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Tomato seeds, how to preserve them, and why

How to preserve the seeds of tomatoes from your organic garden and, most importantly, why it is the right thing to do.

by BioGrow

Conserving seeds is a topic that every organic farmer must consider carefully. In particular, today we will explain how to choose and preserve tomato seeds. This operation is crucial to create our own seed bank, to be used in future crops, and for free exchange with fellow farmers. Today, we’ll start with tomatoes, but the reasoning about seed preservation applies to all our plants.

The foundation of a good organic cultivation, not only for tomatoes, already depends on the seed’s selection. It should be organic, preferably preserved traditionally, and not treated with modern chemical dressing techniques.

Why preserve tomato seeds

The seed, not only of tomatoes, contains all the characteristics of the plant. The variety, taste, shape, vulnerability to different cultivation conditions, and adaptability are all information stored within the “memory” of the seeds.
Using seeds preserved from our own well-grown plants, adapted to our local climate conditions, enhances these characteristics, ensuring a growing quality in our crops. Furthermore, the hundreds of naturally existing varieties allow for growing tomatoes successfully in any corner of the planet.

The ethical issue

It becomes essential, therefore, to preserve our tomato seeds (but not only those). This is because the seeds of this plant are among those at the center of the world seed market controlled by multinational corporations. This is due to the adaptability characteristics of tomatoes, making them one of the most widely cultivated plants.
The issue of seed control by large companies is very delicate. It intersects with the world of GMOs and other very current matters like the TTIP.
If you want to know more, you can start with this documentary The World According to Monsanto, produced in 2008 by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin. This way, you can have a broader picture of the current global seed market situation.

In this context, what can be clearly stated, beyond GMOs, is that some multinational corporations, with their F1 hybrids, try to standardize the varieties on the market, imposing some of them at the expense of others. The problem with standardization is that it ignores biodiversity and the natural ability of the plant to grow and adapt according to nature. To counteract this trend, it is essential for every farmer to create their own seed bank. Considering the great adaptability characteristics of tomatoes, it is relatively easy to start this seed bank with this plant.

How to choose tomato seeds

Let’s try to understand how to preserve tomato seeds. But first, let’s see which seeds to avoid.

Why avoid F1 hybrid seeds

produzione industriale di pomodori

Industrial tomato production

Not all plants are suitable for preserving tomato seeds. In fact, F1 hybrid seeds cannot be preserved.
The F1 hybrid overturns the very concept of tomato plant adaptability. This is because the seeds obtained from the tomato have a low germinability level.
Furthermore, the plant generated from the new seed will not have the strong characteristics of the mother plant. Instead, it will most likely be weak and unproductive.
F1 hybrid seeds are very strong in the first generation. Thanks to genetic adjustments studied in the laboratory, they are resistant to diseases like viral diseases. However, if reproduced, they do not retain the same characteristics as the mother plant.
The suspicion that this derives from an economic issue is strong: if Monsanto & co. sold seeds that could reproduce with the same quality standard as the mother plant and autonomously, they would lose a significant amount of money, as farmers would no longer need to buy new seeds from them.
In essence, F1 hybrid seeds create conditions for farmers’ dependence on that economic power that wants to impose these seeds on the market. Thus, a vicious circle is formed from which it is challenging to escape.

Where to start to preserve tomato seeds

To start preserving your seeds and break away from this mechanism, you need a starting point, which means having seeds available for cultivation and preservation in the following seasons.
In this old article, we explain how to find organic seeds and make a seedbed.
Here, we emphasize the importance of finding a tomato seed that can adapt to our cultivation conditions. Ideally, you should conduct research with wise old farmers, who will tell you which varieties belong to your region and are worth rediscovering.

Which tomatoes to choose to preserve their seeds

To preserve tomato seeds, attention must be paid to the chosen fruit and its degree of ripeness.
Ideally, you should choose the most beautiful tomatoes from the very first clusters of flowers and let them ripen to the fullest. They should be picked when they start to become soft and very colorful. The seeds obtained will be better and have a higher germination rate compared to those from an immature fruit.

How to preserve tomato seeds

Conservare i semi dei pomodori - pomodoro carnoso ricco di polpa all'interno

Fleshy tomato rich in pulp inside

The correct process for recovering and preserving tomato seeds is relatively straightforward, though it requires following a series of steps.
The first step is cutting the tomato in half to extract the pulp containing the seeds. Naturally, not all tomatoes are the same. Some are very fleshy inside, with a good number of seeds, like the one in the picture below.
Pay attention to the transparent gel that covers the seeds. It is a natural protection of the seeds, preventing germination inside the tomato. To properly preserve the seeds, you need to remove this gel through a fermentation process. Only then can you proceed with seed drying. You can use the cut fruit in other ways, such as following the recipe for sun-dried tomatoes in oil.
To dry the seeds, transfer the pulp with the gelatinous liquid obtained into a glass bowl and let it rest.

Fermentation of the pulp and gel that covers the seeds

Conservare i semi dei pomodori - polpa di pomodoro in ciotola di vetro

Tomato pulp in a glass bowl

The resting period should be at least 2/3 days, depending on the ambient temperature. The container should remain open, placed in a shady location.
After this period, a surface mold layer with a very strong odor will begin to form. This means the seeds are ready to be cleaned and dried; otherwise, they will start to sprout.

Seed cleaning

After this fermentation process, the gelatin covering the tomato seeds will detach easily. Then you can proceed with cleaning.
First, carefully remove the surface mold layer that has formed using a spoon.
Next, fill the bowl containing the seeds with clean water and agitate it slightly with a spoon. This further operation ensures that the seeds settle at the bottom of the bowl, leaving the fermented pulp on the surface.
Repeat this process a couple of times, removing the water with the residual pulp and refilling with clean water.
The final washing of the seeds involves using a simple kitchen strainer. Position the strainer with the seeds and the remaining pulp under a stream of water.
At this point, the seeds should be well cleaned from their gelatin and ready for drying and preservation.

Drying and preserving tomato seeds

Well-cleaned tomato seeds should be left to dry for 4/5 days. For drying, it is advisable to use bread paper as support, as it is highly absorbent and natural. Drying should be slow, in a dry place. Avoid direct exposure to sunlight, as it would destroy the work done so far.
Once thoroughly dried, the tomato seeds can finally be preserved. It is recommended to use small paper envelopes, easily available in newsstands. These envelopes should be marked with the year, the preserved variety, and possibly a number.
Store the envelope containing the seeds in a dark, cool, and dry place. This way, you can ensure the preservation of your tomato seeds for up to 5 years!
You have now begun your seed bank.
I urge you to sow, exchange your seeds with other farmers, spread and preserve biodiversity and uniqueness. And above all, say no to seeds from multinational companies!

Further Reading

  • New Garden Cultivars – Klee Lab – UF/IFAS from University of Florida: This resource discusses new garden cultivars, including hybrid tomatoes. It mentions that because they’re hybrids, you will need to buy new seeds each year.
  • Hybrid and Heirloom Seeds – The Real Dirt Blog from University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: This blog post discusses the difference between hybrid and heirloom seeds. It explains that starting from seed can be a gratifying and economical way to grow many edibles and ornamentals, but choosing seeds can be confusing.
  • Saving Tomato Seeds from University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: This resource provides information on how to save tomato seeds. It explains the difference between open-pollinated and hybrid seeds.
  • F1 Hybrid. What is it? from Thompson & Morgan: This article explains what F1 hybrids are and assesses their advantages and disadvantages. It mentions that creating F1 hybrids involves many years of preparation to create pure lines and these pure lines have to be constantly maintained so that the F1 seed can be harvested each year, which makes the seed more expensive.

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