Backyard gardeners have had a long love affair with growing the perfect tomato. Some folks look for the biggest fruit, best flavor or earliest ripening. Whatever your idea of perfection for the perfect plant, save the seeds to grow it again.

Heirloom tomato

Heirloom, open-pollinated plants will produce the same fruit next year from seeds inside the tomato which were produced this year. Heirlooms have been consistently grown long enough to be stabilized.  Seeds saved from hybrid tomatoes, most often with the designation F1, will not produce the same plant or fruit next year. F1 hybrids will produce fruit, just not the same as they are first generation crosses that have not had time to stabilize. Plants grown from their seeds will most likely have different characteristics than the parent plant.

Saving tomato seeds is an easy task taking a few moments over several days depending on the method. There are three basic ways to save and preserve tomato seeds:  fermenting, drying, and planted directly. All three need the seeds removed from a ripe tomato, and then the seeds are treated differently depending on the method. First collect the seeds. Choose a large, very ripe tomato without spots or blemishes where disease may have entered. Cut it into slices to access the seeds surrounding the protective layer of gel. Scoop out the gel and seed mixture into a strainer.

Tomato seed rinsing

Fermentation method removes the gel which contains germination inhibiting chemicals that protect the seeds in natural environment while in the soil after a fruit dropped to the ground. When saving seeds inside and out of the soil, the gel can harbor disease that would normally die off.  

Fermentation cleans the seeds to ready them for storage.  Place the seeds and gel mixture in a fine, wire mesh colander and rinse well with cold water. Stir around the seeds with your finger to remove as much pulp as possible. Place seeds into a small dish and fill half way with room temperature water. Leave open container out of the way, at room temperature for a day or two. Swirl the mixture a couple of times during the day. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom, dead seeds will float. Remove any floating seeds to the trash or compost.  After no more than two days, strain the seed and water mixture through the wire mesh colander again. Rinse well to remove any remaining pulp and gel. Dump seeds onto a paper plate or paper towel, spreading them out to dry. Place them in an out of the way place until fully dry. Label paper plate or towel. After several days, the seed will be completely dry. Place in an airtight container or Ziploc plastic bag, label and store in a cool dry place out of light. Seeds cleaned with fermentation method should last five years.

Freshly rinsed tomato seeds drying.

Simply drying the seeds without fermentation to remove the gel will result in seed with less storage life. They will still germinate for the next season and possibly one more year, but over a longer period their viability is reduced quickly. To simply dry tomato seeds, wash the seeds in the wire colander. Place seeds separated apart onto a paper plate, towel or coffee filter. Let dry completely for several weeks. Label variety and store in airtight container or bag.  

Direct soil storage happens naturally all the time. Fruit containing seed drops to the soil and grows the next year once soil temperatures and moisture are adequate enough to germinate the seed. Each year I have several volunteer plants that sprout up and produce fruit. Direct soil storage just lets me plant the seeds in the fall where I would like them to grow the following spring. Either place an entire desirable tomato or just the harvested seed and gel, into the top two inches of soil and cover over. Mark the spot with the name of the plant. In the spring, gently rake through the soil where you planted them last fall. Cover the area with heat cap, cloche or empty gallon milk just with bottom cut out to heat the soil. Watch for germinating tomato seedlings, keeping the strongest one to grow and remove the weaker plants.

Many other plants provide seed which can be saved from mature fruits. Save pepper seeds from fruits that have turned red, orange or whatever color the variety produces. Green peppers are immature, therefore will contain unripe seeds. After collecting seeds from mature peppers, let them dry out on paper plates for a week or so until thoroughly dry. Store in air tight, labeled containers or bags. Summer and winter squash, as well as melons and cucumbers are great candidates for seed saving as there is no gel around these seeds.  Just be sure to take from large, ripe fruits. Harvest seed before cooking, rinse well and dry on paper plates or towel. There is no gel on these seeds.

Spaghetti squash on the vine.

Squash and other fruits stored too long can sometimes provide a surprise inside as the seeds will germinate in the stored fruits. The squash can still be eaten and the germinated seed can be potted up to grow a new plant.

Seeds sprouting inside a squash stored too long.

Gather seeds herbs and flowers as they go to seed, too, for planting in future years or swapping with friends. Dill reseeds freely and will even become weedy, delightfully providing new plants that are easily pulled out for use.

Dill gone to seed. Cut the entire head and place in a paper bag to dry completely.

Cleome flowers open as they climb up the stem. Seed pods are left to ripen below. Gather seeds every few days as the pods ripen.

Orange cosmos flowers ripen to seed pods easily snipped off of the stems.

by Carol Quish