Seed Saving: What Seed Can Be Saved, How, and Why?

heirloom and OP tomatoes

Why Bother with Seed Saving?

I have really loved to grow food for as long as I can remember. Flowers and medicinal plants have claimed a place in my gardening heart in more recent years, but food is where it all began. As a young child, I remember that my dad always planted a summer vegetable garden in addition to the grape vines that wound their way up the fences amidst the raspberries and blackberries, and the strawberries that claimed their spot at the foot of the apple and pear trees. He would proudly display a handful of radishes or carrots and proclaim with pride, “Look what G-d and I made!” My Papa (his dad) was a gardener too, growing food his whole life. In his retirement he even coordinated a community garden and organized the donation of their bounty to local food pantries.

I am happy to carry on this tradition of growing food for my family and to share with others. My favorite food of all to grow is a tomato. In particular, I love to grow heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes. They tend to represent a seemingly endless array of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavor profiles. I think that they are beautiful and delicious. They also appeal to my drive to be sustainable and to perpetuate biodiversity in our food because open pollinated and heirloom seeds allow for the grower to harvest seed from the choicest fruit and save it to grow the same variety of plant year after year.

I know that in the weeks ahead gardeners from all around will be selecting and hardening off their plants or getting them in the ground. It is a bit late to be staring your own plants from seed this year, but if you want to plan ahead with the option of saving seed and starting your own plants next season, be mindful when choosing this year’s plants or seed. Moreover, if you are already growing heirloom or open pollinated plants, take advantage of the opportunity to save seed from your favorites to grow again in the future.

I demonstrate how to ferment and save your own tomato seeds in the video below. For more information on types of seeds and which are appropriate for saving (and which are not), keep reading.

Plant and Seed Types

For those unfamiliar with the distinctions among variety types, I’ll break it down:

Hybrids

A hybrid plant is a variety that has been created to have a number of desired characteristics. In the case of a tomato for instance that could be an early ripening, low acid, cherry size, orange, and sweet variety. This hybridized tomato is the evolution of cross-breeding plants with some of the desired characteristics and selecting out the resulting “baby” plants that come closer to the intended end product.

The variety mixing and tweaking goes on until the desired parent plants can be identified and stabilized so that when cross-bred will create the ultimate “blended” tomato. This tomato is their first generation “ideal” offspring and is labeled the F1 hybrid. However, hybrid tomatoes have seed that is unstable. That is to say that if you save and grow seed from this F1 fruit, the seeds will revert back in different and unpredictable ways to earlier generations, perhaps yielding an early ripening large red tomato with watery flavor; a late ripening, sweet, red cherry tomato; and a low acid, early ripening, medium-sized, yellow tomato. Moreover, second generation hybridized seeds also tend to produce less vigorous and more sickly plants.

Open Pollinated

An open pollinated (OP) plant means that the plant is pollinated by natural means such as insects, birds, or wind carrying pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers, rather than being a manipulated cross like a hybrid. As it happens, tomatoes are self-fertile and generally will be fertilized and set fruit without interference from other tomato plant varieties, but it could happen on occasion. If the blossom was to be fertilized from the pollen of a different open-pollinated tomato variety, the fruit would produce seed that would grow into a new and different variety altogether (in essence, an accidental hybrid).

This fact made me wonder how an OP keeps from becoming a hybrid. Generally speaking, these tomato varieties have become stabilized over time by selecting out generation after generation of plant that grows stable from the seed. The commonly held belief is that after 4-5 generations of growing seed from a fruit and saving seed only from those plants of each generation that replicate the initial plant, the variety is now stable and will yield the same tomato from generation to generation assuming that it is not accidentally fertilized by a different variety.

Because these plants are technically open-pollinated, they can yield seed that is a cross between the initial variety and another open pollinated tomato plant should an errant breeze or helpful bee carry over pollen from another plant before the flowers have pollinated by their own fertile selves. In an effort to ensure seed that is true to the variety, a grower would want to either isolate the plant a prescribed distance from other tomato varieties, or (more practical for the home grower) bag the flower blossoms to keep the fruit and seed true to the variety.

Heirloom

An heirloom plant is by definition an open-pollinated variety. The distinction however is that an heirloom variety is one that that has existed and handed down through families for years (I have seen definitions ranging from 50-100 years as the minimum requirement, but suffice it to say it would be an old variety). These tomatoes have become stabilized by years of selecting out the plants that represent the variety and handing these seeds down time and again, as with OP seeds. So in short, all heirlooms varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open pollinated varieties have earned the distinction of becoming heirlooms. If they stand the test of time and familial preference, they may become the heirlooms of the future.

Cliff Notes Version

In summary, a hybrid is a tomato that has been intentionally bred from crossing other varieties. It is unstable across generations so only first generation (F1) seeds should be used. Saved seeds from hybrids will not grow true. An open pollinated (OP) tomato is stable assuming that it does not accidentally become cross pollinated by another variety. This can be avoided by distancing plants or bagging blossoms. An heirloom is an OP variety that has been handed down from generation to generation for a period of 50-100 years or more and is still being grown today. Seed from OP or heirloom varieties can be saved and should grow true to variety except in the rare case of accidental cross pollinating.

Saving Tomato Seeds in Two Simple Steps

So, now that you know that you can save seed from heirloom and OP tomato plants, you just need to know how to do it. The good news is that it is very easy. All that is required is the liberation of the seed from its protective gel sac and then thoroughly drying the seed before storing so that it doesn’t mildew.

tomato seeds in their protective gel sacs

tomato seeds in their protective gel sacs

The second part is easy (just lay out flat and allow to dry). The first part is pretty simple too provided that you have a jar and a few days to allow the seeds to ferment in the tomato’s juice. See the video above for the quick tutorial.

What are some of your favorite tomato varieties? Why do you enjoy growing and eating them?

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