Home gardening is a popular hobby, particularly among today's cash-strapped families. Whether you chalk it up to a desire to avoid pesticides or save money on expensive store-bought produce, the end result is worth the effort. Tomatoes are so versatile that the fruit has become a popular staple in home gardens everywhere. Even if your crop is more abundant than you anticipated, there's always something that can be done with the extras. Tomatoes can be eaten sliced with just a dash of salt, used as a topping in all variety of sandwiches, turned into sauce or salsa or preserved for a later date.
Although tomatoes purchased at the grocery store can certainly be pricey, growing them at home is extremely cost-effective and not at all difficult. There are some bugs and other problems (like crazy weather) that can get in the way of a successful crop, but don't let that deter you from giving it a shot! Of course, tomato plants are easily purchased at nurseries around town for little more than the cost of a sack of supermarket tomatoes. Then, all you have to do is plant and maintain them until the fruits of your labor turn a succulent, bright red. In fact, tomato plants are generally so low maintenance that they make excellent first plants for young children interested in learning about the gardening process.
Once you reap a harvest of your own, you can forgo purchasing tomatoes next season. Simply save your seeds until springtime approaches! If the idea of growing anything from seed is daunting, rest assured that tomatoes are classified as "beginner"-level seeds, as are those for peppers, peas, lettuce and beans. By contrast, corn, cucumber, spinach and cabbage seeds, among others, are more difficult to harvest and save appropriately.
If harvested and stored properly, tomato seeds have the potential to last up to five years. Keep reading for easy steps that'll get you on the road to reaping your own bumper crop of nutritious tomatoes.
Saving and Drying Tomato Seeds
If you wish to skip seed packets altogether and harvest your own tomatoes, the first step is obtaining the fruits. Obviously, they can either be grown from a purchased plant or bought at a local grocery store or farmer's market. Then, follow a few surprisingly simple steps to harvest, dry and store their seeds.
Step 1: Ripe, Red and Ready
The seeds are ready to be harvested once your tomatoes are completely ripe. You can even speed up the ripening process if you want. Just take your green tomatoes and store them in a cool area, wrapped individually in newspaper, brown paper sacks or tissue paper. This keeps one rotten tomato from affecting the whole bunch. Then check on them every day or two to monitor the ripening process.
Step 2: Are you ready for this jelly?
Once they're ripe and red, carefully remove the seeds and the jelly like substance in which they're contained. To properly accomplish this, cut the fruit vertically down the center. Carefully squeeze the substance from the tomato and save the rest to be eaten. No sense wasting a good tomato, right?
Step 3: Storing the Seeds
Next, you'll need to put the jelly and seed mixture in a jar or glass and cover it loosely -- not in an airtight container! The containers should then be stored in an area that reliably remains around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep them there for three days, taking care to stir each container once a day.
Step 4: Rinse and Repeat
Once three days have passed, fill each jar with warm water. Allow everything to settle back to the bottom. Viable planting seeds will be heavier than the others and stay submerged, whereas extra pulp and unusable seeds will float to the top. Carefully pour out this leftover gunk, along with the water, until all you have left is clear water and those lovely, viable seeds.
Step 5: Strain and Dry
Pour the remaining mixture into a fine strainer and then put the seeds onto a dry paper towel in a safe place where they won't be disturbed. Allow the seeds a couple of days to dry completely and place them in a seed packet or plastic baggie, taking care to break up any clumps that may have formed. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place until it's time for them to meet Mother Earth.
How to Plant Tomato Seeds
You can harvest all the tomato seeds in the world, but it won't do you a lick of good unless you plant them. Fortunately, the process is fun and educational for kids and adults alike! Planting tomato seeds requires more than just a trowel and a patch of dirt. In fact, you must first grow seedlings indoors before you can even think of taking those potentially fruit-bearing beauties outside.
Step 1: Potting Time
Plant your seeds about six to eight weeks before you expect the last frost of the season. Using a light soil mix, plant the seeds in pots or biodegradable containers to be kept inside. Add plant food and water whenever the soil starts to look dry. It's also crucial that tomato seeds be exposed to a ton of light. Too little sunshine will result in tall, skinny and probably less successful plants. Unless your home is blessed with a huge amount of natural light, you will probably have to supplement the sun with artificial light.
Step 2: Elemental Exposure
Once plants have appeared in the pot, take each outside for a couple of hours every day. This will slowly help them acclimate to the harsher conditions they will face outside once planted permanently. Don't forget to bring them back inside! One ill-timed freeze is all it takes to kill a fledgling plant and dash your homegrown tomato hopes.
Step 3: Plant Away!
Once the threat of freeze has passed, it's time to take your plants to their permanent home. The best transplants will be around 6 to 10 inches in height. Tomatoes may be relatively easy to grow, but they do have their own preferences. Sunny, warm climates with plenty of -- but not too much -- water are ideal. They should be planted fairly deeply, so that only a few rows of leaves are visible aboveground. Space them between 18 and 36 inches apart, although 2 feet of space is ideal if you plan to stake them. Each plant should receive about a pint of starter solution (a combination of water and fertilizer), followed by frequent watering. The amount you water your plants will vary depending on the season and your location, but generally, once every two or three days is enough to ensure proper growth. Depending on where you live, weather conditions and the type of tomatoes planted, it takes between 55 and 105 days for transplants to reach maturity.
Once your seeds have transformed into full-grown plants sporting bright, red, succulent fruits, all that's left to do is pick them and enjoy!
- International Seed Saving Institute. "Beginner." 2011. (Oct. 31, 2011) http://www.seedsave.org/issi/904/beginner.html#anchor005
- Mississippi State University. "Staking and Training Tomatoes." Oct. 14, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://msucares.com/lawn/garden/vegetables/tomatoes/index.html
- University of Arizona, the. "Vegetable Garden: Selected Vegetable Crops." 1998. (Oct. 31, 2011) http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/vegetable/tomatoes.html