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TOMATO (Lycopersicon esculentum) family: Solanaceae


About Saving Tomato Seed

When I was a child, my mother saved seed in a shoebox so it was understood that if I wanted seed for my small garden, I should do the same. Usually she folded the seed into a paper napkin, sealed it with a rubber band and then identified by writing, "Yellow Marigold" or whatever, on the napkin with a ballpoint pen. For saving tomato seed, I learned to squeeze the seeds onto the napkin, spread the gooey mass out, then let it dry in the sun for a day or two and then roll it up and band it. The next year I could tear little strips of napkin into a sort of seed tape and plant it in a pot of soil to start my new tomato plants. It worked fine.s

Now, to save tomato seed I do it like the professionals and squeeze the seed and juices into a container. I leave it to ferment for about two days. By then the liquid is frothy, pungent smelling and often there is mold growing on the surface. From here I dump the mess into a larger container and add water, slosh it around, let the seeds settle to the bottom and then carefully pour the rest out. I'll do this once or twice adding more water each time and at the end of the process the seeds will be clean, free of the sticky gel and tomato pulp. Depending on the amount of a variety of tomatoes you are processing you might use a pail (a bushel of tomatoes) or a small plastic cup (for a few tomatoes).

The clean seed is dumped onto a screen or sheets of newspaper will do and allowed to dry. Voila, classy, clean tomato seed. When I operated the Long Island Seed Company, I would add a teaspoon of Chlorox bleach to a quart of the last rinse water and let it set for 20 minutes. I probably shouldn't have bothered since the fermentation process does a nice job; I'm told, of destroying any seed borne pathogens that could cause disease. The only disgruntled customer I ever had while in the seed business (a bedding plant grower in Tennessee) claimed that my tomato seed was diseased because all of the seedlings fell over and rotted in his seed flat. "Never have I had such terrible seed", he wrote, "and I've grown tomatoes for 30 years". I called him to explain that he was experiencing a damping off problem which is common if the seed is kept too cool and moist and the fungus spores are in the soil or transferred to the soil by unclean flats or utensils. He just couldn't believe that it was a sanitation and culture issue on his end. I still get a little crazy thinking about this customer.

Actually, there must have been other disgruntled customers but I guess they kept to themselves, thank goodness.


Fermenting Tomato Pulp

When you are fermenting your tomato seed, juices and the pulp that gets in to the liquid you may think there must be another use for this pungent bubbly liquid that the seeds have to be washed out from. Actually, unless you visit homes in the tomato growing region of Holland, it probably wouldn't dawn on you that there's another use for the stuff. Some years ago I visited my niece and her husband in the "glass city" part of Holland. He is a hydroponics tomato grower as many folks in this region are. Johan and Andrea took me over to their neighbors who had a little stove-top distillation unit steaming away. Concentrated alcohol would drip out of one end into our little shot glasses. Ah, Genneiva, the Dutch version of vodka. "So what goes into the other end of the distiller as a source of the alcohol?", I asked my hosts. They laughed as they pulled the sofa out from the wall. There were carboy after carboy of fermenting squeezed tomatoes. They were making tomato wine! Only tomato wine is pretty awful and you have to drink so much to get drunk they explained. So what do you do when you have so many tomatoes...

Brandywine Tomato

I like telling the story of how the Long Island Seed Company became the biggest seller of "Brandywine" tomato seed. So here it is again, thanks for asking. In the late 1970's I sold seeds at the local flower show out of the jars and developed quite a following. "How many teaspoons do you want", I would ask. It was fun to talk to gardeners from all over Long Island who were surprised that I raised most of my own seed here on Long Island. The varieties were pretty conventional though. Seeds of "Marglobe" Tomato and the Italian "Cucuzzi" Squash were popular. I don't think that I ever realized that there was as much diversity in vegetables until my Latino and Italian customers started to send me seed that they raised in their gardens. About this time, Kent Whealy had started the Seed Savers Exchange and I became an early member. Suddenly it was clear to me that there were many seed collectors across the country doing the same thing that I was. I was introduced to the concept of "heirloom" seeds, those passed down from generation to generation. Handcrafted and treasured, those seeds would provide the basis for my passion for genetic diversity in the home garden.

I looked for interesting new varieties especially of tomatoes and began to trade with other collectors. Ben Quisenberry had amassed an amazing collection of tomato varieties. When I began to trade with him, he was probably in his late 80's and the work of maintaining his "Big Tomato Garden" was becoming too much for him. He had sold tomato seed through a small advertisement in the classified section of "Organic Gardening and Farming" but it never brought much business; now, he was happy to pass on the varieties to other collectors.

I received the Brandywine Tomato in the above glysine envelope (see front and back) that Ben printed on a small hand press with his address and then in his own handwriting, wrote "gift" and a description of the varieties that he included. I called to thank him and ask, "How will I tell the varieties apart"? He responded, "You'll know Brandywine by the leaves, they're very unusual". He kept records of where the different varieties in his collection came from. Brandywine came from woman named, Dorris who said it was in her family, the Sudduth family for many years.

The Seed Savers Exchange was beginning to offer Brandywine among it's members while I was selecting the plants and fruit from Ben Quisenberry's seed for desirable characteristics. After three years of selection, I offered the Brandywine Tomato in the 1984 Long Island Seed Catalog. Like the rest of my tomatoes, a packet of seed was a quarter (no, I didn't make much money). I named my selection (a less cracking and more productive variation of the original), "Brandywine -Quisenberry Strain" after Ben. This was later changed by others to Sudduth Strain as the quest to find the original roots of Brandywine tomato began (see seedsaver, Craig LeHoullier's website for a the history of this tomato: