Since I had the chance to talk about breeding tomatoes on last week's episode of The Splendid Table, I thought I'd follow up with instructions on how to create your own tomato variety. It is really easy, I promise. If you start your own tomatoes from seed, you can breed your own tomato variety -- and you totally should because it is freaking cool. Any gardener knows the thrill of picking that first tomato you grew yourself. Picking the first tomato of a variety you bred yourself multiplies that thrill a hundred times. Then you get to name it. And share it with friends, or pass it on to your children.
So how do you do it? Well, the basic process is to pick two or more tomato varieties you like for whatever reasons and make them have sex with each other. That combines and scrambles their genes, so when you grow a bunch of their children and grandchildren, you get all different combinations of their traits, from which you get the pick the new tomato you like best.
For example: I garden in the north with a short growing season, so is it is very important to me that my tomatoes start producing early. But a lot of early tomatoes aren't very tasty. To remedy that, I could cross a very early tomato with a very delicious tomato. Their children (called the F1 generation) will all have exactly half of their genes from their early mother, and half their genes from their delicious father, and so will all be essentially the same, and usually roughly half-way between their parents. Save seeds from those plants, and you get the F2 generation (the grandchildren of the original parent varieties), each of which will be a random mix of the genes of the two original parents.(for a more detailed explanation of F1 and F2 generations, see my explanation here). If you grow enough plants of that generation, you'll hopefully find a individual or two which combines the best traits of both their parents: delicious fruits produced early. You'll also get some which combine the worst of both worlds -- late, bland fruit -- as well as crazy, unexpected stuff. Genetics is way more complex than I'm going to get into in this little explanation, so crosses don't always do what you expect. Personally, I think that is half the fun. You plan the best you can, and then go with what pops out at you.
Once you find an individual plant in that F2 generation that you like, the next step is just to save seeds from that plant, and keep growing them out and picking your favorites for a few generations. Each year, you will see less and less variation in the plants you grow out from seed. After a few years, when all your seedlings are looking, growing, and tasting pretty much the same, you've got your new variety. Give it a name, collect a bunch of seeds, and share them with friends and family. And, if you are like me, start dreaming up what you could combine it with next to make it even more delicious, or a different shape, or bigger or smaller or... the sky is the limit.
If you are a gardener, the whole process is pretty much stuff you know how to do already: Grow seeds, taste test, pick your favorites. The only think you need to learn how to make the two original varieties have sex to produce that first hybrid generation and start the whole ball rolling.
Here is how.
In order to make two different tomato plants get together and make hybrid babies, you first need to prevent the mother of your hybrid babies from having sex with itself. So find a flower bud just about to open:
Once the stamens are out of the way, find a fully open flower from the other parent of your cross, and pull off one or two of its stamens.
Gently dab this pollen onto the tip of the stigma of the first flower