Go grab a tomato and a small bowl of water. You and I are going to save tomato seeds. Because we are awesome. And cheap.
Saving money is only one of the reasons to save tomato seeds. The main reason to do it is so you can give them away. Ditto for saving lettuce, onion seeds or anything else.
Giving tomato seeds away makes you, the giver, feel good because it allows you to selflessly pass on a solid 4 months of hornworms, a bit of crying and blight to a fellow gardener.
We gardeners are all about sharing. Except with the squirrels.
Of course the benefit is also that we, the seed saving people of the world, are all contributing to keeping these old varieties alive.
Nobody knows exactly how many varieties of tomatoes there are, but there are thousands. 3,000 of which are heirloom tomatoes. And THOSE are the seeds you want to save.
Table of Contents
What You Need
- ripe heirloom tomato
Quick Reference Instructions
- REMOVE THE SEEDS from a very ripe tomato into a small bowl.
- FERMENT THE SEEDS for 3-4 days by covering them with around ½ cup of water.
- STRAIN & RINSE the seeds in a sieve.
- LET THE SEEDS DRY by tapping them out onto a plate or bowl. It will take around a day for them to dry.
- LABEL & STORE your seeds in a paper envelope. Avoid airtight containers - if they aren't dried through, they can go mouldy in an airtight container.
What's an heirloom tomato?
An heirloom tomato is one that hasn't been bred with another tomato plant. Its genetics are always exactly the same as it's parent because tomatoes have both male and female plant parts and they pollinate themselves. Think of it this way - it's as if you had a baby and that baby was an exact replica of you. And when that baby grows up and has a baby it will be an exact replica of both of you. THAT's an heirloom tomato.
What's a hybrid tomato?
(hybrids are often labelled as an F1 hybrid on the seed packet or seedling)
A hybrid tomato is a cross between two different tomato varieties. The pollen from the anther of one variety of tomato is transferred to the pistil of another.
So hybrids are more like actual humans. One variety of tomato is used as the "dad" and a different variety is used as the "mom". When those two breed together, you get a tomato has a combination of both parent's qualities. It will be unique.
Why do you need to know this? Because even though you can technically save seeds from any tomato, only an heirloom tomato seed will produce an exact replica of the tomato it was taken from.
Hybrid tomato seeds could produce almost anything but it won't be the same as the tomato you got it from or either one of its parents. You can still save these seeds, you just have no idea what you're going to end up with or if it will taste good.
So it makes sense that you're going to want to save seeds from heirloom tomatoes.
Having said that, I had a hybrid cherry tomato plant in my front garden years ago that self seeded itself. Ever since then I've let it continue to self seed. Some years the tomatoes taste fantastic, other years they're bland. But no matter what they climb all over my picket fence and look good.
Saving Tomato Seeds
Saving tomato seeds is easy but there is one crucial step you have to take that you don't do when saving other seeds like those from onions, flowers, beets or whatever else.
Tomato seeds need a period of fermenting (soaking in water until the water gets putrid basically). Strangely fermented pickles never get that same pukey smell.
You know that jelly-like guck around the tomato seeds? In order to remove that you need to ferment the seeds. Fermenting breaks down that guck that surrounds all tomato seeds.
- Cut a very ripe tomato in half across the middle (not from stem to blossom end) and scoop out the seeds into a small bowl. You can also just squeeze the seeds out.
2. The jelly-like guck surrounding tomato seeds needs to be fermented off by soaking them in water.
3. Cover seeds with water so they're submerged by an inch or two. Now you wait until a layer of mould appears on the top of the water and it starts to stink.
4. Let the seeds ferment like that on the kitchen counter for a few days. The first time you gag and think to yourself, There's definitely a dead raccoon in this kitchen - THAT'S when your seeds are ready for the next step.
5. Dump the seeds and putrid water into a sieve to drain and rinse.
6. Tap the cleaned seeds out onto a plate or bowl and label what type they are so you don't forget because you will.
To avoid any confusion or mix ups I write the variety directly on the bowl or plate with a Sharpie marker. It will just wipe away with a cloth later.
You can see that the pulp surrounding the seeds is completely gone.
Tomato Seeds Not Germinating?
Tomato seeds are pretty smart. They actually have a sprout inhibitor built into them so they don't start to grow while they're in the tomato.
Fermenting kills the sprout inhibitor and allows them to germinate once you plant them. Fermentation also protects the seed & makes it more resistant to disease and bacteria.
If you haven't fermented your tomato seeds before saving them your germination rate will be reduced because they still contain that natural sprout inhibitor.
No Tomatoes? No Problem.
Even if you didn't plant any heirloom tomatoes this year that doesn't mean you can't save seeds from them.
Take a trip to your local farmer's market or organic grocery store and buy a few heirloom tomatoes. Whatever looks good to you. Ask the farmer about them. They'll know which ones are the sweetest or saltiest. Take them home and taste them.
Save the seeds of the ones you like best.
HAHAHAHAHAHA. Just kidding. I know you, you'll save them all.
When to Save Them
The best time to save tomato seeds is at the beginning of the season when you have plenty of tomatoes. Or when you remember.
I usually remember in the fall after I've picked all of my tomatoes and the plants are just a crispy, brown, blight riddled vine clinging to the string I grow them on. So maybe go with the beginning of the season.
If you're reading this at the end of the season and your tomatoes are still green but a frost is closing in, DON'T LET THEM ROT & DIE A HUMILIATING DEATH ON THE VINE! Read my guide on how to save and store green tomatoes so they slowly ripen throughout the fall.
Not just because you're cheap. You're also vindictive. Those squirrels think the last tomatoes are theirs by default. Not this year Mr. Squirrel. Not this year.
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My Uncle Bob, who was a really tight old farmer, used to just smear the tomato seeds on any old scrap of paper he could find, let the whole thing really dry out, then save the papers in labeled jars. He just tore the seedy paper into pieces and planted the seeds and paper together.
It always seemed to work for him.
Yea, Kristina. But remember in those days there was no Ly*ol killing 99% of all germs, no antibiotics for everything from hangnail to spotty covered peckers. Your Uncle Bob didn't know or care that the newsprint could possibly poison him (or care). We live in a sanitized world so we have to be whiter than white, cleaner than clean. Bring back the spotty pecker and grow your own grubs in any apples you find on the ground.:)
Isn't "willy wonker's pecker" a triple redundancy? Ha! Great seed saving info, thanks.
I love it and you always start my day with a smile Karen, thank you..
I am gonna try it this weekend, and I like Uncle Bobs way above too Sometimes when we just GET HER DONE it works just FINE..
cc - Well .. yes you could go with Uncle Bob. Or you could go with Linda Crago, who grows thousands and thousands of tomatoes for a living and sells her seeds via mail order as well. You could go with Uncle Bob. Or you could go with Linda Crago who is a member of every esteemed seed saving society around the world including societies in Canada, England and France. Linda, who is an expert seed saver who travels the world buying rare tomato seeds which she then (using the technique I've shown) propagates and sells or shares the seeds. Or you could go with Uncle Bob. Hah! :) ~ karen
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA !!!! You just kill me,Karen !
You need to be a little more thorough with your directions in the "labeling" section.
I labelled mine last year, but when I pulled them out this year my labels made no sense.
I have "middle," I have "big," I have "Cinderella," and I have "sweeter."
I have no idea what any of these are. Middle could be size of fruit, middle planting bed, middle bowl of fermenting seeds that I had forgotten to otherwise label?
Don't be me.
I just love how you share information I didn't even know I needed!!! I really do appreciate it - you never know when it is going to come in handy. I always wondered about which seeds would be worth saving. Really - thanks!!!
You're welcome Annie! I figure if I want to know, most of you will want to know. And if you don't ... well ... there's always the inbreeding jokes to keep your attention. ~ karen
This is great. We've been wondering about this for awhile now. So excited to have yet another thing to try that you have taught me.
p.s., I finally made yogurt, but because one of your commenters suggested sour cream (and it was all I had on hand), I tried it and it came out great!
Good to know Shauna! I was hoping someone would confirm that worked. ~ karen
Oh my husband is going to love the bowl of mouldy tomato seeds sitting on the kitchen counter. I however am thrilled that you posted this how-to, Karen. I really want to start growing heirloom veggies, particularly tomatoes, and had no idea how to go about collecting the seeds. Thank you!
BOOM! ~ karen
My Fella and I were just talking about this last night..We love the tomatoes that we planted this year so we were hoping to find out how to save some seeds..Thank you once again my dear friend I will never meet but will always admire..You are truly the Queen Of Canada..Well..at least the DIY Queen of Canada..lol
Just want you to know I almost got thrown of the commuter bus this morning for literally laughing out loud, then coming down with an uncontrollable case of giggles after opening and reading your post.
I'll chance it going forward- Love your blog!
Thanks Bonnie. I .... don't even remember this post being very funny ... but I'll take your word for it. And the word of your fellow commuters. ~ karen
I think it started at your very first line. :)
May be a dumb question but would Ziplocs work for sealing up the seeds?
I noticed you said this is similar to many vegetables, but do you know if a simliar method would work for watermellon?
T.D. - I have no idea on the Ziploc, LOL. I don't see any reason why not. When I buy seeds from places like Tree & Twig or Cubits, their seeds come in tiny ziplock baggies inside paper envelopes. So I'm gonna go with Yes. Ziplocs would be fine. For Watermelon seeds all you have to do is save the watermelon seeds. You don't need to let them ferment. Just remove them, put them in a strainer, clean them well then stir them into a bowl of water. The seeds that float are bad and should be discarded. All other seeds can be laid out to dry for 2 weeks or so, then packaged up. ~ karen!
I can't resist mentioning mother nature's good ol' way of removing germination inhibitors... Passing through an intestine :). See, it all comes back to the bear's ass (or someone's ass)... It always does. Hmm. I think a mouldy bowl is probably the cleaner option in retrospect. <3
THANK YOUUUUUUU! (Hi Karen, loveyouloveyourshow er blog) I have some tomato seeds all dried up and NOT ready to go, apparently, sitting on my microwave. They are still covered in dried tomato guck, and, of course they are stuck to a paper towel. I would have tried pathetically to plant them next year and never would have known why they did not grow. and... probably just given up. Oh darn, now I have to go buy some more heirlooms from the farmer's market. :D
Ironically enough and about the time you were typing this comment, I had the same scenario going on in my kitchen. I tore the paper towel into pieces and and planted the seeds, paper towel bits and all, into my potting mix and EVERY SINGLE ONE sprouted this year. I couldn't believe it. Old seeds, improperly stored, and yet, here we are... too many plants.
Now all that remains is to see whether or not the variety I planted is heirloom or hybrid. Who can remember?! :)
Next time I'll try the dead fish breath method.
You might want to add - remember where you put the seeds. A friend gave me cantaloupe seeds from a fruit that mysteriously grew in her front yard. I put them in a safe place and I don't know where. When they put me out to pasture and go through my belongings my children will wonder why she was hiding an envelope of seeds - see she was loosing it.
I've done the same thing with cash, lol. ~ karen!
This is how I save tomato seeds, too (and my husband HATES the smell of the fermenting seeds!), except I dry my seeds on a coffee filter (which I label), and they come off with no problem. :-)
It really is an extraordinary smell.🤢 ~ karen!