Mike and I spent the last few weeks building an incubation box for tomato seeds. Today I planted the first batch of Fruity Mix and Fuzzy Mix seeds in it:
These seeds are precious. As far as I know, they are the last remaining seeds of the Fruity Mix and Fuzzy mix tomato breeding pools developed by legendary plant breeder Tim Peters. Tim described Fruity Mix as “one of the best tasting tomato breeding pools I ever developed”. And I think he’s right – it was easily the tastiest of the 83 tomato varieties I grew in my previous experiments with tomatoes.
Fuzzy Mix, while less important to me, is also really interesting. This mix was bred for its foliage – fuzzy gray leaves – in some cases, as gray and fuzzy as the popular ornamental “Dusty Miller”. I don’t feel as fanatical about Fuzzy Mix as I do about Fruity Mix, but again, these may be the last seeds of this pool and I would like to keep it going.
I originally got these seeds from Tim in 2000 or 2001. Sometime between then and now, Peters Seed and Research (Tim’s business) went out of business. Web searches for “Fruity Mix” came up empty, as did searches through popular seed exchange groups like Tatiana’s Tomatobase and Seed Savers Exchange. I had just about resigned myself to the idea that they were gone forever.
Then I had lunch with my old college friend Linda, who happens to be married to my ex. We were talking about gardening (read: “tomatoes”), and she mentioned that they had over 100 varieties of tomato seeds. I sat bolt upright and said, “YOU HAVE MY SEEDS!!!” I had totally forgotten that I gave Rob my seed collection when I went to Southeast Asia.
Well, Linda scoured the entire house three times until she found the Fruity Mix and Fuzzy Mix packets. There were 47 Fruity Mix seeds and about 150 Fuzzy Mix seeds. So I’ve planted half of them in this batch. (Mike suggested that I split them into two batches, in case some disaster strikes one batch – which was a great idea.)
Unfortunately, the seeds are 17-18 years old now. Tomato seed germinates well up to 10 years, but somewhere between 14 and 16 years germination rate goes over a cliff. So I expect a low germination rate. And for the same reason, I’m planting all the seeds this year – because germination will be even lower next year. It’s now or never.
Since the seeds are both delicate and precious, I asked some tomato experts for hints on germinating old seed before planting them. Tim Peters (who bred the pool originally) recommended using bright (non-heating) lights directly above the seed blocks, and keeping the soil at 85-95 degrees. Craig LeHoullier, author of Epic Tomatoes, recommended a couple possibilities and sent data from his experiments. I looked at his data and decided to try soaking in 1 part bleach and 4 parts water for ten minutes, followed by a thorough rinse and brief soak, followed by patting dry and planting in the soil blocks.
Mike and I spent about two weeks developing and tweaking the seed incubator. It looks like this:
The incubator is essentially a box built out of foil-backed foam insulation that we bought at Home Depot, with the reflective side facing in to maximize the light available to the plants. We’re using two 20×20 plant heating mats (one for each seedling tray) to warm the soil. Each heating mat is plugged into a temperature controller; the temperature controller’s probe is stuck into a soil block near the middle of the tray, at about the same level that the seeds are planted.
As a further safety measure, we’ve got a SensorPush temperature and humidity sensor in one of the trays:
The SensorPush works with a mobile app that alerts you if the temperature or humidity goes out of set bounds. We don’t have the SensorPush Wi-Fi Gateway, which would allow alerts anywhere, but it will alert via Bluetooth if we’re within 300 feet of the sensor, i.e. if we’re home. That’s probably good enough, since if we’re not home there isn’t much we can do anyway.
The system isn’t perfect. We’re still struggling to find a way to keep the soil blocks in the recommended 85-95 degree zone while staying within Mike’s guidelines for fire safety. We’ve improved things a lot, so we’ll see how it goes. If this batch doesn’t do well I’ll get more creative about solving temperature issues.
I’m calling this section of the tomato growing project Carpe Diem (Latin for “Seize the day”) because I think it illustrates an important principle for life, and particularly for creative work. If I could, I’d have it branded on the forehead of every person who might one day do anything creative – mirror image, so it would be the first thing they’d see, every morning for the rest of their lives: Do it, Do it now.
Someone asked me whether I was nervous about holding the last seeds of some pretty awesome tomato genes. They also asked if I’d considered sending them to people with more expertise.
Well, of course I’m nervous. Terrified, in fact. But I’m going ahead anyway, and I’m doing it myself because I don’t think I’d be able to find an expert who would take on the project and value it as much as I do. And, frankly, this is not the kind of project for which deep expertise is necessary – passion, willingness to research, and attention to detail are all that’s needed.
There’s also no time to lose. These seeds are old enough that another year’s wait would be disastrous. Waiting to develop more expertise would destroy them just as surely as doing it wrong now.
Well, the same thing is true for creative work. Every day you put off doing something creative – every day you let feelings of inadequacy, fear, or I’m-not-an-artist prevent you from engaging in creative work – is a day that you are dying. Because you have a finite lifetime. Every day that you don’t seize is a day that kills you – and your creative self – a little more.
I know it’s easy to say “I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it next week, month, year. I’ll do it after I take that workshop.” But “tomorrow” can easily lead to “never”. And killing your creative self out of fear would be terrible.
The need to seize the day is clearer to me than to most people, for which I’m grateful. Because I battled terrible bipolar depression from the age of fourteen on, I pretty much expected to commit suicide before the age of thirty. (When you spend about 1/3 of your time in horrible emotional pain and struggling with suicidal compulsions – and you’re only a freshman in high school – this is not too surprising.) So I grew up with a terrible urgency to seize and live every day – because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get many of them. And even though it looks like I’ll survive decades longer than I originally thought, I still have that sense of urgency – because I know that I am dying. So it’s vital to live. Every day counts.
So even if it’s something precious, even if you’re terrified you’ll screw up, even if you feel the stakes are high – do it. Do your research, figure out how best to approach it – but do it, and do it now. Seize the day, because you – like all of us – are dying.
Of course, “carpe diem” means different things to different people. For example, I recently had this conversation with someone else who believes in seizing the day:
“Hey Tigress, why are you sitting by the front door? It’s not open. There’s nothing to see!”
“I’m waiting for my Amazon package!” answered Tigress. “I can’t wait for it to arrive!”
“Uh oh. Just what is in this Amazon package? More cat treats?”
“Thirty live mice!” said my beautiful cat.
As I was absorbing the implications of releasing dozens of rapidly reproducing rodents into my entire body of textile artwork, not to mention 400 pounds of mostly silk and cashmere yarn, Tigress helpfully reassured me, “Don’t worry, Mom – it won’t be that expensive. I got the 15% discount for a monthly subscription.”
“Tigress!! What makes you think you can fill up the entire house with your cat toys????“
“But they’re not cat toys, Mom,” she said smugly. “They’re nutritional supplements.”
“Sure. Didn’t you know? ‘A mouse a day keeps the vet away.’
….Fortunately, that’s when I woke up.
Of course the first thing I did was rush over to my computer to see if there were any unauthorized charges to my Amazon account. Happily, there weren’t any, but I have been keeping an eagle eye on my Amazon account ever since. Tigress is a very clever cat.