Seed Saving Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are probably the reason that most heirloom seed houses are in existence. The humble heirloom tomato is the backbone of the heirloom industry and there are many heirloom seed companies that specialise in selling tomato seed only.

The question remains though as to what the best way to save tomato seed is.

In this post we will share tomato seed saving secrets that we use every season to save our own seed, and that which we sell to you our valued customer.

Naturally, you have gone through the effort of making sure that the tomato fruit that you are going to be saving seed from is pure, if not you will be wasting your time. Who wants to go to the trouble of saving seed that has been contaminated and will not breed true next year?

So now that you have your fruit that is nicely ripe and possibly even slightly over-ripe, just squeeze the pulp and seed out into a container, do as many fruits as you like and save seed from the best producing plants that have fruit that is ‘true-to-type’. This will ensure that you save only the best seed every year.

Notice the lovely white mould developing on the seed.
Notice the lovely white mould developing on the seed.

Now add water to the container to at least double the volume of the pulp and now all you do is let it ferment. What you are looking for is a nice healthy white mould/fungus that covers the top of the pulp mix. This process is going to pong, attract fruit flies and generally just upset your spouse. I know mine has to put up with hundreds of little ‘bakkies’ on the dining room table every year for a few weeks.

They need to be there so that I can keep a watch over them, and thank fully it’s in summer so we get to eat outside when the dining room table is covered in mould generating, odour exuding and fruit fly attracting containers. Sometimes I just thank the Lord that he gave me a wife that is as longsuffering as mine is.

Ok so what’s the point of the whole fermentation process? Let me explain a little.

When you cut a tomato open the seeds are covered in a small gel sac that makes the little seeds slippery, this gel sac is a seed protection to stop it from germinating and it contains a germination inhibitor. The process of fermentation breaks this germination inhibitor down so that when you plant the seed, it actually grows. In nature the fruit would rot and fall to the ground and that rotting process breaks the germination inhibitor down.

Next, if there are any diseases that could be carried across with the seed, this process of fermentation creates an environment that is very hostile to disease organisms killing off most known diseases.

Lastly, removing the gel sac is achieved at the same time allowing for a clean seed that looks good.

A rainbow of fermenting tomato seed.
A rainbow of fermenting tomato seed.

So, now that you know a few secrets, lets get back to the seed processing. We use a very technical arrangement of a flour sieve and running water. The 3-4 day old miff smelling goo is rinsed in the sieve under running water to clean off all of the ‘miff’ and now you have clean seed that just needs to be dried.

Dry9ning is best achieved in shade using a glass or ceramic plate. Stir the seeds every few hours to make sure that they are dry all the way through. It generally takes 5-10 days to dry out the seed properly depending on the relative humidity.

Once the seeds are dry you need to do two things.

First, put some seeds away for yourself, it’s always good to have some ‘extra’ in case of a crop failure or germination disaster.

Next, share some seeds with a gardening friend(s) think about giving a gift of seeds instead of some cheap, just imported from China. A gift of seeds is probably the greenest gift you can give, especially seed that you have saved yourself.


Keeping Heirloom seeds pure (Part 3)

I have had a number of requests for information on saving carrot seed. In this post I’m going to cover the basics around seed production of bi-annual crops, and specifically carrots.

Bi-annual crops are typically crops that need two growing seasons with a winter dormant period in the middle. Crops like these are Carrots, Beetroot, Salsify, Turnips and Scozonera. But can also include other plants like Brassicas.

These plants are either insect or wind pollinated and different management styles need to be used when trying to keep seed pure.
If you are only saving one seed variety of each crop then most of your problems are solved as they will not cross pollinate except for beets and spinach where the two are very easily crossed. (This discussion excludes Brassicas, which is a multiple post a topic all on its own)

Basically what needs to be done is plant your crops for seed production in the first summer, allow the plants to grow to full maturity and then they need to experience a period of vernalization over winter. This dormant period is generally essential in most root crops, however there are some varieties or individual plants ain a population that will produce seed just before winter if planted really early in summer. I believe though that the seed would not be of a superior quality and should not be saved for any reason as you will be perpetuating an early seeding variety or ‘sport’ of a variety.

Cages for isolating different carrot strains
Cages for isolating different carrot strains

Early in spring the following year you will notice that the carrot plants start to throw a flower spike, depending on the variety that you are growing this flower spike can be anything from 50cm to over 200 cm tall. Once the flowers open, you will notice that the flowers are predominantly visited by flies, but many other bugs and insects will visit the flowers to pollinate.
The individual flowers in the umbels open in successively, with male and female portions ripening in different orders to ensure that the flowers are not self pollinated.

A carrot "King flower" ready for harvest.
A carrot "King flower" ready for harvest.

The most important flower on a plant is the “King Flower” this is the largest flower on the plant and produces the best seed. This seed should be saved for propagation from year to year. The balance of the flowers also produce good quality viable seed.

Now the problem comes in when you are growing more than one variety of carrot and you would like to keep the seed pure. The easiest way to do this is with caging the plants. Very simply an insect proof net is erected over the cages and flies are caught in a regular fly-trap, the flies are released into the cages where they perform their duties admirably.

From there it’s a simple case of waiting for the seed to dry on the plant, picking the seed and then processing. They can be sown again within a few weeks, as long as they have had a chance to dry out properly.


Storing your Seeds

Seed Saving and in turn seed storage, was possibly the first act of agriculture, without seed saving (or the storing for the next season) the first farmer would not have been able to plant a crop.

Unlike today’s Dictocrats that would want to regulate the saving of seed, that first act of seed saving led to the establishment of organised agriculture, and a rich tradition that we now take part of every time we save the seed of a variety that we have planted.

The first farmers probably did not have much in the way of information and storage mechanisms that we have at our disposal and possibly the lost seed to various pests and critters that ate into their saved stores. Today there is a wealth of information available for the seed saver in terms of books and references that will enable one to extend the lifespan of their saved seed.

This is intended as a simple primer for the average gardener to be able to save seed from year to year without the need to invest in expensive machinery to save their seed.

Typically a person will harvest a fruit and decide to save some seed for a friend of family member that was particularly enamoured with a dish consisting of that vegetable. Or knowing that getting more seed of the same variety could present problems the gardener decides to save some seed.

When we started with heirloom seed we never planted the variety of vegetables that we plant now, we cycled through our seed collection over a few years, first to ensure fresh seed and secondly to have a change in vegetables, flavours and variety. (OK the order may be mixed-up but your get the general idea) There is no need to plant everything that you have in your seed box every year, cycle through your seed collection and enjoy the variety.

The important thing is to save and store seed, without seed saving you will be reduced to becoming a normal vegetable gardener that has to return to the store every year to purchase fresh seed. Heirloom gardeners are not normal, we are a unique species and being tied down to corporate agri-business is not where we want to be. The simple act of seed saving is the start of your food rebellion, no longer will you be tied into corporate agri-business to provide you the makings of your garden….. You can do it yourself, for free… every year….. all you need to do is become a seed saver.

Below I will briefly cover some of the most common vegetables and how to go about storing the seed for more than a few years.


One of the most common heirloom seeds that are saved. Once the correct fermentation process has been followed and they have been dried out. They will keep in a common paper envelope for about 10 years without any special treatment. Working out when they are dry is a bit of an issue but suffice to say that a week on an open tray in dry conditions will do the trick.


Pumpkins are best harvested once the stalk has started to dry off. Then leave the pumpkin for a further 3 weeks, during this time the seeds will mature in the fruit and this period is critical for getting the best storage life out of a pumpkin. Scoop the seed out and rinse under running water to wash off any flesh. Spread them out on a tray and stir them every day to stop them from sticking to each-other. They are dry when they snap in half and don’t bend… 7-10 days typically. Store them in a paper envelope and keep them in the fridge for up to 7 years. Out of the fridge in a stable environment 3-5 years.


Allow the fruit to over-ripen on the vine and scoop the seeds out into a jar. Double the volume with water and  ferment for 4-5 days. Dry seeds until they snap and store in an envelope in a dry place for up to 5 years.


Same as cucumbers, but there is no need to ferment them just rinse off with water and dry them.


Simple, let the pods dry off naturally on the plant. Shell the peas/beans, allow to dry for a further week or so and lightly tap with a hammer, if they mash… dry them some more. If they shatter, spot-on. Store in a jar or sealed container in the fridge/freezer for up to 10 years. The freezer is also good to kill off any gogga’s that may have laid some eggs on your beans..


Clean off the seed, no need to remove the ‘beard’ just dry them for a week or two and store in a glass jar in the freezer. They will keep for at least 5 years, like that.


Both will cross with each other, so save seed from each variety every alternate year. They can also be dried out on a flat tray and then stored in a fridge for up to 5 years, after that they tend to lose germination every year. For beetroot and spinach it is very beneficial to soak the seed for 12 hrs before you plant the seed, as this will increase germination, especially after 3 years.


Best dried out properly, they need to pass the ‘hammer test’ as described for beans and will store for upto 30 years in the fridge.


Allow the fruit to ripen fully on the plant and then split the fruit to extract the seeds. Dry them on a plate until brittle and not easily dented by nail pressure. The seed lasts 2-3 years and is best stored in the fridge.


One of the weakest seeds for storage. 2 years is maximum and they need to be ‘refreshed’ every year.


Not really a common storage item but harvest the small tubers that look the best. DO NOT wash them and store in a cool dark place (Not in a fridge) until late august early September. It’s best to harvest a late crop (planted in Dec) and use those for germination in spring. They need a rest period to grow. 3 – 4 months will do it.


Garlic is harvested in Nov and planted again in Feb-March. Follow the planting instruction on our garlic page on the shop.

General Seed Storage Tips.

1)      Store in a Cool place

2)      Sore in a Dry place

3)      Store in a Dark place

4)      Dry the seed properly before storage

5)      An even temperature in a dark cupboard is far better than a fluctuating temperate.

6)      A little Diatomaceous Earth will prevent bugs from attacking your seed. (beans, corn and grains especially)

7)      If storing in a freezer, do not open the container while the seed is frozen. Allow it to assume room temperature before opening the container. This prevents condensation settling on the seed.

One of the best books that you can purchase on the storage of seed is Seed to Seed by Susanne Ashworth, buy a copy there is a host of information available in this book.


Keeping Heirloom Seed Pure (Part 2)

One of the hardest seeds to keep pure is Corn or Mielies. Traditionally a staple South African crop that originated from the America’s, heirloom and Open Pollinated corn has now become more and more scarce and hard to source.

South Africa’s rich history of “mielie boerdery” has all but been destroyed by the large Agro Science companies with their hybrid and GM varieties, our own government has totally ignored the plight of subsistence and smaller farmers with their ill-considered thrust to supply this GM infected seed to small farmers throughout the country, destroying any traditional varieties via pollen contamination.

It is estimated that upwards of 80% of our annual mielie harvest is GM and you can be assured that if you are not growing your own you are certainly ingesting GM tainted food. This is especially true if you eat any grain fed meats, as these are predominantly fed with GM derived grains like corn and soya.

So how does one keep your OP or heirloom corn varieties pure? It’s a simple process as long as you follow a few rules and are aware of what your neighbours are planting.

The first and most important rule is stand size. Your planting cannot be less than 40 plants. This is the absolute minimum and double would be better. There is no way that one can effectively save seed from an OP variety with less than 40 plants. If you do, you will find that you have destroyed the genetic variation essential in heirloom and OP corn varieties that can never be recovered. Also with a stand size of less than 40 plants you will also find that a high percentage of your harvest will be poorly pollinated and kernels will be missing on the cob.

The next rule is that you should always plant your corn in a block, rather 8 rows wide and 8 rows deep, than planting one long straight row. As corn is wind pollinated the pollen is easily blown away if planted in a single row, whereas if planted in a block one plant will be able to pollinate the next few rows ensuring even pollination and maximum genetic spread.

Finally you will want to save seed for next year. Your best seed for seed saving will come from the centre of your block planting. This is seed that has the most pollen variation and the least chance of being contaminated by another nearby planting. Harvest a centre block of 3 or 4 rows for seed and use the outer rows for green mielies, or for grinding down as an organic mielie meal or animal food etc.

These three rules above if followed will ensure that you get a good harvest and ensure that your seed is genetically robust from year to year.

The next question is how does one plant more than one variety and still keep them pure? The answer is simple and very effective. Plant your stands of corn 4-5 weeks apart. This will give you an extended harvest of up to 4 varieties in a season and will allow you to plant and save pure viable seed from each one of these varieties. Bear in mind that a late planting will need at least 3 months to mature properly on the stalk, especially if you are saving seed that needs to dry out. Please note that using this method you will need to supplement watering during the dry periods.

Your biggest source of contamination (other than your own plantings) are what your neighbours are planting, as you will need to work around their planting / pollination dates.


Blossom bagging

Keeping heirloom seed pure (Part 1)

One of the greatest joys with growing heirloom veggies is the sheer abundance of choice. Most heirloom veggie gardeners just have to plant more than a few varieties of one type of veggie. Just so that they can experience the exquisite flavours of 4 or 5 different tomatoes, or be able to have more than one kind of carrot on the table.

The joy of being able to do this is overshadowed by the question of how to keep the varieties pure. The whole aim of heirloom veggies is that one can save the seed from year to year. What’s the point of buying heirloom seed if you don’t save it?

This post will cover the simple process of blossom bagging to keep self pollinating vegetable varieties pure.

Blossom bagging is a simple technique that allows flowers that are naturally self pollinating (tomatoes and peppers are good examples) to literally get on with the job of producing pure viable seed without any insect interference.

Typically one would only need a single fruit or possibly two fruits for a successful seeds saving project. A single fruit should yield anything from 20- 200 seeds depending on the type of fruit in question.

Step 1: Purchase an organza bag, these are bags that are typically used to pack bath salts or homemade soaps in. You can buy these bags at or stores that cater for the craft market. If you are really brave you can cut up your wife’s net curtaining… but I never suggested that 😉

Unopened blossoms that are just right for bagging.
Unopened blossoms that are just right for bagging.

Step 2: Identify some flowers of the variety you want to save that are about to open. If you going to save a truss and a single flower has opened on that truss already, you can pull the flower off, leaving the unopened flowers to self pollinate inside the bag.

Step 3: Carefully enclose the flowers inside the bag, pulling the drawstring tight enough to exclude any insects, but not too tight that you will damage the stem.

Blossoms bagged with an organza bag, any colour will do.
Blossoms bagged with an organza bag, any colour will do.

Step 4: Everyday, as the flowers open in succession give the bag a light shake to encourage the pollen to shed and ensure good pollination.

Step 5: Once you can see that the fruit has set, you can remove the bag and mark the truss, we use small coloured cable ties that stand out. The bag can be used after a good wash on another plant. Washing ensures that no viable pollen remains in the bag to contaminate your next set of flowers.

This is a simple process, using it will allow you to save open pollinated and heirloom vegetable seed effectively.


Pumpkin Sex… the other side of Curcubit Pollination

My Mother-in-Law would be horrified at the title of this post, she would rather it was termed Pumpkin Relations… however here goes.

Cucumbers, Pumpkins, Squashes and melons have been favourites amongst gardeners for generations. One is able to carry seed through generations from your initial purchase as long as you keep the seed pure. This is quite difficult as these plants are generally bee pollinated and bees can travel quite far in their search for nectar and pollen. So the chances of a natural crossing from a neighbours plants is very possible.

I’m going to base pollination article on pumpkins, however all of the information is easily carried across to cuc’s, melons and any “curcubit” type vegetable. Typically in the garden environment there are 4 species of Pumpkin that we make use of. Broadly speaking the different species of pumpkin will not cross pollinate. So using Pumpkins as an example, if you had Curcubita pepo, C moschata, C maxima and C mixta you could grow one of each of all four varieties in your garden without concern for cross pollination. However your neighbor a few or even up to 10 roads down who also has a veggie patch could most definitely contaminate(well the bee’s actually) your variety.

So, what is one to do? The best answer is to hand pollinate one or two flowers of each variety. Here is a step by step instruction of hand pollination for pumpkins, cuc’s and melons. The melons/cuc’s are a bit harder as the flowers are smaller and you may go through a few attempts before you are comfortable and get it right. Aren’t we lucky we work with forgiving plants. Just remember you only need to save one fruit to provide you with enough seed for a few years.

Step 1: The evening before you plan to hand pollinate select two flowers a male that is just about to open and a female that is also just about to open. You can normally see this by watching the flowers for a few days and you will very quickly be able to establish at what stage the flower is about to open. Make sure that the flower has NOT opened to allow a bee or insect in. Bee’s will typically push themselves into a flower even if it’s just slightly open. So timing is critical. Do not use a flower that you think has had a bee in it. Pick the male flowers that are about to open.

Male flower attached to female with a peg, the evening before pollination
Male flower attached to female with a peg, the evening before pollination

Step 2: Peg the two flowers together ensuring that the peg keeps the ‘opening end’ closed and wait about 12 hours. One of the problems with cucumbers is the fact that as the flowers are so small a peg will not hold them closed. One way to get around this is to have small gauze bags (for the guys…. A small bag made from your wife’s net curtains are good. I’ll just deny I mentioned it) or do what Bill a friend of mine dose and uses a folded page from the Farmers Weekly and a peg to enclose his flowers. Enclose the two flowers in the bag as for the peg method. You need to wait the 12 hours otherwise the “reproductive bits” will not be ready.

The male flower has been stripped of it's petals and is being used as a paint brush to transfer pollen.
The male flower has been stripped of it's petals and is being used as a paint brush to transfer pollen.

Step 3: Tear the petals all the way away from the male while trying to keep as much pollen on the anther as possible and VERY carefully open the female flower, insert the male flower and rub the male anthers onto the style of the female flower. Thereby transferring pollen between the chosen flowers. You should also mark the fruit so that you know which ones are hand pollinated and from where you need to save the seed. Just a light scratch will do, it will carry right through to maturity. We use cable ties once the fruit has clearly started to show growth.

Step 4: Very Important. Close the female flower with the peg again. And leave it on until there is definite growth on the fruit. For smaller flowers, keep the newly forming fruit in the bag for a few days and then it can safely be removed and used for the next vegetable.

Female flower is closed again after pollination. Spent male flowers are discarded behind. It's always good to use at least two male flowers per pollination.
Female flower is closed again after pollination. Spent male flowers are discarded behind. It's always good to use at least two male flowers per pollination.

Step 5: Harvest the fruit when fully ripe. For Pumpkins it’s when the stalk turns brown and for cucumbers it’s when the cuc turns yellow and/or the flesh is soft. Once cut, give the pumpkins three weeks so that the seed can fully mature. With cuc’s as soon as they are over-ripe they are ready to harvest seed from.

Step 6: Scoop the seed out, wash clean in a sieve and dry. Cucumbers will benefit from a few days of natural fermentation to allow the flesh to completely break down around the seed. The fermentation process also helps to protect the seed from diseases. Just scoop the flesh with seeds into a glass and leave in a warm place for 2-3 days, then wash the flesh off the seeds. Pumpkins don’t need to ferment. Drying is a simple process, just remember to stir the seeds everyday so that they don’t stick together. Once they are brittle and snap they are ready for storage.

Notes: If you do a search on the web you will be able to pick up a number of techniques. One that will also work quite nicely is the paintbrush method of transferring pollen.

This may seem like a process, but bear in mind that you only need to pollinate a single pumpkin or cucumber to give you enough seed to start a farmers market. So don’t forget to share some seed with family and friends.


Seed Saving and GMO

Seed saving is possibly one of the oldest gardening pastimes. Before industrialization took over the world, farmers the world over would plant a crop, lovingly tend this crop and harvest it. A portion of the harvest was always set aside for the following years planting. In doing this year after year, plant varieties would adapt to the specific microclimate that it was planted in. This process created unique and robust varieties that were able to withstand the environmental and pest pressures that were annually exerted on them.

With the advent of modern agriculture (Post 1950) what has happened is that factory farms, and large scale monoculture has lead to a decrease in the abundant food crop varieties that used to be planted. Now, where there used to be hundreds of smaller family run farms, planting hundreds if not thousands of different crop varieties. Factory farms literally plant only one or at most a few varieties of a single crop. The devastation to the environment is apparent with large scale soil erosion and reduction in topsoil as well as the loss of critical soil biodiversity.

With the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMO), the plight of the farmer has gotten even worse. Now farmers will need to sign a contract with seed houses promising not to save seed and replant it. Even worse, a ‘Terminator’ gene has been developed that will ensure that harvested seed has no genetic viability. What does that say for the health ‘benefits’ of supposedly superior GMO varieties? Living food is the healthiest food.

One of the side effects of GMO is a problem called pollen drift. In mielie (corn) fields pollen drift can take pollen from a GMO variety onto a traditional open pollinated variety and thus ‘infect’ the traditional variety with GMO genes. What then happens (and it has) is that the GMO Seed House can then take the owner of the traditional variety to court for infringing on their patent rights. The same can apply to any crop where insects, or wind pollination can easily transfer pollen from GMO to traditional open pollinated crop varieties. What happens is that the seed saving farmer is prejudiced by the large GMO seed house, as he is no longer able to save a portion of his crop for the following years planting. He now has to go and buy new seed, but guess what? Traditional varieties are no longer stocked by the seeds houses, he can only buy hybrid and GMO varieties.

An additional problem with GMO in South Africa is that there is no transparency that gives you the consumer prior knowledge of what food stuffs are contaminated with GMO. A very good wager that can be taken is that every person in South Africa consumes a GMO derived food group on at least a weekly basis, for some it is literally a daily occurrence. We as South Africans are not being given a choice as to what we would like to eat.

Whats in my Garden?

This week we have had some lovely rain, what a blessing. Last sunday a neighbour helps us to cut firebreaks on our property and on tuesday we found that the tractor had broken the tap off the gate-valve that switches the water flow from the water tank (for household water) to the big vegetable patch. Fortunately it was broken in the open to the tank position. However, we were unable to water the big garden, until the rain came. YES!!!

This weekend I’ll fix the tap, but at least the wheat has had a good watering.

As for the rest of the garden, we are slowly clearing out the finished veggies, and the pigs are getting them. We added a whole lot of heirloom tomato seeds to our collection this week from a heirloom veggie growing friend in Somerset West, as well as some stunning Blue Inca Corn from another friend in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Most of the varieties will only be available for the 2010 growing season, however there are enough seeds of some of the varieties for this coming season.

The Edible Quote

The seed waits for its garden or ground where it will be sown.

Zulu Proverb