Saving Tomato Seeds: A Complete Guide for Organic Growers

The knowledge of growing and saving seed is too important to leave to the agribusiness "experts." Use these tips to start saving tomato seeds in your garden.

| March 18, 2014

The Organic Seed Grower (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) is the most comprehensive manual on producing quality, organic seed crops on the homestead or small commercial farm. Organic farmers are becoming aware of the ever-diminishing number of high-quality, organic vegetable seed choices available to them. Author John Navazio combines traditional know-how and the latest scientific research to place organic growing power back into the hands of local seed growers and farmers. The following excerpt, from chapter 12, "Solanaceae," covers growing tomatoes and saving tomato seeds.

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A Profile and History of Tomatoes

Common name: tomato
Crop species: Solanum lycopersicum L.
Life cycle: annual (perennial in the subtropics)
Mating system: largely self-pollinated, with increased crossing in some types due to flower structure
Mode of pollination: closed perfect flower that requires stimulation for pollen shed
Favorable temperature range for pollination/seed formation: 60–74°F (16–23°C)
Seasonal reproductive cycle: late spring through late summer or fall (4–5 months)
Within-row spacing: 1–1.5 in (2.5–4 cm)
Between-row spacing: 22–30 in (56–76 cm)
Species that will readily cross with crop: In subtropical areas there is a weedy cherry tomato (S. lycopersicum var. cerasiforme) that is fully sexually compatible.
Isolation distance between seed crops: 10–200 ft (3–61 m), depending on the crop type and barriers that may be present on the landscape

The cultivated tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is one of the most widely grown vegetables on Earth. It is among the five most important vegetables of commerce in many agricultural societies. This is remarkable when we consider that this humble fruit was only grown in limited areas of what is now southern Mexico and Guatemala in the early 1500s when invading Spanish conquistadores found it growing in Aztec villages. This fruit was called tomatl, or “swelling fruit,” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, which became tomate for the Spanish. The origin of this cultivated form is mired in mystery, as all of its wild relatives are native to mountainous regions of western South America, from Ecuador and Peru to northern Chile, including two species that are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. For many years the weedy cherry tomato of Mexico, Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme, was thought to be the progenitor of the cultivated type, but recent genetic profiling at Cornell University indicates that this weedy form is in fact a feral mixture between wild and cultivated types.

Tomatoes were brought back to Spain by Hernán Cortés and were grown as a botanical curiosity. Within very few years they made their way to Italy. In 1544 Pietro Andrea Matthioli, a Tuscan physician who studied the medicinal value of plants, described them in an herbal text he was writing and suggested that tomatoes might be edible. In the second edition of this text 10 years later Matthioli first used the term pomo d’oro, golden apple. While many have speculated since that time that the first Italian tomatoes must have been yellow-fleshed, it seems that pomo d’oro was a generic phrase used for all soft tree fruit at the time and wasn’t specific to the color of the fruit. In Italy, the tomato was embraced as food in the poorer southern regions of the peninsula as well as in Sicily before becoming widely grown. There is also some evidence that tomatoes were grown as a vegetable in parts of Spain relatively soon after their introduction, but many parts of Europe only grew the crop as an ornamental for many years, fearing that the fruit was poisonous like many of the wild native members of the Solanaceae. Northern Europeans were late to the party as far as accepting tomatoes as a food plant, with the British and their colonies (and former colonies like the United States) not eating them widely until early in the 19th century.

Tomato seed has historically been produced wherever tomatoes are produced. As tomatoes spread across the globe people easily saved seed from the fruit and adapted the crop to their regional and climatic needs. The specialization of growing tomato seed in ideal environments didn’t start until well into the 20th century. As several seedborne diseases, including fusarium and verticillium wilts, along with bacterial spot and speck, became more prevalent in commercial tomato acreage, it became obvious that growing tomato seed in drier climates and controlling the irrigation after fruit set was definitely desirable for controlling the spread of these diseases via the seed.

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