets a lot easier to find heritage veg when you move away from the large seed suppliers who are not keen on offering many heritage options (it’s not good for business if customers don’t have to buy a new pack each year) some suppliers worth checking out are Tomato Revolution, Real Seed Catalogue, Pennard Plants or the Heritage Seed Library. She Grows Veg will be launching our own range of heritage and rare seeds later this year, so watch this space!

So, you’ve selected the right seed and you’ve had a bumper summer of delicious homegrown produce, now it’s time to get saving seed. There are too many vegetables to run through all the different seed saving techniques, however a lot of info can be found online to help. In this article I am going to focus on how to save tomato seed. Tomatoes are a fabulous crop to grow for a number of reasons. Their productivity means that with a few plants you can easily grow an abundant crop that can last you well into winter and genuinely reduce the amount of tomato products you buy from the shops. You don’t have to be a master at preserving to enjoy homegrown tomatoes year round, they can be frozen whole to be used in cooking at your leisure. Additionally, I’m a little biased as they are without doubt my favourite thing to grow and the flavour of a homegrown tomato puts anything shop bought to shame.

Saving tomato seed requires a special process not really used for any other plants. That jelly like substance around a tomato seed is a coating of germination inhibiting acid. It prevents the seeds from prematurely germinating in the moist dark environment within the ripe tomato. In nature, when a ripe tomato falls from the plant and breaks down, the rotting process of the fruit breaks down and removes the acid, preparing the seed to germinate in spring the following year. In our kitchen we have to find a different way to imitate that process and that is done with a handy bit of fermentation. It might seem like a strange process but once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun and means you can easily save very large quantities of seed with minimum effort ready to share with others.

Step 1 – Slice the tomatoes in half and scoop out all the juice, jelly and seeds into a small Tupperware tub. Add as many tomatoes as you like but remember to keep separate varieties of tomatoes to separate tubs. Don’t forget to label each tub, I find masking tape works well for this.
Step 2 – Place lids gently on top of each tub but don’t press down, you want some oxygen circulating in there. The lids are just to keep out fruit flies and other pests that are drawn to the sweet smell of tomato flesh. Now leave the seeds to ferment in their own juice for 3 days, taking the lid off briefly once each day to keep a good oxygen supply circulating. They will probably develop a fairly healthy layer of mould over the top while they ferment, don’t worry, this is fine and should be left where it is.
Step 3 – After 3 days you will have tubs filled with mouldy sticky sludge and are probably questioning my sanity by now, trust me, this is exactly what you want. Take a sieve, pour in the fermented seed sludge and gently rinse under a tap. You will find that the fermented tomato flesh has broken down so much that it runs right off with just a simple rinse leaving perfectly clean seed in the sieve.
Step 4 – Use a piece of kitchen towel on the underside of the sieve to draw away to worst of the water. Then tap out the seed from the sieve onto a piece of grease proof paper. Again, remember to label each piece of greaseproof so you know which variety is which. Leave them to dry.
Step – Once the seed is totally dry it can be easily lifted off the grease proof paper. If they are a bit stuck together you can crumble them apart fairly easily with your fingers. Now place in a baggie or envelop ready for another season of delicious tomatoes.

Heritage vegetables are such rewarding plants to grow and can be a part of even the most strictly ornamental garden. Happy harvesting and happy seed saving