When Royer Held decides which tomatoes to plant in his garden each year, he doesn’t look through seed catalogs. He simply sorts through a collection of plastic bags that hold his own private stash of tomatoes-to-be.
He’s a seed-saver, cleaning and saving seeds from his own stock of plants and trading with others who have varieties he’d like to try. It’s his way of saving the flavorful tomatoes he loves and maybe even developing a new strain by working with generations of hybrids.
“Seed-saving is the ultimate source of local food,” says Held, a computer programmer who’s been involved in gardening since he was a child.
Held’s slightly disheveled garden at Greenview Park – one of the Project Grow gardens there – is a library of tomato genetics, but with wood-and-wire frames in the place of shelves, and instead of handing you a volume to read, he might give you a tomato to taste – maybe a Lollipop cherry tomato or a sausage-shaped Pirkstine Orange.
Held’s efforts go back to the time when farmers saved seeds from their gardens, developing regional varieties of tomatoes with resistance to local diseases. When seed companies began to sprout, representatives traveled around the country picking up promising tomato lines and developing new hybrids.
After years of saving and trading seeds, Held is growing genetically sturdy heirloom tomatoes – like Olga’s Yellow Round Chicken – in his 25-by-30-foot plot, as well as a number of hybrids that can result in any number of next-generation variations. A tomato that ripens as green one year, might produce seeds with recessive color genes that grow red or brown or yellow, white or pink fruit the next year. He’s even gotten all those colors from the same generation of tomatoes.
Held got started years ago when he and Marcella Trautmann started planting tomatoes in the Project Grow garden at Catholic Social Services at the corner of Packard Street and Golfside Drive. They must have put in about 200 tomatoes on their plot there, says Trautmann, who also is a walking encyclopedia of tomato information.
Currently, she has a vegetable garden at County Farm Park, along with a separate plot for her tomato crop, which this year includes 70 varieties.
Held is growing only 24 tomato varieties this year; last year, he had 46. One year, there were 100, he says, but he had to make some room for other vegetables, like potatoes – which developed into another seed-saving project.
Each season, Held tries to have a garden that includes tomatoes of every stripe, including cherry, beefsteak, oxheart and salad varieties, with all the shapes and colors that tomato leaves come in. This past season, with its wet weather and cool nights, hasn’t been the greatest for tomatoes. Held says the tomatoes that have done the best in his garden are from more northern climes, such as Manx Marvel, from the Isle of Man, which held up well.
Though the tomato is a New World vegetable, it’s become quite global. What would Italian cuisine be without the tomato?
But different cultures have developed their own tomato varieties – Held’s got a delicious Couer de Boeuf from France and a Canestrino DiLucca from Italy. Still, he’s seen American heirloom names pop up in a number of counties, including during a trip to France last year when he found one woman selling heirloom seeds like Brandywine and Green Zebra.
Besides saving seeds from his own garden, Held also trades with other gardeners through the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of heirloom plant varieties.
Saving Seeds: A Tutorial
If you’ve run into some tasty tomatoes and want to try saving some of the seeds for next year, time is running out with the winding down of the season. Keep in mind that the seeds of hybrid tomatoes won’t produce the same fruits, so save the seeds of heirloom tomatoes, which will be genetically true to their parent plants.
Some experts recommend soaking the seeds in water, a method to help get rid of some plant diseases. This involves soaking the seeds in water until a smelly mold forms in two to four days. Scrape off the mold and rinse the seeds.
Held simply takes the seeds he wants to save and washes them through a screen to wash off the gel that encases them and inhibits germination.
In either method, when the seeds are clean, let them dry completely. Though Held stores them in plastic bags, he says paper is fine, too. He writes a description of the tomatoes on each bag, including the color and dimensions of the fruit, along with a description of the taste.
Held says he likes a tomato taste that balances the acids and sugars, as well as has a creamy texture. It’s tough for him to choose a favorite, though this year he’s partial to Orange Russian 117, a bicolor oxheart variety.
Trautmann also ponders the question of her favorite tomato. How a tomato tastes can change year to year depending on weather and soil, she says. In general, says Trautmann, “I like a tomato with flavor.”
Both she and Held are working on stabilizing a strain of the hybrid Old Brooks. Held is developing a yellow tomato called Gold Brooks; Trautmann is looking at a variety she calls Tropical Brooks that she says tastes a little salty.
Held is trying to see if he can develop a green oxheart tomato, but that requires time, patience and a working knowledge of botany. In an open air garden, it’s difficult to find the time and patience to pollinate tomato flowers with pollen from a specific plant.
The trick is all in the timing, Held says, and takes a skill that natural pollinators have perfected.
Says Held: “I’m a terrible bee.”
About the writer: Marianne Rzepka, former reporter for the Ann Arbor News and Detroit Free Press, is a Master Gardener who lives in Ann Arbor and thinks it’s fun to turn the compost pile.