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Collecting tomato seeds – the easiest and most reliable way

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Now in late summer, the maturity of tomatoes reaches its peak. Despite or perhaps because of the current tomato glut, you should already make provisions now for next year’s tomatoes. A true tomato lover brings together so many treasured varieties over time, which he/she harbours in his/her garden year after year. Often the best varieties are just those that you do not get in every supermarket. In this article you will learn how you can collect tomato seeds in just a few steps and thus grow new discoveries in the longer term.

Why tomatoes can be propagated from our own garden

Tomatoes are basically self-pollinated. Self-pollination means that the eggs are fertilised by pollen from the same flower. This property is a direct consequence of domestication. Wild plants are seldom self-pollinating, as self-pollination prevents outcrossing and thus an extensive recombination of the genetic characteristics of the next generation. For a long-term survival in a competitive environment, a broad genetic diversity of the offspring is important and can only be guaranteed by cross-pollination. In cultivation and thus under at least partially controlled environmental conditions (tillage, irrigation, fertilisation, pesticide use...) the most uniform genetics as possible is desired to achieve a constant fruit yield with constant fruit size and quality. Thus, the tomato was self-pollinated by the domestication, which is ultimately the basis for the fact that tomato seeds can be easily obtained and that they also produce identical fruits.

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Picture: Tomato flowers from a self-pollinated cultivar and cross-pollinated Peruvian wild tomato

Many wild tomatoes such as the Peruvian wild tomato (but not the blackcurrant Solanum pimpinellifolium) are still cross-pollinated. The difference between cross-fertilised wild tomato and self-pollinated cultivated tomato is due to the physiology of the flowers. While the pistil stands out above the ring-shaped stamens in the wild tomato, it is not externally visible in the cultivated tomato; it is shorter than the surrounding stamens. This results in over 90% of the fertilisations being self-pollinated. Accordingly, the bumblebees often used in the cultivation of crops do not have the classical insect pollination role as a pollen transporter from flower to flower, but they trigger self-pollination solely by the mechanical vibrations that arise when searching for the nectar glands.

F1 hybrids or why propagation does not always work

Tomatoes, like all higher organisms, are diploid, meaning that all the underlying genetics are present in the cell nuclei in duplicate. The classic, traditional tomato varieties are homozygous; both gene variants are identical. During self-pollination, the pollen fertilises an egg with identical genetics, so the resulting seeds have the same genetics as the mother plant. In the meantime, tomato cultivation has also used a method that has been perfected in maize and poultry breeding: hybrid breeding. Homozygous varieties are crossed and due to the rearrangement of genes, the following F1 generation is characterised by the so-called heterosis effect. This is characterised by the fact that the F1 generation achieves higher values in certain plant characteristics (e.g. vigour, yield performance) than might be expected according to the mean value of the parent varieties.

This approach results in the fact that the F1 generation is no longer homozygous; it is heterozygous, and there are two different variants for a gene. When propagating tomatoes this means that the seeds obtained no longer have the same characteristics as the mother plant – they split up. The sexual recombination of the heterozygous genome leads to the fact that recessive (i.e. previously unexpressed traits) are now suddenly homozygous in the seeds of F1 hybrids and thus also expressed. Offspring of the F1 generation can thus have properties that have nothing in common with the appearance of the F1 hybrids (but very much so with the parent lines of F1 hybrids). With appropriate breeding curiosity and genetic interest, collecting seeds from F1 hybrids is highly recommended. For the tomato fan who is rather yield-oriented, then propagating F1 hybrids is not recommended. The offspring will not reach the quantitative and qualitative level of the previous year's yield on average.

Collecting tomato seeds: this is how it is done

After making sure (most easily by means of a popular internet search engine) that the intended tomato variety is open-pollinated (= homozygous and self-pollinating), one can start by actually harvesting the seeds:

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Picture: Exposed seed chamber: seeds surrounded by gelatinous tissue

1. Cut the healthy and fully matured fruit and use the tip of the knife to loosen the seeds together with the surrounding gelatinous tissue from the seed chambers and place in a glass. Tip: for a large variety collection, it is recommended to use space-saving zip-lock bags instead of glasses (label them with the variety name!).

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Picture: If the fruit is elongated, it is recommended to cut the seed chambers lengthwise

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Picture: Otherwise it is easier to cut the seed chambers crosswise

2. Add about the same amount of water to the slimy seed-jelly tissue mixture and seal the glass airtight with cling film. In order to get rid of the gelatinous tissue, which would dry the seeds hopelessly together and stick to the drying pad, it is best to do nothing for 1-2 days.

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Picture: Tomato seeds of different varieties packaged in zip-lock bags for fermentation

3. The natural fermentation process, which starts in the summer, dissolves the seeds from the surrounding tissue, and the decomposed tissue can be easily rinsed out in a sieve.

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Picture: After fermentation, the seeds and fruit tissue can be separated easily

4. Distribute the rinsed seeds on a paper towel or cardboard and allow them to dry. Avoid the accumulation of seeds; the seeds are hairy (varying in strength depending on the variety) and therefore tend to clump together when they dry out.

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Picture: Dried tomato seeds

Storing tomato seeds and overwintering them

The dry seeds should be stored in labelled (variety name and year) envelopes in dry and dark conditions. Tomato seeds can be kept for several years, but with increasing storage time, the germination ability of the seeds decreases. To maintain satisfactory germination, the seeds should not be kept for more than 3-4 years. This means that you do not have to collect seeds annually, of course, taking into account the fact that in each case a multiple of the annual required seed quantity must be produced.

Buy new tomato seeds or young plants

Of course, as a plant supplier and seed supplier, we are not entirely unhappy if you also buy fresh seeds or young plants in our shop. Over the next few years we will try to supplement and expand our assortment with more resistant, but also special types of tomatoes, so that there is always a reason to expand your own tomato collection. :-)

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Picture: Tomato diversity in the Lubera® trials

 
 
 
 

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