The Q&A Archives: Disease prevention for seeds

Question: I swap tomato and cabbage seeds with other gardeners across the country, but I'm concerned some of this locally grown seed carries disease. Is there a nonchemical treatment I can do as a precaution against introducing seedling diseases to my garden? Jeanette Boettcher Saratoga, CA

Answer: Tomato and cabbage seeds need different treatments to ensure they're disease free, says David Cavagnaro at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Fermenting tomato seed kills many of the seed borne fungal and bacterial diseases, he notes. Ordinarily, when we harvest the seed, we let it sit in its own juice and pulp at room temperature for at least three days (we stir it occasionally). The acidity of the fermented pulp kills disease spores. Then we rinse the seed clean and let it dry out of thesun. Most of the seed savers you trade with probably already handle their tomato seed this way. Contact them to find out if they do. If a seed lot hasn't been treated this way, you could duplicate the process by buying a supermarket tomato, carefully discarding all its seeds, then crushing the flesh and letting it ferment with your seeds in it. For cabbage, I'd follow the hot water bath procedure as described in the Seed Savers Exchange's book, 'Seed to Seed,' by Suzanne Ashworth, says Cavagnaro. Place a cooking thermometer in a saucepan filled with water, and heat it to 122_F. Pour a little of this water into an electric frying pan, leaving the saucepan two thirds full, and then set the saucepan in the frying pan. Use the frying pan controls to raise or lower the water temperature in the saucepan. Heat the water to 126_F and, when the temperature is stable, pour in the seeds, gently stirring them for 30 minutes. Sieve the seeds out of the water and let me dry away from direct sunlight.

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