Heirloom tomato season is here, which also in my mind reminds me that it is time to start saving my seeds for next year.
Growing a garden is nothing short of a miracle each year. Granted there is quite a bit of work that goes into it, but most of the time nature will help you out as well. This time of year, nature is putting out her reminders to all things growing that it is time to start getting ready for the upcoming winter. In the mind of a plant, that is telling them they need to reproduce by creating seed — lots and lots of seeds to ensure their future in your garden.
Most plants don’t seem to realize that if they are an annual, their seed may not survive the winter due to temperature, but that surely doesn’t stop them from doing their best to keep going. Tomatoes are like this. They will produce and produce, hoping at least one seed makes it into the earth and is sheltered enough to sprout and grow next year.
Maybe that is why I love tomatoes so much, because of their resilience. Granted there are some amazing flavors out there, but they are tough plants to be growing — tough as in hardy. Looking out at your garden, you realize this year you grew a variety or two of amazing tomatoes. Sometimes you go to the greenhouse or garden shop and you pick something based on a plant tag and hope whomever wrote that description was somewhat close to accurate. When you have a good year with a variety you truly loved, then you need to get out there and save those seeds.
It is important to find out first if your plant is an heirloom variety or a hybrid variety. Hybrids will still produce seed, but they won’t always grow true to type. If you grow an heirloom variety, you can save the seeds and have the exact same plant variety next year. The hybrids are produced from what I like to call a mother and father plant, and the hybrid is the offspring. Some hybrid seeds will still sprout, where others may not. If you are unsure, you can either look up the name or save the seed regardless and try your luck with getting the same type.
Saving tomato seeds is a process, but a well-rewarded process at that. The better way to save your tomato seeds is to look for the best producing plant that has the characteristics you like, such as flavor, striping, etc. and only save seeds from those plants. If you have a plant that is barely surviving and producing tomatoes susceptible to insects or disease, you may want to keep away from saving seed from that one.
I like to use old baby food jars, but you can use any type of container. Glass does seem to work best though. Take a cutting board and slice the top of your tomato off. Squeeze the contents of the inside of your tomato into your container. Try to get as much juice and seed as possible. Add enough water so that your jar is three quarters of the way full. Take a small square of window screen and place it on top to be used as a lid, this will keep the flies out. Then use a rubber band wrapped around the top to hold the screen in place.
Be sure to write on your container somewhere what variety it is that you are saving. Guaranteed if you do more than one type, you will most likely forget come spring. Place your jar in a sunny location outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Your tomato seeds are going to begin to ferment which will be smelly if you have them in an enclosed area.
Check back on your seeds in one week. There should be a layer of white mold that has developed along the top. When that happens, remove your screen and scoop out the mold and any seeds that are stuck to it. The seeds that float to the top are immature seeds and will not sprout if you were to plant them. The seeds that sink are the keepers. I usually add a bit more water and repeat the process a second time, scooping off the mold again. Taking a paper plate or some paper towel you will want to pour the contents of your jar out. Allow the seeds to dry for a few days before packing them into a paper envelope or glass jar. When I pack mine in, I always add a few grains of rice to absorb any extra humidity that may cause my seed to mold. If your seed is nice and dry when you package it up, you shouldn’t have to worry.
An easier way to save tomato seeds is to slice your tomatoes whenever a recipe calls for tomatoes and let the seeds that leak out dry on some paper towel. You will end up with a 50 percent germination rate so you will want to plant some extra seeds in the spring to make up for any seeds that don’t sprout.
Other vegetables are much simpler in that you just need to remove their seeds and allow them to dry. Once dried, always be sure to write the name of the variety on the containers to make next year’s planting easier.
Sacha Burns is an organic gardener and owner of Sunkissed Organics in Pinola. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.