Tomato-seed saving slimy, rewarding

Nobody ever told me that farming was a glamorous way of life, and it’s just as well. At my first farm job, I supervised a field of rotting tomatoes. We were growing them for the preservation of their seeds, to be sold to Johnny’s Selected. Each day I would gather the squishy fruits with the white scum beginning to form on them, load them into buckets, and dump them into large barrels. When they were soft and putrid enough, I would mash them vigorously with a heavy iron tamper, let them ooze for a few more days, then clean them and spread them on screens to dry. The only things that smelled worse were the pus-like cucumbers that I took on after that.

I got used to it. But I now marvel at how much more pleasant it is to save just enough seed for a home tomato crop. As long as the variety I save is open-pollinated (not an F1 hybrid), it will breed true to seed, and can be saved for the next year’s planting.

Taking the best tomatoes from a number of plants of that variety gives you a good genetic mix, and they needn’t be rotten, just ripe. Cut the fruits in half at their waistlines and squeeze some of their seeds into a labeled glass jar. Add several inches of water to the jar and set it aside, out of direct sunlight but in a warm spot.

A raft of floating fungal matter will form after a few days, and you may cover the jar to avoid the smell, deter fruit flies, and prevent a tidy family member from throwing the whole thing out. Keep the lid loose though, to encourage the fermentation that is the key to this little operation. The gel coating that has kept the seeds from germinating will break down, and any good, viable seeds will sink to the bottom. Stir from time to time.

After no more than five days, spoon off and discard the moldy debris on the surface, and pour off the water. Add fresh water to the seeds, stir, and let them settle again. Do this until the seeds are clean, then drain them well in a fine strainer and spread them on a screen or a plate so that they’ll dry quickly — out of the sun. When they are absolutely dry, and are easily separated with your fingers, they can then be stored in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place and will keep for at least five years.

Tomatoes germinate readily, grow vigorously and produce fruits — and seeds — in great abundance. Because their seeds are so easy to save, they make ideal gifts to stick into an envelope and send to a friend. Come spring, up will come these tiny pieces of your garden, sprung out of muck, manure, rot and decay. Not much glamour in that, but a bit of poetry, yes.


Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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