Diane Grant, who lives in Lakebay, harvested a tomato this year that she had never seen before. She loved the flavor and was afraid she might never find it again. Could she save the seeds and rest easy next season? She knew just who to ask. Neighbor Jerry McCourt is the go-to person for vegetable garden advice in the neighborhood.
McCourt has been gardening for more than five decades — ever since he bought his first house in Home in 1967 — and is known among friends as an inquisitive do-it-yourselfer.
He grew up in Tacoma and discovered the Key Peninsula when his parents rented a place on Delano Bay in the summer. After completing undergraduate and graduate work in English at the University of Washington, he took a job at Tacoma Community College where he spent the next 43 years teaching English and critical thinking.
“As a teacher I had summers off for the most part so I could spend that time in the garden,” McCourt said. His first garden was modest. He planted lettuce and bought ducks to eat the inevitable slugs. “I put the ducks next to the lettuce because slugs like to eat lettuce and ducks like to eat slugs. It turns out ducks like to eat lettuce too. So, I ended up collecting all of the slugs to feed the ducks.”
In 1973 he moved to his current home in Lakebay with 4 acres including “a bit of tideland.” He married Jayne in 1983 and they raised their blended family of six — “two, two and two.”
The vegetable garden was on the south side of the two-story house. The previous owner sold produce from the garden at the roadside so the basement included a cold room for storage and an old wood burning cookstove where all the canning had been done.
By the time they bought the house it was surrounded by big trees. During a 1989 storm, a tree took out their second floor and trapped the girls in their bedroom. Hazardous trees were soon removed and with more sun came a bigger garden.
Jerry now has a greenhouse, grapes, apples, pears and figs. The resident ducks are fenced well away from the lettuce.
McCourt has always grown his vegetables from seeds. Before he built his greenhouse, he grew seedlings in the basement under lights and transferred them to a cold frame if they couldn’t go straight into the garden. He started collecting his own seeds in the mid-80s.
His wife Jayne said, “He couldn’t find everything he wanted. Plus, he’s really cheap and he doesn’t like to pay for anything he can get himself.”
He learned what to do through books and the internet.
“I am a reader. I collected a bunch of information on the internet about seed viability, planting times, and I keep some charts right where I keep my seeds,” he said. The basement, still dominated by the now decommissioned woodstove, houses racks for drying seeds, boxes containing carefully labeled envelopes with seeds he’s collected, along with his wine and cider projects.
Some seeds, he says, are worth saving. Others not so much. Varieties that cross-pollinate won’t produce predictable plants. Squashes are one such plant. “If I only grow one variety, I can save the seeds,” he said. Carrots are a problem because there are wild varieties that cross pollinate with what is in the garden.
Jerry saves his pepper seeds, but Jayne said that comes with risks. “We have Hungarian peppers that are really hot because they crossed with jalapeños. And jalapeños that have no heat,” she said. Jerry simply applies a taste test before he uses them. Their bell peppers, with seeds derived from a grocery purchase, have bred true and improved every year.
Some seeds can be directly removed from mature pods or vegetables and dried, as with beans or peas, or washed and dried, as with squash.
Tomatoes breed true, but saving them takes additional steps, as Grant discovered. The gelatinous sac that surrounds each seed contains substances that inhibit germination and can also serve as a safe haven for diseases, so fermentation is recommended. Seeds are removed along with pulp from ripe, healthy fruit, covered with water, placed in a jar, covered with cheesecloth, and set aside in a warm place for a few days. Bubbles will rise and a mold may form on the top. The seeds are removed — heavy, healthy seeds will sink to the bottom — rinsed and dried.
Grant has her seeds safely stored and is looking forward to eating Old German tomatoes next summer.
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