By Jill Henderson
If you’re like most people in the Midwest, your garden got a slow start this year. With the colder than usual temperatures and excessive moisture this spring, many gardeners were late in getting their seeds in the ground. If you were among those who didn’t give up entirely this year, you’re probably just getting around to processing the bounty of your labor. And while you’ve probably got a ton of things to do, don’t forget to save some seed.
In my seed saving classes I often drone on about family relationships in plants and cross-pollination and purity and such. But there is one beautifully luscious and easy to save fruit that needs little in the way of fussy plant schematics in order to get great results – the tomato. These lovely orbs of luscious goodness are some of the easiest garden seeds to save, which is exactly why there are so many different varieties of them to begin with!
Tomatoes belong to the Nightshade family of plants. (Here I go, again!) This family includes potatoes, eggplants, tomatillos and tomatoes, as well as a host of wild and not so edible ornamental cousins. And while nightshades can and do cross-pollinate (read Saving Seeds: Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid) most tomato varieties are self-pollinating. This is possible because each individual flower is equipped with both male and female flower parts.
But most importantly, the flowers of tomatoes usually do their thing before they ever open, reducing the chances of cross-pollination by insects. For the seed saver, this means that there is a 99.5% chance that your various tomato varieties won’t cross-pollinate with one another – even if they’re growing side by side.
Of course, there is still that .5% chance of cross-pollinating hanging over your head. Most of that comes from a quirky little characteristic found some heirloom, currant, and potato leaf tomatoes in which the style (part of the female reproductive organ) protrudes just a tiny bit beyond the fused anther cone (part of the male reproductive organ) to the outside of the flower, making those organs potentially more available to pollination by insects before the flowers open.
This is a very slight chance and usually only happens in areas of high pollinator activity. That .5% also includes the very unlikely chance that self-pollination is disrupted due to lack of wind (nightshades need to be agitated to release pollen) and the reproductive organs are exposed to pollinating insects. If you’re paranoid, next year separate your tomato varieties by 10-15 feet and you should be good to go.
Not to worry though, for the casual seed saver, a little hiccup here and there won’t kill anyone. And who knows – maybe one of those accidental cross-pollinations might just turn out to be the next Mortgage Lifter!
Anyway, like I was saying, tomatoes don’t require much fuss and bother. Stick to the basic rule of collecting only very ripe to overripe fruits to ensure seeds are mature and avoiding double-fruited tomatoes or tomatoes from diseased or insect-plagued plants.
Keep in mind that tomatoes don’t suffer much from inbreeding depression, but to maintain a good level of genetic diversity it’s a good idea to save seed from more than just one plant. Select one or two or your most productive, least pest and disease affected plants and pick one excellent fruit from each to save seeds from.
Cut each fruit in half and scoop out the seeds and gelatinous mass into a large canning jar or other glass container. Be sure to include some of the juice from the flesh, too, as it helps with fermentation.
It is imperative to ferment tomato seeds. You can read all day long about how you don’t really need to go to all the trouble, but the process of fermentation eliminates seed-borne viruses and breaks down gelatinous coatings around the seeds, enhancing germination rates.
And now that your fruits are squished, you may add a small amount of water only if the mixture is very thick. Too much water in the jar may stimulate the seeds to germinate. Stir the mixture vigorously and set away from direct sunlight in a warm area between 65°-75° F. for several days and up to one week.
After a day or two a fungus will form on top of the mixture, after this happens the contents should be stirred gently once a day to promote the breakdown of pulp, gelatinous coatings and to separate seeds. Once the fungus has formed, the seeds should only be allowed to remain in the jar for two to three days more.
Once the gelatinous coating becomes thin and weak, fill the jar ¾ full of water, cap and shake briskly to help remove lingering coatings and to separate seeds. After shaking, allow the contents to settle for one minute. During this time the mature seeds will sink to the bottom, while pulp and immature seeds will float to the top. Carefully pour off the excess water along with the floating chaff and immature seeds, leaving the mature seeds in the jar. Again, fill the jar with water, shake and pour off chaff, repeating the process until the water is clear.
Once the seeds have been sorted, drain them immediately in a mesh colander that has been placed on a dry towel or paper toweling. Dry the seeds further on rigid plastic or glass plates or pans away from direct sunlight until they are crisply dry. Never dry seeds on paper – they stick like mad!
Saving the seeds of tomatoes couldn’t be easier and once you try it, you will be hooked on saving seeds, too!
Whether you’re a weekend gardener, homesteader, or serious survivalist, saving seeds is a money-saving skill that every green-thumb should to have. An excellent resource for beginners and experienced gardeners alike, The Garden Seed Saving Guide takes you step-by-step through every aspect of saving seeds. If you want to save money, become more self-sufficient and avoid genetically modified food crops, The Garden Seed Saving Guide is for you. Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.