At the end of my third full summer of vegetable gardening I decided that it is time to take the plunge and try saving my own seeds for the first time. Tomatoes were the obvious choice on the grounds of utility and ease. This summer and last I grew from the Canadian Heritage Mix sold by Salt Spring Seeds and had a great deal of success. Even with the rainy summer of 2009 our tomato plants produced a bigger crop than we could eat fresh and best of all the tomatoes taste better than anything available in a grocery store. Based on what I had read (and now on experience) tomato seeds are fairly easy to save because the seed is ready at the same time as the edible crop–unlike most other plants (beets, lettuce, greens, radishes, etc.) which take longer to go to seed and by then are inedible. Off the top of my head the only two categories of vegetables that I can think of whose seeds would be easier to save are the autumn/winter squashes (think pumpkin seeds) and beans that are grown for dry storage (the seed is the food crop).
I was further motivated to save tomato seeds this year because amazingly they started growing wild in the garden. Tomatoes are native to south and central America and supposedly need to be started indoors in February or March here in Canada in order to bear ripe fruit before the first autumn frosts. I have seen tomato plants grow out of composters here but the ones that popped up in our garden where the tomatoes were last year actually bore ripe fruit. I imagine the fact that last year’s tomatoes were grown from seeds (these are either from Pollock or Manitoba varieties) specifically bred to do well in Canadian conditions helped a lot. The “wild” tomatoes were quite delicious and hopefully if started indoors next year they’ll be even more productive.
I have read a bit in the past about saving tomato seeds but this seemed like a process better demonstrated than explained in writing so I went to youtube to see what videos of seed saving were available. The most popular result of my search was a video produced by a gentleman named Clifton Middleton who is a bona fide hippie (he was arrested in 1972 trying to import marijuana into Miami from Jamaica; his defense relied, in part on marijuana use for religious reasons) and seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to saving tomato seeds. If you are interested I encourage you to watch the video but here is a summary of the process:
- Quarter the tomatoes (use ones that have coloured fully on the vine) and gently scrape the gel, liquid, and seeds into a bowl. The flesh can be reserved and is perfectly edible.
- Pour this into a container that has been marked with the tomato variety (the seeds are identical from variety to variety so careful labeling is essential).
- Add one and a half times as much liquid to the container as it already contains in tomato juice, gel, and seeds. Cover the container with a piece of cloth and let stand at room temperature for three to five days so that it will ferment.
- After this time a layer of moldy scum will have formed on top of the jar’s contents and the viable seeds will have sunk to the bottom. Apparently, the mold either kills seed-borne disease directly or consumes the nutrients that these unwelcome guests would otherwise use to survive. Carefully pour off the scum and then pour the seeds into a strainer and rinse.
- Tap out onto a paper towel-lined plate (yes, even hippies use paper towel) and allow the seeds to dry outside in a gentle breeze or in well-ventilated indoor location.
- Store in carefully marked envelopes, glass jars, or small plastic bags.
The containers varied in size, shape, and material and so did the ease of removing the moldy scum. The glass Mason jars worked best because their height relative to diameter forced the mold together into a relatively contiguous layer that poured off quite easily. Next year I’ll try to coordinate my canning and seed-saving efforts more rigorously so that I have more available jars for this process.
Saved tomato seeds, if stored properly, are fully viable for at least four years and up to ten years. Seed can only be saved from open-pollinated varieties (usually referred to as heritage or heirloom) because crossbred hybrids will not reproduce true to type. There are good articles out these (like this one) with more information about tomato seed saving.