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ingredients and techniques

Saving Tomato Seeds

meg's picture

Late summer is upon us. The garden is needy, and the weather, until two days ago, had not been willing to do any of the obligatory watering for me. I mostly let the tomatoes go. They were on their way out anyway--four weeks of upper 90° weather and no rain will do that. I haven't had the nerve to uproot them yet, though. After I stopped clipping the "suckers" (offshoots between major branches that tend not to be very productive and that make tomato plants unwieldy), the plants took on a personality of their own, winding and spreading out like many-tentacled cuttlefish. I like them like that. They provide a nice jungle-esque appearance to the garden.

Late summer is one of my favorite times of the year. The days are shorter, but they seem longer somehow. Long and full and rich with golden light. I'm always amazed at how the light changes towards autumn. You notice it mostly in the late afternoon. The light is golden and subdued unlike the hot, brazen light of summer. The weeds have grown leggy and top-heavy, bending and swaying like lean dancers. The grasses are thick, walnut and apple trees are heavy with fruit, and the nights are cool, trailing off in a shroud of morning mist.

My kitchen has responded in kind to the new, cooler energy that late summer brings. With some of our last tomatoes, we made a smoked tomato paste, which we froze in ice cube trays for winter stews and sauces. Roast chicken has wandered back into our repertoire now that it isn't too hot to leave the oven on for a while. I've also kept busy baking sourdough bread and experimenting with cheese making (more on that later). It seems somehow like we're over the final hurdle of summer, and I can feel my own seasonal habits changing with the leaves.

In all the bustle of late summer, I have, however, managed to set aside some time to start thinking about next year's garden. It may seem to soon, but if you're a seed saver, harvest is a good time to pay extra attention. Most seeds can be saved simply by drying them out, but for tomatoes (and cucumbers and sometimes squash), a slightly more (but only slightly) sophisticated method is required. This involves fermenting the seeds for a few days to break down their gelatinous outer coating.

The fermenting process mimics the decay of the tomato, removing the seed coating and readying the seeds for deployment into the harsh world. There's really nothing to it. The important thing to remember about saving seeds, though, is that you cannot save hybrid seed. I mean, you can, but when you plant the seed, the plants will not grow true to type. This means that if you save seed from those really lovely Better Boy hybrid tomatoes that you had last year, your plants from the resulting seed will not produce Better Boy tomatoes. In addition, hybrids are bred for increased shelf life, attractiveness, and yield, not necessarily flavor or nutrition.

Thus, you'll want to save heirloom seeds. These seeds can be from tomatoes that you grow at home or from heirloom tomatoes bought at a market. This ensures that your seeds will grow true. To ferment tomato seeds, simply cut a tomato in half, scoop the seeds into a small glass jar (a glass container is best because you can see what's going on in there; also, use a jelly jar if saving seed from only a few tomatoes, a larger jar for more) along with any pulp that happens to fall out, and fill the jar halfway with water. Let the jar sit in a warm place for a few days, stirring occasionally, until a layer of mold develops on the surface. When the mold covers the surface of the liquid and the seeds begin to fall to the bottom, your seeds are ready to be cleaned.

Fill the jar with water and swirl it a little. Carefully pour off the murky liquid (your seeds should be at the bottom of the jar and will not float away), leaving the seeds in the bottom of the jar. Repeat this process until the water is clear, about 4 or 5 times. Pour the seeds into a fine mesh strainer to remove as much liquid as possible. Then, spread the seeds out on a plate to dry completely. This may take a few days. When the seeds are dry, store them in the freezer in an air and water-tight container. Oh, and make sure you label them. You'll want to know what you're planting next spring.


greenthumbs's picture

Great read! I was wondering how to save seeds. I have fond memories of my grandfather's mason jars of dried seeds sitting on his chest-of-drawers. Now that I'm older, with kids, I would like to get into some habits that my grandfather had. He had his out of necessity, I have mine because I am not fond of what I hear of Monsanto and other companies modifying seeds. I will be visiting the website more often now, knowing that I have options for finding information for food. Cheers!

meg's picture

Really glad you liked the post, greenthumbs! It's definitely good to have questions about where your food comes from and to take more control over what you and your family eat. Anyone can grow a few veggies in their backyard (or on their deck or balcony or windowsill, for that matter), and growing heirloom veggies means that you can save the seeds from year to year.

Mike Broderick's picture

For anyone really 'into' vegetable gardening seed saving is a must. Thanks for the tips on tomato seeds! That technique never occurred to me. Ive just been washing thm aggressively and leaving them on a plate in the sun to dry out. Then I can usually scrape the individual seeds off.

One tip I can add. To store seeds I find that multi day 'pill boxes' which can be found in The Container Store or Holds Everything are ideal to label and store seeds from different varieties. Tomatoes and peppers in particular are a chore because I like to grow so many types and the seeds all look identical. I would never keep it all organized otherwise.

meg's picture

Thanks for the great tip, Mike! Now that I think of it, those pill containers are perfect. I've just been using small envelopes, and it's kind of a mess. Your system sounds way more organized.

Beverley Howe's picture

I saved seed from plants I had bought at the garden centre. I didn't know about the fermenting process and just spread the seed onto paper towels to dry. they stuck firmly so I simply laid the towel on seed raising mix, covered it with another layer of mix and in a few days I had a great crop of seedlings which I have pricked out into larger containers to grow on.
I have been told these plants might not fruit because the original plants were hybrids,making them sterile. Is this likely?

meg's picture

Hi Beverly. The thing about hybrid seeds is that they do not grow true to type. Hybrids are a cross between two or more types of plants--the resulting offspring is supposed to exhibit the best traits of the parent plants. For instance, many hybrids are bred to have increased vigor, uniformity, yield, disease-resistance, etc. The bad thing about hybrids, though, is that the seeds from a hybrid plant will not produce the same desirable traits the hybrid was bred for in the first place. The seeds may not be sterile, but they will yield plants that are less desirable and very unlike the hybrid plant you bought. This, I suppose, is a good argument for heirlooms--you can save the seeds successfully.

Suzanne Bardin's picture

I love the Better Bush tomatoes I found this past summer -- but they are listed as hybrid. Does this mean that saving the seeds and replanting will not come out well? Actually, I just read the above info and answered my own question. Tks.

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