This year I grew Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, an heirloom variety known for its huge fruit and excellent taste. You’ve got to love the name! Unfortunately, the plants did not do well in my new garden plot and I only had a few tomatoes for fresh eating. Fortunately, I gave a few plants to my daughter and hers have gone wild. I’m going to save heirloom tomato seeds for next year so I can try again.
Tomato seeds have a gelatinous coating on them that needs to be dealt with before you can actually save the seed. While there is a possibility that there will be volunteer plants from fruits left in the garden, I want to be sure that I have seed saved from the best fruit possible. That means I’m hand picking the healthiest tomatoes from her garden to use in my seed stock.
Fermenting the seed is the preferred way to do it and if you are going to trade seeds, it’s good etiquette. You don’t absolutely have to ferment the seeds, but it does have advantages.
- It makes the seeds easier to separate from the gel
- It helps sort out bad seeds
- Fermenting reduces some seed-borne illnesses (source)
- Tomatoes have a germination inhibitor, which is made inactive through the fermenting process
Here’s the process to save heirloom tomato seed
1. Cut one or two of the best tomatoes in half (not end to end but around the middle) and squeeze out the seeds and gel into a small container. I used a canning jar.
2. Label the jar with the variety name.
3. Add 1/2 cup of water and swish it around.
4. Cover the jar with a cloth or paper towel to keep out fruit flies.
5. Set the container aside, out of the sun, for 3 to 5 days.
6. Expect it to get smelly as the fermenting takes place.
7. A moldy film may form on top. It’s nothing to worry about.
8. If you have a fermenting lid (Amazon) like mine use it as the cover and you won’t have to worry about the smell until you open it.
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To separate the seeds
If you covered the jar with a paper towel, carefully remove the film that has grown on top of the seed and water. There will not be a film if you used a fermenting lid.
Add more water to the jar and swish it around. The best seeds and those you want to keep will sink. If you are using a fresh tomato from the garden almost every seed will be viable.
Now, carefully pour off the water, floating seeds, and the bits of pulp suspended in the liquid. Repeat this process, adding more fresh water, until all the pulp is gone and you have clean seeds.
Related post: DIY seed Vault – How to Save Seeds for 10 Years
Drain them as well as you can and spread them in a single layer on a screen or a paper plate to dry. We don’t use paper towels at our house so I patted the seed dry with a muslin kitchen towel. You can use paper towels, but I’ve heard that the seeds tend to stick to them. Plastic or ceramic plates do not work well to dry your seeds. The tomato seeds need to have the water wicked away from them and that won’t happen with plastic or ceramic. If you’re saving more than one variety, be sure to label the plates.
Let the seeds dry for five to six days at room temperature in a well-ventilated place. You may want to stir the seeds with your fingers daily to break up any that are clumped together. This will help them dry quicker.
In just a few days the seed will be completely dry and ready to go into storage. Tomato seed has a very long shelf life and once dry it doesn’t need any special care. Place the dried seed in small manila envelopes or make these cute DIY seed packets found at Fine Gardening.
Now that you know the secret to saving heirloom tomato seed, you’ll never have to purchase seed again. That’s seed self-reliance!