Six Steps To Starting And Saving Heirloom Tomatoes
By Melisa Mink, Homestead Moma, Mississippi
If the first tomato of the year is something you long after, this is for you. Growing and saving your heirloom tomato seed is something that will benefit your pocket book as well as your belly. And just think about the looks you’ll get at the local farmers market when you show up with striped green or orange tomatoes! They really are fun to grow, and they are nutritious too. Each year, we grow hundreds of our own plants by seed, save tons of money, add to our diet and wow our friends and neighbors.
STEP 1: GET YOUR SEEDS
To start your own collection, begin simply by saving the seed from the choicest tomatoes you can find or grow. If you want to try some new ones you don’t have access to, take a look at some of the heirloom catalogs and browse online. You will need to get your seeds ordered in January. This not only helps with the winter blues, but allows you time to grow your plants from seeds.
STEP 2: PLANT SEEDS
You will need to start the seeds in February or March. All you’ll need is your seed, seedling tray pots, a grow light and some old recycled cups. Get those colorful and crazy seeds into your wetted seed tray pots, place a plastic cover over them and place on top of the fridge for warmth. (Be sure to label them if planting several varieties.) The warmth of the refrigerator will help the trays stay warm and bring your little seedlings to life. You’ll have baby plants within a week, two at the most. This way of starting seed also works for peppers.
STEP 3: GROW SEEDLINGS
Next, move the trays of seedlings under a grow light. It needs to be close to the seedlings—within 10 inches, or they’ll become spindly. You’ll need to check and make sure they get water. Under the light, they can get dried out and die. You also should make sure they are not too wet or they will rot at the soil line. This is called dampening off, and it’s not good. You want them to stay damp, not wet, or too dry.
STEP 4: TRANSPLANTING
Next, transplant them into recycled Styrofoam cups after the second set of leaves begin to grow. These are the “true leaves.” If they begin to look leggy or grow too long reaching for the light, just plant deeper into the pot or cup. The plant will grow roots along that stem. The deep planting is good, as there will be more roots to soak up nutrients. I recycle disposable cups and use a nourishing potting soil for this step. Buying pots can get expensive.
STEP 5: GROW AND MAINTAIN
You will then be watching and watering for a few weeks. Once the stems look a little more green than white, and warm days permit, start setting outside for two hours at a time. This will “harden off” the plants to real outside weather. Also, keep an insecticidal soap spray on hand for gnats or aphids. Once you’ve done this on and off for a week or so, it’s time to find a warm, sunny place or greenhouse to leave them in more often. You can build a makeshift one with an old glass door, or use a cold frame. If it’s too sunny though, they could cook. Just make sure it’s ventilated well and the glass is not too close to the plants. They will also need to be kept frost-free at night. When early spring temperatures still get pretty low, just bring them back inside. They can handle temperatures as low as 40°F, but no frost whatsoever. You’ll know it’s chilly for them if the stem is a little purple.
STEP 6: HARVEST
Once summer is upon us, you’ll have your own hand-picked varieties no one else has. From purple to orange, green or white, it can be a tomato show of color. And once you’ve picked them and are enjoying the harvest, don’t forget to save your seeds. Just place your best-looking fruit’s seeds into a bowl or cup of water. It will need to sit for three or four days and grow mold. Yep, those funky bacteria will do you good deeds. It’s breaking down the gel sack around the seed and allowing it to be in a usable condition. Once the three days are up, scoop off the mold and wash the seeds in a screen-style strainer with cold water. Then place on a labeled paper towel to dry and voila! Now label a plastic freezer bag and place in freezer, and share a few with friends and family. You’re ready for the next season!
Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.