Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 8, Issue 9 - September 2013  
How to Save Tomato Seeds
My name is Karen, and I have a tomato problem. There, I've said it. I grow more tomatoes than I could possibly use. This year I grew so many tomatoes, I had to rent a community garden plot to house the majority of them.

That's not my problem, though. My problem is the fact that I don't even really like tomatoes. That's not a fair statement. I do like tomatoes, I just don't love them the way some people do. You'd never find me sitting in a field eating a tomato like an apple the way some people would. For one thing, fields lead to tick bites and tick bites lead to Lyme disease and Lyme disease leads to costly medicine and I don't have any sort of benefit plan.

I am, however, completely in love with growing tomatoes, heirloom varieties specifically. I was introduced to a whole new world of heirloom tomatoes by my friend Linda Crago, owner of Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Wellandport, Ontario. She's a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmer, who specializes in heirloom vegetables and particularly heirloom tomatoes. Prior to meeting Linda, I knew there were a lot of tomato varieties but I had no idea just how many. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how many varieties of tomatoes there are, but there are thousands, of which 3,000 are heirlooms.

An heirloom tomato, which for some reason people also refer to as an ugly tomato, is a plant that has not been bred with another tomato plant. Its DNA is 100% inbred. This could account for why these plants are sometimes a bit wonky looking.

The tomatoes you buy in grocery stores that look the same from tomato to tomato and from store to store are hybrids. They've been bred to be perfectly round, a pleasing shade of red, to travel well and to grow to a sensible height. Heirloom tomatoes have not been hybridized with other tomatoes to make them look, ripen, or grow a certain way. They can be shaped like anything from a skull to a balloon animal. They also come in every color you could imagine, and the plants can grow to heights so stupefying your neighbors could mistake them for 40-year-old maples. Or a green monster.

Since heirloom tomatoes and heirloom vegetables in general haven't been bred with other varieties, you can save their seeds and be guaranteed to grow exact replicas of those plants from those seeds, whereas if you save the seeds from a hybridized tomato, there's no telling what you're going to get. You could plant seeds from a juicy, round, red hybridized tomato and grow pale-pink, flavorless offspring. You just don't know.

So, if you planted an heirloom tomato plant this year, now's the time to pick a tomato so you can save its seeds. Even if you didn't plant any heirloom tomatoes, that doesn't mean you can't save the seeds from one. Take a trip to your local farmer's market or organic grocery store and buy a few varieties, whatever looks good. Ask farmers about them. They'll know which ones are sweetest or tangiest. Take them home and taste them. Choose the one you really like and go out and buy another for the sole purpose of saving its seeds.

With most vegetables, the only thing you have to do is let the seeds from the plant dry out. With tomatoes, there's a little more work involved … but not much. You know that jelly-like guck surrounding the tomato seeds? In order to remove it, you need to ferment the seeds. The other reason you need to do this is because the jelly acts as a sprout inhibitor so that the seeds don't start to grow while they're in the tomato. Fermenting kills this inhibitor. It also protects the seed and makes it more resistant to disease and bacteria.
Slice tomato in half
1. Cut the soft tomato (it must be very ripe) in half across the middle (not from stem to blossom end). This will reveal whole pockets of seeds, making them easy to remove.
Remove seeds
2. Scoop out the seeds into a bowl.
Cover with water
3. Cover the seeds with a few tablespoons of water.
Let sit for 4 days until mold is thick and stinky
4. Let the seeds sit on the kitchen counter until a thick mold forms. This will take four days or so. Once they smell like dead fish breath, you'll know you're close to being done.
Wash seeds
5. Rinse the seeds clean in a sieve.
Let seeds dry for several days
6. Dry them on a plate (ceramic, plastic, or as a last resort paper). Do not dry on paper towel because the seeds will stick to it and you'll never get them off.
7. Stir up the seeds every day or so to ensure they're drying evenly.
8. Once the seeds are completely dry (after several days), place them in an envelope and then in the freezer or seal them in an airtight container (a Mason jar or Tupperware®). DON'T forget to label them.
Some of my favorite heirloom varieties:

Green Zebra – A tomato that's green when ripe (with a slight yellow tinge). It has zing, and everyone I've fed it to loves it. It's what's known as a modern heirloom.

Oziris – A beautiful dark-red and green, juicy tomato.

Aunt Ruby's German Green – A tomato that's completely bright green when ripe.

Zapotec – A red pleated (or ribbed) tomato that looks beautiful sliced onto a plate.

Yellow Pear – A small (about the size of a cherry tomato), yellow, pear-shaped tomato. Sweeter than a regular tomato, but not as sweet as most cherry tomatoes.

It's totally possible I was wrong about that whole not loving tomatoes thing.

Karen Bertelsen

Karen Bertelsen is a Gemini Award nominated television host who has appeared on some of Canada's major networks including HGTV, W Network, Slice and MuchMoreMusic. Three years ago she started the blog The Art of Doing Stuff (www.theartofdoingstuff.com) as a creative outlet for her writing and endless home projects. The Art of Doing Stuff now receives over half a million views per month and has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens, Style at Home and Canadian Gardening magazines.
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