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Myths and Tips on Saving Tomato Seed
Whether you simply rinse and dry tomato seeds, create a smelly fungus to kill evil pathogens, or drop whole fruits on the ground, many of your preserved seeds will survive and sprout if stored properly. No one method of seed saving reigns supreme.
All you “funky fermenters” out there, your way is not the only way. There’s room for everyone!
Before you save tomato seed this season, check out these seven tips that dispel several myths about the process of saving tomato seed. They’ll save you time and clear up some confusion.
Before we get started, have you ever wondered how the big seed companies save seed? Seed companies use heat and bleach treatments to prepare large batches of tomato seed for sale to farms and the public. Over the years, home gardeners have adopted similar methods. However, seed saving for the casual or avid gardener does not need to be complicated. In fact, the most common seeds can be collected and saved without any special equipment, chemicals or techniques.
- IT’S NO BEAUTY CONTEST! Most all guidance on the Internet tells us to save the best tomato from the best plant. But what if the ideal tomato was eaten by your daughter? HaHa, that happens a lot around here. Or maybe the most fantastic fruit fed a flamingo? Bottom line is that the tomato you use for seed does not need to be perfect. Cracked or split tomatoes are fine to harvest for seed saving. Over-ripe tomatoes will work too! Tomatoes smaller than average need not be cast aside. Just don’t save seeds from completely raw, spoiled or diseased tomatoes. It’s a good idea to gather a diverse batch of seed from several plants of the same type. Research shows that tomato plants adjust to climate and environmental conditions – if you plant tomatoes again from seed you save, the next generation may grow more vigorously, taste better and even look nicer. Exciting tip!
- IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW YOU SLICE IT! Most instructions advise us to slice the tomato at its equator to more easily access the seed cavity and its largest seeds. If the insides will end up in a strainer or container anyway, the technique you use to extract the seed is of minimal importance. You could even throw the tomato at a bad comedian and either scrape the seeds off his face or plant his shirt in the garden next season!
- SAVING SEED FROM HYBRIDS IS DISCOURAGED BUT NOT A SIN. Lots of websites and books WARN to NEVER save seeds from hybrids because they won’t grow true – only save seeds from open-pollinated tomato plants. If you wanted to experiment, you could plant several seeds from a hybrid tomato and see what you end up with. Save that seed again and it will evolve even more, adjusting to your soil and climate. (Hybrid tomatoes are not GMO and there are no GMO tomato seeds on the market today.) Tomato aficionados may turn their noses up to this idea – I tend to love the look of heirlooms myself. But keep in mind creators of hybrid tomatoes pick the best performing plants and put them together into one, so you’re bound to grow tomatoes with a few redeeming qualities such as bountiful harvests, disease resistance, wonderful flavor and uniformity of size, shape or color. Suggest you label those tomato seeds as hybrid for storage and referral later.
- BLEACHING OR HEATING SEEDS IS PROBABLY UNNECESSARY AND POTENTIALLY DAMAGING. Some people like bleaching clothes. My husband used to believe that he had to bleach his socks every time they were washed. The technique used to save seed sometimes is a matter of personal preference, habit or beliefs. Oxi-clean, Comet® and Clorox® will kill some, but not all bacterial pathogens on the seed surface. Chlorine and the other chemicals won’t attack viruses inside the seed itself. In addition, if the solution is not used carefully, the seed could be damaged permanently. Hot water, if monitored and controlled, will kill most disease-causing organisms on the outer coat and on the inside. Timing and temperature must be precise for it to work safely.
- FERMENTATION DOES NOT KILL ALL SEED BORNE PATHOGENS. Like chlorine, fermentation may kill some bacterial pathogens on the seed coat but it doesn’t wipe out viruses inside a seed. Unfortunately, leaving the seeds in the mold too long, (more than 3-4 days) may lower germination rates. It also turns the stomach and causes “scrunchy face syndrome”. Fermented seeds do tend to appear cleaner and fluffier. Do you iron your underwear? Do you like the smell of fresh vomit? If yes to either of these questions, maybe you will enjoy fermenting tomato seed. OK, I admit, this technique works well if you want your seeds to look nice for trading or gifting. If the stinky process doesn’t sound appealing, go ahead and skip fermentation all together and simply rinse the seeds off and set them out to dry for a couple of weeks. Still want to ferment? You don’t give up do you? Get fermentation steps here.
- PLASTIC STORAGE BAGS AND PAPER TOWELS CAN HELP OR HURT YOU. If you store seed in plastic before they are entirely dry, they may mold. If you wait or store seeds first in paper and then transfer to plastic, the risk of losing seed to rot is lower. Placing wet seed on paper towels is not a good idea because the seed may stick to the towel. On the other hand, some folks leave the seed on the paper towel and plant everything in the ground. Parchment paper is personally my favorite after blotting with a paper towel or natural coffee filter.
- DRIED AND COOL SEED IS HAPPY SEED. As mentioned above, drying seeds on a paper towel may cause them to stick to the fibers. A coated paper plate or parchment paper is great on a tray for easy transportation, especially if you take the subway or city bus. I’m just joshin’ ya. You would move the tray to a flat surface to transfer the seed to its storage place. Don’t forget to mix up the seed as it dries to ensure all parts of the seed air out. To be on the safe side, dry tomato seed for 2 weeks to ensure there is no moisture present that could rot your seeds later. If you move the seeds around the drying area and they seem sticky, allow them to sit longer. It’s like coming out of a pool and drying off. There are cracks an crevices that if not left to totally dry out, could cause a moldy situation. Store seeds in a cool, dry, dark location such as an unheated closet. Seeds kept at room temperature can last for years.
KNOW WHAT TYPE OF TOMATO SEED YOU’RE SAVING. Do you know the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes? Does this really matter? Why, it could. Give this one a chance. If you still have the label for the tomato it should tell you which type it is. Heirloom tomatoes are usually indeterminate or “vining”. If you plan to give seed away to friends, keep in mind the growing requirements and limitations of each type. Indeterminate tomatoes grow large and need support and space to thrive. Patio-style tomatoes (determinate) may be best for friends that live in apartments or people that do not have access to raised or in-ground garden beds. These more compact plants set fruit all at once and the harvest lasts only 7-10 days. So indeed it is important to label any seed envelope or package with “Indeterminate” or “Determinate”.