A couple weeks ago I sowed tomato seeds in flats. Less than a week later, they burst through the seed starting mix and started reaching for the fluorescent light over their heads. It was great.
These seeds are not from any package I ordered online or from a catalog. They weren't left over from last year's purchased seeds either.
They were seeds from heirloom tomatoes that I dried and stored over the winter.
In all the years I have been gardening, I have never saved my own tomato seeds. I wasn't sure what would happen when I planted them.
It all began last summer when a couple people gave me a few varieties of giant, nameless heirloom tomatoes. One of them, I later discovered, is probably an Oxheart tomato, an old-fashioned giant, pink, plum-shaped tomato that has quite a history of its own. The other is still unnamed, but that's OK too. It was a good tomato, very meaty with few seeds, which made me a little nervous when it came time to see if they would germinate.
In nature, the gelatinous gooey stuff around the tomato seeds keeps the seeds from germinating too soon. If the fruit were to fall to the ground and be left to its own means, it would eventually begin to rot and ferment. The fermentation process destroys the gel and enables the seeds to germinate.
Since we are trying to manipulate the seeds for storage, we first need to duplicate this fermentation process.
When we harvested last fall, we cut the large tomatoes into sections, scooping out the jelly-like substance along with the seeds. We put the seeds in a small container, added a couple inches of water and covered the container with cheese cloth so the air could get in but not fruit flies or other summer insects that might be interested in what was going on in there.
We put the containers in our kitchen window, where the sun kept them warm. Each morning, I gave the containers a little shake, swirling the seeds around and breaking up the gel sacs. After a few days, I noticed the seeds were sinking to the bottom and a little scum had formed at the top. After a week, it was pretty clear the seeds were released from the gel sacs and I could begin the process of drying.
I scooped the scum off the top and poured the water-seed mixture into a fine strainer. After the seeds were drained, I spread them on a stoneware plate to dry.
Drying can be tricky. Some might think putting the seeds on paper towels would help absorb the water and dry the seeds, but those little seeds will stick to the paper like glue and will be impossible to get loose. You could use wax paper or even parchment paper, but I found the plate's surface was just fine. Every time I thought of it, I would wiggle the seeds around on the plate to make sure they weren't sticking.
It is important to make sure the seeds are completely dry. If there is any moisture left behind, the seeds will get moldy. Once they look dry, wait a few more days to make completely sure before bottling them for storage.
I like to save my old prescription bottles for storing seeds. I soak off the labels and wash them well. Make sure the containers are completely dry inside before putting even one seed inside. Be sure to put a new label on the bottle to identify the variety because all tomato seeds look the same. In six months, you won't remember which tomato is in which bottle.
Put your seed containers in a cool, dry place. I put mine in a vegetable bin in my refrigerator.
Tomato seeds shouldn't be started too soon in early spring. They only need about six to eight weeks before they can be planted outdoors. If started earlier, you will find you have to transplant them to larger containers.
Planting large tomato plants might result in a few ripe tomatoes a couple weeks earlier than your neighbors, but most people don't have the resources to keep the plants healthy until it warms up enough outside to put them in the garden. Without enough light, the plants will get tall and spindly and will take longer to recover from transplant shock. Houses do not provide enough window sunlight to keep this from happening.
It was exciting to see the young tomato plants growing. I tried to put no more than two seeds in each cell in the tray and nearly every one had germinated.