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Former Program Coordinator, Horticulture
Former Program Coordinator, Horticulture
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015
I admit that I have a problem when it comes to ordering tomato seeds. Every year the words "easily influenced" are clearly stamped on my forehead while looking through seed catalogs. As I flip through the glossy pages and read the descriptions of each cultivar, I can't help but choose five or six (sometimes ten or twelve) new varieties to plant.
I'm usually drawn to anything out of the ordinary – unusual colors, strange shapes, variegated markings, etc. In fact, out of the sixteen varieties in my garden this year, only three are traditional red tomatoes. One of my favorites from this year's plants is 'Pink Elephant', an heirloom variety originating in Russia. The name is very fitting since it produces very large, pink, sweet tasting fruits. I have enjoyed this variety so much, that I want to save some seeds to plant next year.
Saving tomato seeds is a fun and fairly easy project that requires minimal effort. The only supplies required are a fully ripened tomato, a sharp knife, a small jar, something to spread your seeds out on to dry, and somewhere to store your finished seeds. I like to use a coffee filter and small coin envelopes for the drying and storage steps.
Let’s walk through the process of saving tomato seeds:
Step One: The first step is to cut open your tomatoes to reveal the seeds.
Step Two: Scoop out as many seeds as you can along with the gel-like pulp that surrounds them. Put this mixture into your jar and seal it.
Step Three: Add some water to your seed-and-pulp mixture. You should begin to see tiny bubbles rising from the mixture after twelve hours or so - this is normal! Naturally occurring yeasts and sugars in the tomato plant are beginning ferment the pulp away from the seeds. The fermentation process is an important way to reduce occurrence of some bacterial diseases spread on the seed, and because the gel contains germination inhibitors that can affect later seed growth.
Step Four: Give the jar a small shake every time you walk past it to stir up the mixture. The process is complete once the mixture is no longer frothy and the seeds have sunk to the bottom of the jar (usually around four or five days).
Step Five: Pour the pulp and any floating seeds off the top of the mixture, but be careful to keep the viable seeds that sink to the bottom. Strain them out with a mesh strainer or cheese cloth.
Step Six: Spread your freshly strained seeds out to dry. I like to use a coffee filter, but you can use a paper towel, paper plate, or even sheets of newspaper. Once the seeds are fully dry, and can be removed from the paper easily, you can package them in small envelopes to save for next year. Some people will then store the envelopes in a refrigerator drawer until they are ready to use them.
It is important to remember that seeds can only be reliably saved from open-pollinated tomato plants. These varieties are usually heirlooms that are not hybrids. While you can save the seeds from a hybrid tomato, you cannot be guaranteed that next year’s plants will be the same as the one you started with.
It is also worth noting that, while tomatoes will usually pollinate themselves, insects can also move pollen between separate plants. There are a few steps you can take to ensure that no cross-pollination has occurred:
- If possible, plant only one type of tomato. That way any cross-pollination will be between the same plants.
- If you have multiple varieties, you should isolate your plants by putting 50-100 feet between each separate variety.
Or you can do what I do and plant all of my tomatoes together and see what happens. Maybe my ‘Pink Elephant’ tomato was pollinated by its neighbor in my garden. Next year I could wind up with a brand new variety with a different flavor, more disease resistance, or some other unique feature.
I hope that this post has shown you the basics of how to save tomato seeds with minimal equipment. Try it out and seed what happens, it’s always fun to see what may pop up!
For more information, check out these great resources: