Three Ways to Save Tomato Seeds

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Tomatoes cut open to show the gelatinous seed sacs which inhibit germination

I was ready to move my sad-looking early tomatoes from the garden to the compost pile when I remembered something important. This spring, I used the last seeds of our favorite early tomato, open-pollinated Stupice, so I needed to collect and save a fresh supply of seeds.

My first step was to collect a few ripe fruits free of cracks or bug holes, which can serve as entry points for disease microorganisms. As a precaution against cross-pollination with other varieties, I choose fruits from plants that were grown apart from other tomatoes. I also bypassed double fruits, which are especially prone to crossing with other varieties because of their unusual flower structure. After washing my mother fruits well, I sliced out the middle portions from each one, because that is where the biggest, fattest seeds are found. At this point I decided to use all three of the best ways I know to save tomato seeds: fermentation, simple drying, and planned burial in the garden.

Tomato 'Stupice' growing well

Fermenting Tomato Seeds

Each tomato seed is enclosed in a gelatinous sac. The gel contains chemicals that inhibit germination until the seeds have a chance to glue themselves into soil crevices. This brilliant plan works great in nature, but the gel residue can be a problem for stored seeds because it can provide a safe haven for seed- and soil-borne diseases. The fermentation process is used to clean the seeds before they are dried, but forget about old methods in which tomato seeds are allowed to ferment until a smelly scum forms on the surface of a slurry of tomato gel and water. Several recent studies have shown that tomato seed germination is best when seeds are soaked for only one to two days before they are rinsed and dried, and that fermentation times longer than three days have a negative effect on germination.

This is great news for tomato seed savers, and my own experience bears out that after a mixture of tomato gel and water is allowed to sit at room temperature for 24 hours, the gel sloughs off when the big seeds at the bottom of the container are rinsed well in a strainer. I then dry the seeds on a paper plate for a week or so, or until they feel dry and papery and crack when folded in half with tweezers. If I'm drying more than one variety, I write the name on the plate. When handled this way and given cool, dry storage conditions, tomato seeds usually stay viable for 4 to 6 years, and sometimes longer.

Seed discs of tomatoes, dried and ready to sow next year

Simple Drying

The shelf life of tomato seeds that are dried without first being soaked or fermented may be only one to two years, but that is sufficient time for gardeners who simply want to save seed from one year to the next. You can use the tip of a knife to pick out large tomato seeds from a mass of gel and dry them on a paper plate, or make seed discs or tapes by arranging seeds on small pieces of coffee filter, paper towel, or toilet tissue. I like to cut rounds from coffee filters that fit my seed-starting trays, and put two or three seeds on each one. These "seed discs" can be planted whole, or cut into smaller pieces.

Some gardeners simply squeeze tomato seeds onto a paper towel, spread them out a bit, and allow the towel to dry for a couple of weeks. When dry, the seed-bearing towel can be folded up and tucked into a labeled envelope for storage through winter.

Burying tomato seeds is an easy way to start seedlings next spring

Planned Burial

Volunteer tomato seedlings that spring up like weeds are sure evidence that tomato seeds can be saved right in the garden. By late summer I know where I will plant tomatoes next spring, which is always in a spot where tomatoes have not been grown for at least three years. As space in the future tomato row becomes vacant, I use it as seed reservoir by burying cut tomatoes or tomato gel there, covered with two inches (5 cm) of soil and an equal amount of biodegradable mulch. The seeds will not sprout when buried deep, and many survive winter. In spring, I remove the mulch, gently stir the marked place with my hand, and cover it with a cloche to warm up the soil. Tomato seedlings appear like magic.

By Barbara Pleasant.

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Comments

 
"My tomatoes didn't do very well outside this summer, a hot dry spell and then weeks of cold, rainy weather. My grapes are looking sad too, I have lots but they're not ripening. Could this be attempted with shop bought tomatoes too? And are organic ones better?"
Kim on Friday 3 September 2010
"very informative , i have often saved tomato seed and pepper seed from chillies and scotch bonnet peppers"
robert simpson on Saturday 4 September 2010
"Excellent advice, especially making "little mats " which will fit next years pots."
Clare on Saturday 4 September 2010
"I've read that you don't want to collect seeds from F1 hybrid plants. If it wasn't marked whether their OP or hybrid on the plant stake marker how do you know which it is? I can't find some of these even in seed catalog--Caspian Pink, Pineapple. Several were heirloom are those always OP?"
Rebecca Knight on Saturday 4 September 2010
"Kim, it's best to work with proven named varieties that are not hybrids, because hybrids to not breed true from seed. We all have poor tomato years when the weather does not cooperate -- not the best seasons for saving seeds anyway. Rebecca, both Caspian Pink and Pineapple are open pollinated, so you can save seeds from both varieties."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 6 September 2010
"This is interesting. For years all I have ever done is to spread the seed out on a piece of paper. Let them dry. Pick them off the paper into an envelope. They have never failed to germinate next year."
Ernest on Saturday 29 October 2011
"Every details needed to grow a tomato are here. Very nice. This is very helpful and I hope that it would be effective. And you are right there to store in a dry storage. Thanks for sharing."
Storage Sydney on Thursday 3 November 2011
"Extreme temperatures and heavy rains have caused my ripening fruit to crack and ants are moving in, also a few bug holes. Sigh, I am wondering if it is all worth the work just to feed the bugs ! I have sprayed with Neem Oil diluted, but I am at a loss how to save the fruit now on the vine I live in Eastern NC "
Christina Dykins on Sunday 15 July 2012
"Christina, your tomato season is long, and you have time for a second chance. Remove and compost the cracked fruit, and if you can find some stem tips with no leaf spots, pinch them off and root them. Pinch off blossom clusters, too. In three weeks you will have vigorous new plants. Mulch deeply to prevent cracking caused by soil moisture fluctuations. Good luck! "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 16 July 2012
"Thank you Barbara I will give it a whirl "
Christina Dykins on Monday 16 July 2012
"There are some brilliant tips here. I've learnt a lot about planting and growing tomatoes from seed. Many people that I've spoke to have said not to grow from seed as its too difficult but with this article along with some others I'm going to give it ago. Some of the other brilliant tips I found was with this little article. http://thebloomingoasis.com/how-to-grow-tomatoes-from-seed"
Morgan on Saturday 2 March 2013
"Is there a way to tell the difference between Moneymaker and Roma before they flower , I have mixed them up an dont know wich to de-sucker, thanks "
Dave on Saturday 25 May 2013
"If you look closely at little details of leaf size and color, blossom cluster position and so forth, you can probably sort your seedlings into two groups. I think you would see more early blooms on the Moneymakers than on the Romas. "
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 26 May 2013
"I originally resued my tomato seeds and fermented them for two or three days at room temperature. I found extraneous pulp and gel coating usually was cosumed in the process. In a large three or four inch household fine screen sieve I used a coarse pattern hose end sprayer with force to wash all the extraneous material away. I usually scattered the washed seed on a single thickness of newprint which was supportd on a framed window screen, and covered that with another framed screen, both recued from earlier service as window or door winter screens. Exposed to sunlight on dry and calm winds they dry satisfactorily, and you can test the dryness in whatever means you have. One earlier suggestion was to crack some with tweezers... ...Good Luck."
Melvin of Wichita on Thursday 27 June 2013
"Great ideas and suggestions. Here in the Northwest, we often get rain in our summer. If one has green tomatoes left and fall comes, remove them and set them on a windowsill and within a few weeks you have red tomatoes. I do the same for Brussel sprouts, but I take the plant and put it on the sill and take them as needed."
Tara Fonteyn on Wednesday 21 August 2013
"After saving the seeds the way you described... is it fine to freeze the seed till spring? "
christina mary on Tuesday 10 September 2013
"Many people do freeze their stored seeds, but any cool, dry, dark place is fine. If you do use freezer storage, you are supposed to let the containers thaw to room temp before opening to reduce condensation inside the jars."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 11 September 2013
"Thank you Barbara~ I will take your advice and I look forward to planting my own seeds in the spring.. I was given a beautiful 1lb Brandywine Heirloom. They are so sweet tasting, I cant wait! Great site~"
christina mary on Wednesday 11 September 2013
"Tara Fonteyn's suggestion about the use if a window cill. People have done this for years, the problem is that the Tomatoes can get hot during the day and very cold at night. they do not need light to ripen them, but a constant temprature this can be acheived wrapping several at a time with newspaper and putting them in a drawer."
Ernest on Thursday 12 September 2013
"My Italian Plum tomatoes took an eon to ripen,they started a couple of weeks ago.Absolutely delicious and at least 100 tomatoes from 2 small plants are nearly ready and more are growing,grown in the topsy turvy upside down tomato planters.Some have been knocked off the vine before ripening and have happily turned red on the window sill.I will definitely give the seed thing a go because they are so tasty,and never having done this before it will probably give a great sense of satisfaction from doing so."
col on Thursday 19 September 2013
"I am writing this email from Southern part of INDIA. Now a days we have huge quantity of tomota production due to that cost is very less. Ideally not much getting money for labour charges, which is really pathetic. 2 months back the cost was heavy and its very cheap. The cost of Tomota's is not consistance through out the year. Hence would like to know is there any other way of getting some good amount of money for the people who plants the tomato's to survive their lives. Many people expected the cost of Tomota will be good and invested more money but they lost entire investment amount and finally total production amount is equal to labour charges. So please let me know what are the other ways tomato's farmers can get their investment by applying different techniques with fresh tomato's. It would be if some one can give any better ideas for gaining money by plantting Tomato's instead of lossing money"
Bob on Sunday 2 March 2014
"Bob, it sounds like the fresh tomato market is too volatile to depend on it, so I would look at processing options for dried or canned tomato products."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 4 March 2014
"How to dried them and what is the use of drying them. Ideally it should involved less cost as former's cant invest more initially. Please provide suggestions for helping farmers."
Bob on Tuesday 4 March 2014
"I bought some kind of Carolina pink? Tomatoe plant that promised 1-3 lb. tomatoes. They cost 20.00 each and are producing lots and lots of huge tomatoes. Will certainly save seeds from these plants. Thanks for info"
judy on Sunday 31 May 2015
"I'm wondering if I can use a vacuum sealer bag to put my seeds in and put them in the freezer. It will remove all the air, but didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Thanks in advance."
Midge on Monday 15 June 2015
"Good question! It's been discussed often among seed savers, who often say that seeds need to breathe a little, even in cold storage. For this reason, paper packets inside an airtight jar or other container are often preferred. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 20 June 2015
"Hi, I soaked my tomato seeds for 4 days before reading your article ... And I find that there is still a gel coating around the seeds. Can i dry them like that, or should Infind a way to clean them up before? Thanks !"
Nathalie, on Friday 2 October 2015
"You need not worry about the gel. It dries on the seeds naturally, and does no harm as long as the seeds are healthy. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 3 October 2015
"In the UK this year 2015 it was mid August befor I had my first ripe tomato, do you think starting them earlier and using artificial light to make up for short daylite hours would give an earlier crop , and if so what type of light would I require , thanks Dave ,"
Dave on Monday 5 October 2015
"Dave, you also should try an early, cold-tolerant variety like Subarctic Plenty to make sure you get ripe fruits earlier. See the comments to this blog for more variety recommendations from UK gardeners: http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=52"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 19 October 2015
"Thanks for replying Barbara , I grew a couple of subarctic plenty a few years ago , they were also late to produce and the taste was as bad as a supermarket tomato , I will check out the blog , regards Dave"
Dave on Tuesday 20 October 2015
"Edmonton Alberta Canada We have so much rain that most of my garden is swamped out. This is my second garden (I am 67 years old) and I am planting in big containers on my veranda with morning sun which last year everything so high and this year nothing to tomato plants 1 foot high with 2 tomatoes on them. Very discouraged."
Linda on Monday 27 June 2016
"Keep the faith, Linda. Tomatoes love warmth, and the warmest days of summer are yet to come."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 28 June 2016
"I think kim asked if she could try shop bought tomato for seed I hope the following information is of interest, We are regular visitors to Portugal ( the algarve ) just as many do we use the bars and restaurants, on one occasion we had a mixed salad and the tomato was a lovely flavour so i saved some seed, and grew plants this year. On one particular plant 5 tomatos weighed 3 pounds 3 ounces, the biggest weighed 1 pound 1oz. they are very meaty and good flavour "
r field on Thursday 8 September 2016
"Will seeds from green tomatoes grow?"
Shade on Monday 28 November 2016

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