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Saving Your Heirloom Tomato Seeds

How to Save Heirloom Tomato Seeds for Next Year

Gardening is about enjoying things growing in the soil, getting dirty without feeling guilty, and generally taking the time to soak up a little peace and serenity.

– Lindley Karstens

Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.

Alan Ray

The Garden

For many, by mid-summer the garden is in full swing. Few endeavors can match the self- satisfaction having a healthy garden can provide. Gardening is a three-way win that positively affects the body, mind and spirit. One could rightfully add a fourth win if including the harvest. The most popular garden item is by far the tomato.

A Ton of Tomatoes

A staggering 1.42 tons of fresh market tomatoes are grown each year in the United States. Additionally, another 14.7 million tons of processing tomatoes were harvested. In Mexico, one of the top 10 countries in the world for tomato cultivation, some 3.5 million tons of tomatoes are produced annually for consumers.

Good Gardening is Good For You

Planning which vegetables you intend to grow and mapping out your garden keeps the mind active and in tune with the task at hand. Keeping up with the garden through the physicality of prepping, planting and maintaining, is great cardio and it gets you out into the sunshine and fresh air. Gardening also brings with it a nearly indescribable quiescence and peace that allows one to escape, if even for a while, the daily grind that comes with just living.

While vegetable gardens are great to have overall, this article will focus on tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes their seeds and how to preserve them. This article doesn’t involve what kinds of tomato to grow or how to grow them, (you’ll find lots of articles about that on this site) but how to preserve the seeds from your favorite brands in order to grow the exact same delicious tomatoes next season you were able to grow this year.

Saving Tomato Seeds

Savvy tomato growers know the secret to growing consistently great tomatoes is to save tomato seeds from some of your favorite tomatoes of the season (always choose seeds from the best tomatoes of the bunch). The best seeds produce the best fruit so those are the seeds you should save.

Once you learn how easy it is to save tomato seeds, it may become a gardening tradition with you. In addition to the seeds, seed savers save time and money.

After the Harvest

How many times while enjoying some delicious tomato that you or a generous friend has grown have you lamented; These are so delicious, I wish I could grow these very same tomatoes in my garden next year? Well, the good news is, you can. By correctly preserving your tomato seeds you can enjoy your favorite tomatoes year after year.

Vegetable Seeds vs Tomato Seeds

Some vegetable seeds you can just gather from the fruit and let dry. Tomatoes seeds are a bit more tricky and require a process to ensure you preserve them in the right way but it is pleasingly simple to do. This drying discipline will guarantee you grow the same great tasting tomatoes in your garden next time you plant tomato seeds.

Preserving Tomato Seeds

One of the first steps to properly saving tomato seeds is choosing the right seeds. You want to harvest the seeds from only the healthiest fruit. Essentially, you’ll want to save seeds from those tomatoes that have the most flavor and have proven more disease and insect resistant. You should take seeds from only the healthiest and very best tasting tomatoes in order to pass those genes along. Save the best of the best and toss the rest.

Additionally, save only seeds from OP (open pollinated) tomatoes. Open pollinated is a horticultural term used to describe seeds that reproduce naturally on their own and produce the same fruit year after year or seeds that breed true. This includes all heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are a very stable cultivar and because of that stability, heirloom tomato seeds grow virtually the same tomato every time.

What’s in a Name?

Have you ever wondered how a tomato earns the title heirloom? In order to be labeled an heirloom, a tomato must be established for at least 100 years. In the UK, heirloom tomatoes are referred to as heritage tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes tend to have a shorter shelf-life and tend to be less resistant to disease than the modern day hybrids but to a traditionalist, their flavor is unmatched. Below are a few types of tomato you may or may not be familiar with. For many, it’s hard to beat the flavor of an heirloom.

5 Types of Heirloom Tomatoes You May Want to Save Seeds From

  • Cherokee Purple - a classic tomato with a deep purple hue and delicious flavor
  • Brandy Wine -A large, pink tomato with unmatched flavor
  • Ferris Wheel - An intensely sweet tomato with a remarkable taste
  • Mortgage Lifter - A giant of a tomato (up to 2 lbs.) with a legendary past (purportedly, its creator sold the original seeds and paid off his mortgage)
  • Abe Lincoln- A lovely fruit with an honest flavor

A Slick Little Seed

Saving tomato seeds is a bit different. They require a bit of preparation in that they come encased in a gel-like sac containing growth inhibitors which prevent the seeds from sprouting inside the tomato. Nature is so clever. This casing is removed when the fruit rots on the vine or falls to the ground and fermentation occurs. Once that happens, the seed becomes viable for planting.

Fortunately for us and due to advancements in greed, we don’t have to wait for Mother Nature to do her thing, there is a short cut we can take that speeds up the entire process allowing you to save your favored seeds.

Instructions

Take your best tomato and slice it in two. Cut as if the tomato were wearing a belt. Cut right through it. This exposes more seeds than if cut up and down. Next, using a spoon, scoop out the seeds. Often, some of the flesh of the tomato comes out with the seeds but no matter as they are going to be separated anyway.

Place the seeds into a clean bowl or clear jar. Glass jars used in canning work nicely. We recommend jars over bowls because it takes a few days for the fermentation process to work and during that period it can get rather stinky. With a jar you can put a lid on it. Some methods call for adding a little water to the seeds and pulp but by diluting the acidic tomato juice you retard the fermentation process.

If de-seeding more than one kind of tomato, be sure to label your jars to avoid confusion later. Store the jars in a cool and dark place. Optimally, you want the temperature to be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) but as long as it is cool and dark the process will work. It just may take a day longer.

Fermentation

There are two schools of thought here on the fermentation process. One method suggests leaving the seeds and juice alone for two or three days. Mold will begin to form on top. This mold is harmless to the seeds although it may discolor them according to some accounts.

The other method consists of stirring the pulp and seeds twice a day to prevent mold from forming. It’s your call however. Both produce the same result. After three days the gel-sac should be loosed enough to begin the next step.

Decanting Your Heirloom Tomato Seeds

Now it’s time to decant. Don’t freak out, decanting consists of simply pouring the fermented mixture into a larger container whereby you can add two to three times the amount of water to it than it has been soaking in. This makes it easier to pour off the pulpy water while keeping the seeds.

Usually, the viable seeds are heavier and will sink to the bottom but not always. Keep filling the container with water and pouring it off until the seeds are cleansed and rest in the bottom of your bowl (or whatever you used). It’s pretty much common sense. Remove any remaining pulp from the seeds by rinsing and picking.

Next, place the cleaned seeds into a sieve or on a screen and rinse with clean water. You may need to use your fingers to pluck off some of the more adhesive pulp. Tomato seeds can be somewhat sticky so if you’re going to dry them on a screen use the spraying water to spread them out. After rinsing the seeds clean, give the strainer a little shake to remove any excess water. You can also wipe the bottom of the strainer or sieve.

The Next Step

Once they are free from excess moisture turn the sieve/screen over and tap the seeds onto a paper plate or drying screen. Using a paper towel will work but a paper towel also sticks the wet seed to it a bit which doesn’t effect it in any way but may cause it to be a bit more work picking them off of there and paper towels tend to break under weight when they are wet from water. Paper towels are okay but paper isn’t my first choice. For seeds, I prefer a small screen or any dry surface to lay them upon.

Allow the seeds to dry for five days to a week in a well ventilated area. It can be on a countertop or other open surface like a screen. The seeds will have a tendency to stick together so once or twice a day pick them up and kind of tumble them in your hands to separate them from bonding to each other. They dry faster this way and it also helps to prevent mold from potentially growing on them.

Storing Your Heirloom Tomato Seeds

Once they dry completely, which takes around five to seven days, store them in a canning jar or any airtight container. Label and keep them away from heat or moisture. A cool dry place is recommended. Heirloom seeds prepared and stored in this manner can remain viable (still good) up to five years or longer.

Chilling News

Successful seed savers will tell you, while you can place heirloom seeds (or any other type) in the refrigerator it isn’t necessary. You do not, however,  want to freeze them. Cool dry is good, freeze dry is death. And then there goes all your heartfelt effort.

So whether you are saving heirloom seeds or even just some you or a friend grew that you really like, when you save tomato seeds, you do yourself a world of good that is good for the world. You’ll experience the pride of growing your own perfectly delicious tomatoes and all you had to do was save tomato seeds. You should give it a try this growing season for the fun of it and for the harvest!

In Conclusion

Follow the aforementioned easy steps on how to save tomato seeds, and the few minutes of your time you spent prepping them will pale in comparison to the time you spend in total bliss eating them. Yes, the ways of nature are many and wondrous and we become a part of that wonder with each seed we plant; setting into motion the miracle of life.