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Home gardeners can preserve some of their garden treasures by saving seed. Heirlooms varieties are prized possessions handed down from generation to generation. Once you purchase an heirloom variety that you love, or better yet, get one from your aunt or granny, you can continue the tradition by saving seed for future harvests. Home gardeners need know how their garden vegetables are pollinated in order to collect seed that will reproduce the original plant.
Vegetable pollination can be air-borne, insect or self. Air-borne and insect pollinated crops must be isolated from each other by one mile and one-fourth mile respectively in order to maintain the integrity of the original individual plant. If other plants with different characteristics are in the vicinity, they will donate pollen and you will not get your original heirloom plant from seed. The best bet for a home gardener is to save seed from self pollinating crops like beans, peas and tomatoes. Self pollination is where the pollen is transferred to the stigma of the same flower, thereby preserving all of the genes of the mother plant in the seeds. Even though you have a self pollinating plant, it is possible for some cross pollination to occur, so separate the different heirloom varieties by other crops in the garden.
So how do you go about saving your heirloom tomato seed? Here’s how. Squeeze the seeds and juice out a healthy, very ripe tomato and put them into a container that can hold liquid. Cover the top with some cheesecloth to help keep fruit flies at bay and store in an area where the odor of the fermenting tomato will not offend others – the fermentation will remove the gelatinous coat around the tomato seeds. The juice and seeds need to ferment up to a week. A layer of white mold may grow over the top. After fermentation is complete, add water and stir. The viable or living seeds will sink to the bottom and the others will float. Pour off the top part and save only the viable seeds that have settled out of the mixture.
Pour the bottom mixture into a strainer and then wash and drain. Spread the seed our on a paper towel, paper plant or other suitable surface and allow to dry. Do not dry the seeds in direct sunlight. The seeds may take up to 4 weeks to dry properly. Once the seed has dried, store them in a properly labeled envelope in a cool, dry place.
Keep in mind the hybrid seed, purchased seed produced as the result of a controlled cross between two pure inbred lineages, will not come true if the flower is self pollinated and the seed collected. So plan to preserve your favorite heirlooms, not the hybrids, and save your seed for future bounty.
Direct comments or questions concerning this column to Marilyn Odneal via email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; write to Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711; or call (417) 547-7500. Visit our Web site at http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu.