Click here for a Tomato Seed Saving Video Tutorial
It’s always a scramble this time of year to tie up loose ends, clean up gardens, prep for the spring and generally make sure anything I want to access isn’t on the ground before the snow really flies. Luckily there are a few things that can just sit simmering for a while until I get the time and/or ambition to move them along. Once such is the annual job of saving tomato seeds.
This process starts in August each year when the tomatoes really start rolling in. While I’m bringing a range of specimens to market, from some real beauties to the seconds that crack or bruise, what you never get to see on the stand are the best of the best. Those are the ones I save and in so doing I follow a tradition as old as agriculture itself. Probably older.
The first step in saving tomato seeds, or the seed from any fruit or vegetable, is the selection process. Be picky. You need to have extremely high and unyielding standards when choosing a tomato from which to save the seeds. You’re basically playing the part of evolution in an agricultural drama and evolution takes no prisoners. When you’re out in the garden or in by the table at the packing shed you are looking for the best of the best. The perfect tomato that seems like it really should be on the cover of a magazine about perfect tomatoes is the one you want. Pick it carefully and put it aside. Resist the urge to eat it. Now, repeat. You’ll need several fruits from any one variety to ensure your genetic pool isn’t too narrow. Try to pick fruit from multiple vines, not always from the same one unless that particular vine exhibits a unique quality you really want to repeat.
This is where I used to stand in awe of our agricultural heritage. Thousands of years ago we were a fairly hungry lot and perfect food was at a premium. It must have taken a really strong character to leave the best fruit alone right? In reality however just the opposite is true. Our ancestors figured out, probably fairly quickly, that the best fruit is the one you want to duplicate and you simply cannot have your tomato and eat it too. If you start saving the mediocre your food supply tanks within a couple generations. Also, when you’re really hungry the cracked, ugly tomato will feed you just as well as the pristine beauty hanging on the next vine. FYI that’s true when you’re not really hungry too and if everyone remembered that we’d waste a lot less perfectly edible, nutritious food. But I digress.
Once you’ve picked out your favorite tomato make sure it is good and ripe before picking. Then, once you’ve picked it you need to understand that it isn’t ripe. Seed production is not the same as fruit production. You want the fruit to get overripe. In fact, you really want to wait until it’s just disgusting before you even pick it. That isn’t always an option because our animal friends have the same evolutionary hard wiring that makes that tomato look, well, good enough to eat. To ensure animals don’t get my seed stock I always wait as long as is practical and keep an eye on things but then just pick them and move them into the cold storage shed to sit on a table and mellow further. Not until the fruit is literally falling apart and smells repulsive do I move to the next step.
Cut up the tomatoes and dump them into buckets. I use quart yogurt containers but anything will work as long as it’s waterproof and will hold the amount of material with which you’re working. Then, you let them sit some more. Be patient. You’ve got other things to do just now.
Traditional information on saving tomato seeds says you need to let them ferment for 3-5 days. That’s good advice and you should stick to it if you can. But if you can’t don’t worry. I’ve left mine for as long as a month. Yes, a month. I’m sure there are people reading this who scoff and think how awful that is. That’s fine but I still get lots of tomatoes from lots of tomato seeds. It’s not important to be exact. Remember, in nature the tomato seeds sit idle for months surviving through sun, rain, wind, snow, freezing and thawing. These little genetic miracles are perfectly suited to the abuse this farmer can throw at them. As long as you put the containers in a place where the smell and fruit fly population won’t offend you and they are protected from animals and children who might knock them over you’re fine for a while.
Once fermentation is complete and the seeds have separated from the skins, flesh and gelatinous material it’s time to rinse them. You need to do it several times until all the detritus is gone and you’re left with nothing but seeds. See the video at the top of this post for more visual information on this.
Once that’s done you need to dry the seeds. Do not put them in the oven. That’s not drying that’s killing. Remember, seeds are living things. They’ll need a few days to dry and you’ll need to stir them and flip them. I usually use large ceramic dinner plates but this year I just used the underside of the buckets because they’re labelled with sharpie to show what the variety is. You need to keep that straight throughout this process. You need something large enough to contain them that will allow good airflow. Don’t put them on paper towels or the like. They’ll stick and you’ll be frustrated when it comes time to pack them.
Once they’re fully dry (anywhere from 1 day to a week depending on your set-up) you can put them into anything you use to store your seeds. I save seed packets from the seed suppliers I use. Most good seed companies use resealable envelopes. Eventually the sealant glue wears away but if you’re careful you can use them for many years. Cross off all the existing information and relabel with the variety name and date saved. I also usually list why I chose to save them. ‘Superior flavor’ or ‘Blight resistant’, etc. I use white duct tape to cover the seed packet information and then write on it with a sharpie. Put the packets in a cool, or cold, dry place and next spring you can save that much more money when the seed catalogs arrive, but still enjoy garden fresh tomatoes that you yourself not only grew but that are that much closer to being perfectly adapted to your farm/garden micro-climate. Local food tastes better. Food you grew yourself is exponentially better than that. And when you start saving your seeds (and your pennies) the flavor only increases. Deserved, self-righteous satisfaction is a wonderful condiment to add to anything you grew yourself. Local Food. Eat well – be well.