A few years ago I received a delightful gift consisting of an assortment of home-grown, home-dried tomato and pepper seeds. What a delightful gift, I thought, and with Christmas only around four months away, now is the time to try saving seeds from your own plants to share, give as gifts or keep for next year’s garden.

If you grew a favourite plant or flower, saving the seeds assures that you will have the same variety the following year. Many plant seeds can be saved simply by collecting them as they dry. Tomatoes take a bit more work, but the results are worth it.

The first step is to choose your best-looking tomatoes. You want to save seeds from the finest fruit so that next year’s plants will have good genes. This is also true of potatoes … so many times, people tell me how they save the “small” potatoes for next year’s seed potatoes when, in fact, they should be saving the biggest, nicest-looking ones.

It is also better to save tomato seeds from a non-hybrid plant variety (a.k.a. open-pollinated tomato). The Heirloom series of tomato fits that category nicely.

Hybrid types of tomato plants are crosses between selected parents of different plant varieties. When saving the seeds of hybrids, the next generation may not have the same characteristics of the plant you were trying to reproduce.

So, how do you save the tomato seeds?

The method is easy: it’s a little gloppy and it’s a little funky, but you’ll be able to save seeds in a manner that will lessen the occurrence of tomato disease while giving you plenty of seeds to germinate, share or give as gifts.

Allow the tomato to ripen fully before picking: it needs to be really ripe, almost to the point of being rotten. Then cut the tomato in half and squeeze out the seeds along with the gel-like substance into a clean container – preferably a glass jar.

Add up to a cup of water to help separate the seeds from the pulp as there is usually not enough liquid from the tomato. Cover the container with a piece of cheesecloth or plastic wrap and then poke holes into the plastic wrap to allow fresh air to circulate, which also helps in the fermentation process.

Now place the container of seeds in a warm location. 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 covering, stir the seed-and-water mixture and then replace.

If you use a new sheet of plastic wrap, don’t forget to poke holes in it for air circulation. The top of the liquid will look scummy when the fermentation process has separated the “goo” from the seeds. This helps destroy many of the possible tomato diseases that can be harboured by seeds.

What you eventually want to see is a layer of mould on top of your seeds and pulp. The fermentation process is done when bubbles start rising from the mixture or when the seeds settle to the bottom of the glass jar and the thicker pulp and mould floats on top. Don’t leave the seeds fermenting past this stage or they may begin to germinate.

Then it is just a matter of removing the mould, the pulp and the liquid. The good seeds will be at the bottom of the jar (dispose of any floating seeds as they are not viable). Then rinse the seeds and spread them on a paper plate or glass dish to dry. Paper towels do not work well as seeds stick to it and are difficult to remove. Shake the seeds daily to avoid clumping, and dry them thoroughly and slowly. This may be a slow process, but don’t try to speed it up by using heat.

Once the seeds are thoroughly dry, label and date the seeds and store in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place. For gift-giving, package the seeds in a creative envelope to suit the occasion.

It’s rewarding to be able to save your own tomato seeds.

Ingrid Wilcox operates Lubbock Garden and Floral Consultant and offers gardening, greenhouse and flower-arranging workshops. Contact her at ingrid@northwestel.net.