Saving Seeds From Heirloom Tomatoes

german Johnson tomato

Like most things in life, when it comes to saving heirloom tomato seeds to grow next year, there are numerous different routes to take.


When Pap was a boy everyone saved their seeds from year to year. He remembers his mother putting the tomato seeds in a little cloth; folding it up; running water over it; squeezing the water out; then laying the seeds on a piece of paper to dry. This is basically the method I used too. Miss Cindy remembers her Grandmother saving tomato seeds in this manner-and when the seeds were dry on the paper-her Grandmother simply rolled it up and stored the paper in a cool dry place.

The Canned Quilter from Hickery Holler Farm uses a similar method and it’s worked well for her for over 10 years:

I put my seeds in water. ( tomato/ cantaloupe etc…) The seeds usually go to the bottom and the membranes etc rise to the top. When they separate you can take a spoon or something and scoop the gunk off the top and pour the water and seed remaining through a colander. (floaters I pitch) Then I take the seeds and put them on newspaper and let them dry. From there I have little paper seed envelopes that I label with the date and variety. From there they all go into an open plastic bin that I keep in my cool pantry.  
By googling around I found several sites that suggested it was best to save seeds by a fermenting method like this:

Place the container of seeds in a warm location; a sunny windowsill or the top of the refrigerator are both excellent sites to place the container of seeds. Now Mother Nature will take over and begin to ferment the seed and water mixture. This takes about two or three days. Each night remove the plastic-wrap, stir the seed and water mixture, and then replace the plastic-wrap, if you use a new sheet of plastic-wrap then don’t forget to put a small hole in it for air-transpiration. The top of the liquid will look “scummy” when the fermentation process has seperated the “goo” from the seeds. It also helps destroy many of the possible tomato diseases that can be harbored by seeds.

Take the container of fermented seeds to the sink and with a spoon carefully remove the scummy surface. Then pour the container’s contents into a fine kitchen sieve and rinse the seeds with water several times…stir them while they’re in the sieve to assure that all surfaces are thoroughly rinsed. Give a few sharp taps to the sieve to help remove as much loose water as possible from the seeds.

Line an open plate with a piece of waxed paper or a large automatic-drip coffee filter. Place the rinsed seeds onto the wax paper or coffee filter and spread them about so they are in a single layer. Place the plate in a safe location where the seeds can dry for a few days. Stir the seeds a few times during the drying process to assure that all their surfaces are evenly dry. Spread them out again into a single layer after each time you’ve stirred them. Tomato seeds are thick and can take up to a week to dry thoroughly. If you’re having a rainy week that drying time may lengthen by a few days.

But the easiest and most interesting method of saving tomato seeds for next year’s garden comes from David Templeton.

Throughout the growing season David throws a few tomatoes in a portion of his garden that he isn’t using at the moment. After the summer garden is done-David tills up the entire garden-letting the leftover plant material enrich the dirt over the winter. At the same time he tills up the dirt-he is also distributing seeds from the tomatoes he threw in a corner of the garden. Next year once the soil warms those seeds begin to sprout-kinda like volunteer plants you sometimes get in the garden. David carefully transplants the seedlings into the portion of the garden he desires-and there you go. I guess you could say David saves his seed in the dirt.

As I said before-this is only the 2nd year we’ve grown heirloom tomatoes-and the 1st year we’ve tried to save seed. I will admit I’ve been feeling pretty proud of myself-thinking I took charge of my tomato growing for years to come-dreaming of all the heirlooms I’d be producing next year and the year after and the year after… Until-Warren threw a wrench in my plan.

You see yesterday-Warren left a comment asking me if I ever worried about cross-pollination with the heirlooms. It only took one Google search to give me a sinking feeling (thanks again warren) in the pit of my stomach. See many folks believe if you’re going to save seeds from year to year you must plant different varieties of heirlooms far apart-one site even said 1/4 of a mile-I wish I had a garden like that! So now I’m wondering if my seeds will be worth anything or not (thanks warren).

Seriously-I’m thankful Warren left the comment-I obviously didn’t do my homework on saving seeds from heirloom tomatoes. If you haven’t ever visited Warren’s blog-you should. He writes about his life in the hills of WV-his great family, his bees, his garden, his desire to lick flag poles-I should also mention he has a super sense of humor-which you could probably tell by the flag pole thing.

I’m still investigating the cross pollination issue-and I’ll be sure to let you know what I come up with. If you have any info on cross pollination or a tip about how you save heirloom tomato seeds-please leave a comment.


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  • Reply
    O. P. Holder
    August 31, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Good information on seed saving. With the price of seeds already reaching the ridiculous, it’s important to save seeds more than ever. I do the “rotting off the scum” thing, then dry them and I freeze them till spring. I grow only greasy beans, so I don’t worry about crossing. It’s over a mile to the closest bean grower. I have always gotten best results from freezing.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 10, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    It’s all very complicated, isn’t it. Start out with a simple idea….like good tomatoes and then everything gets out of hand.
    My grandmother saved all her own seeds and her garden was about 50 by 70 feet. It seemed to work ok for her.
    I knew there was a reason I specialize in eating instead of growing! lol

  • Reply
    September 10, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    If only I had some of my heirlooms tomatoes left, I would try saving the seeds. I never thought about it at the time.
    However, with the rain and cool weather we are having, I see a few blooms setting on. There maybe hope yet.

  • Reply
    September 10, 2010 at 9:39 am

    ok, you found a subject i am not familar with. i dont’ remember daddy saving his seeds, he always bought seeds or little plants. that big tomato in the first photo is the one i wish i had to eat on my burger OR just with salt like and apple. hubby did this year, take the seeds from a tomatoe and put the slimmy things in a litte pot of dirt, the 3 plants grew almost 6 feet tall, had to stake them, but we got no tomatos. humm

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    We’ve had a ‘pile’ of unwanted tomatoes for the past year or two and have had some nice plants come up in that area.
    This is the first year that I’m saving them, too, and no, I hadn’t thought about cross-pollination! I wonder if the old timers only grew one type of tomato? I had two heirlooms and one hybrid growing, so I don’t know if my seeds will be worth anything or not.

  • Reply
    Stephen Craig Rowe
    September 9, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Dear Tipper, Thank you for visiting the Painting Studio and for your most kind comments. In the spring of ’09 I was given a small half dead tomatoe plant and tucked it in a corner of my little rose garden. It was most prolific and soon took over the garden. Had to build an arbor for the Jack and the bean stalk kind of tomatoe nightmare. Smile! Still have some sauces in the freezer. Next season may plan a real veggie garden. Thank you again for the visit, this very well written post, and as ever be well.

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Tipper, I save my seeds each year but I have always just layed them out on a coffee filter and let them dry and then put in a freezer bag and put them in the freezer. My grandparents saved seed in this manner also. With our bean seed we just let them dry on the vine, pick them off and put ’em in the freezer. Hopefully the freezer won’t go out, but those precious seeds would be the first thing we think of saving.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    September 9, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I’ve saved tomato seeds just by squeezing them onto paper towels and letting them dry. That way you get some good and some not-so good seeds. The fermentation method probably works better.

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    I have nothing to add. But I am learning quite a bit from reading here. And I am waiting to read what you come up with.

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Wow! That’s a beautiful German pink in the top picture. I guess
    they’re my favorite and this is the first time I didn’t plant those. Always admired folks who
    kept their own seed year after
    year. I just always depent on
    the nursery for mine. But I do save my white runner seeds, because i don’t want them to get
    all mixed up and have “tough” ones
    in my beans. Good luck in your research on heirloom tomatoes, cause I’m no help there, sorry…Ken

  • Reply
    Brenda Kay Ledford
    September 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    My mama saves tomato seeds by putting them on a cloth to dry. My granny also did that to save her tomato seeds. Mama still saves bean seeds, corn seeds, etc. from year to year. She has some little pink bean seeds that she’s saved for years.
    Great posting. It brought back many memories.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 9, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Tipper–I’ll add a couple of thoughts on seed saving drawn from my youth (Grandpa Joe’s methods) and personal experience as a gardener.
    *Grandpa Joe followed the approach you mention–saving in dirt–from two types of tommytoes–yellow pear and red ones–he just tossed aside tommytoes which had split or which were overripe and plowed them in. The following spring he would transplant strong-looking volunteers and leave others if they came up in places where they didn’t interfere with something else. I might also note that he allowed chickens to range amongst the tomatoes once Grandma Minnie had put up all she needed (they always had way too many). A chicken will half starve itself to death eating maters!
    *Grandpa put most all the seeds he saved, and they went far beyond those of tomatoes, in containers to which he added some snuff. He claimed that the powdered tobacco kept any and all seed enemies at bay.
    *I’ve had good luck in storing seeds of tomatoes and other things in the freezer.
    A really enjoyable coverage, and I’ll be anxious to see what you learn about cross-pollination.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 10:55 am

    HA! Sorry to cause you distress! Well, not really. Anyhow, I save seeds like you do, but I think the fermentation method sounds cool. I will have to try that with some awesome pumpkins I grew this year!
    As far as the cross-pollination, I figure it really only matters if you want to maintain pure strains. I am not sure how important I think that is in my garden…I can see it both ways…
    Anyhow, I am so glad you ponder and research things like this. Thanks!

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