Tomatoes are unique in the plant world. I bet you think I’m going to tell you that tomatoes are fruits. While its true that, “in 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court over-ruled Mother Nature, declaring that tomatoes were not fruits, but vegetables” (West Coast Seed), that’s not where I’m going. Knowledge tells us that tomatoes are fruits. Wisdom tells us not to use them in a fruit salad (Anon.). Enough said.
However, there is another way that tomatoes behave distinctly. Like peas and beans, they don’t require another tomato or even a bee to pollinate them. Tomatoes are self pollinating. This year, my first year with a greenhouse at Joybilee Farm, I was given 8 tomato plants by a friend. When the blossoms started coming, I simply went in daily, and flicked the flowers, gently, with my finger. The tomatoes set well and now I’m waiting for them to ripen. Even though the tomatoes in my greenhouse have been planted close together, the seeds that these tomatoes produce will be pure to their variety. I don’t have bees in my greenhouse that would cross pollinate the plants.
Seeds of Diversity Canada recommends separating field tomatoes by 20 feet to ensure purity, due to the odd flower being pollinated by insects. (How to Save Your Own Vegetable Seeds. Toronto: Seeds of Diversity Canada, 1996.) If you have an ideal climate for growing tomatoes this is a good plan. If you have a cooler climate, like I do, you can still save your own seed, though, for personal use.
Open pollinated, heirloom tomato seeds are expensive. Many seed companies count out a tiny number of seeds per package and charge a premium for these heirlooms. Priced anywhere from $3 to $5 for a mere 12 seeds, heirloom tomato seeds are like gold.
Tomatoes grow their seeds in a gelatinous case. The outside of the seed has germination inhibitors as well, so you can’t just scoop the seeds, dry them, and expect a bumper crop the next season. When you are trying to save tomato seeds you have to get rid of this gelatinous case and then dry the seeds before saving them. The technique is easy to learn and once you’ve tried it, you won’t ever have to buy another package of tomato seed.
This is a great home school or class room experiment, too, that can be continued in Spring by growing tomato plants from the saved seed with your
budding botanists students, so don’t hog all the fun.
1. Begin with heirloom, open pollinated tomatoes rather than hybrids.
While you can save seeds from hybrid tomatoes, the seeds will not grow true to the hybrid but will take after one or the other parent. Most tomatoes sold in the store are hybrids. Heirloom tomatoes have traits that make them better tasting and more suitable to certain uses but inhibit their keeping qualities.
Grab some heirloom tomatoes at your farmer’s market and beg a few off a neighbour whose growing them. You’ll need at least 3 tomatoes of the same variety for this experiment. Overripe tomatoes are ideal for this but vine ripened work as well.
2. Separate the seeds with the gelatinous coating into a container.
Take out the seeds and put them in a small dish. To do this, cut the tomato into eighths and using your thumb, scoop out the gelatinous juice that encases the seeds into the dish. Don’t try to separate the seeds from the liquid. Use a separate dish for each tomato variety. Label the dishes so that you don’t get confused.
3. Set the dish aside.
Only add water if the seeds are beginning to dry out.
4. Wait for 2 to 4 days.
A mould will begin to develop that eats away the gelatinous coating on the seeds. This process destroys germination inhibitors that are present on the seeds, and is necessary for good germination the following season. It also destroys seed borne diseases. Allow the mould to develop for no more than 4 days. Longer and the seeds may begin to sprout.
5. Strain and clean the seeds.
Empty the contents of the container into a fine seive and run cold water into the strainer. Swish the contents gently with your hand. The pulp will wash through the mesh and the seeds will clean.
6. Dry the seeds.
Label a paper towel with the variety and put the rinsed seed on the paper towel to dry.
7. Package and label.
Once the seeds are fully dry, package and label with the variety and the year.
Other resources for growing tomatoes and saving their seeds.
See the article, “How to save money buying vegetable seeds” on this blog.
Here’s a resource from Agriculture Canada about extracting seeds from tomatoes.
Seeds of Diversity has a Canadian Tomato Project with a list of cultivars that have been developed or modified in Canada.
Resources to help you learn more about seed saving:
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What tomato varieties are your favourite? What do you do with your tomatoes at harvest time? Leave a comment:
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