Margaret Lauterbach

Margaret Lauterbach: Use saved seeds, and learn

Do you save seeds your plantings produce? I used to save large quantities of tomato seeds, and still save some of extraordinary tomatoes. I bought some watchmakers parts cases from Lee Valley years ago, aluminum cases that hold small glass-topped aluminum canisters for storage of seeds.

One very good reason for you to save seeds is to experience what happened to me recently. I found some very old (about 20 years old) tomato seeds stored in one of those canisters, and wanted to re-grow that variety, so I planted several seeds, confident that they had passed their usual prime. Tomato seeds have an estimated viability of about four years.

My old seeds did germinate, even though they had been stored at room temperature. When I reported that to garden friends online, one fellow said he’d found self-saved seeds usually kept viability longer than commercial seeds.

The variety I wanted to re-grow was called Early Large Red. Prior to the Civil War, it was the most-grown tomato in America. One source says it produces ripe tomatoes in 70 days after transplant, and that would make it an “early” tomato. In my experience, it ripened in the middle of the season. I suspect other growers in other parts of the country found it was not an early tomato either, because Southern Exposure Seed Exchange referred to it as “Large Red,” but related the same history of its pre-Civil War popularity.

I bought seeds from Southern Exposure two years ago (forgetting my own seeds), and most of the plants from those seeds produced very small tomatoes, showing they’d crossed with cherry tomatoes or even smaller varieties. There are smaller varieties of tomato, some called “currant,” the tiniest called “spoon” tomatoes. Some of those wilder tomatoes have protruding anthers that emit pollen, cross-pollinating all over the patch. Modern tomatoes take care of pollination inside their own blossoms, but a persistent bee can foil that.

I remembered the Early Large Red tomatoes were fairly large and very good tasting paste tomatoes, so I finally looked in my watchmakers cases for Early Large Red seeds, and found a full can. These tomatoes are about 3 inches in diameter, some lightly fluted around the edges. The skin is tough, but since the tomato is mainly used for cooking, that’s removed anyway.

A more trustworthy way of keeping seeds is to freeze them. They must be completely dry before freezing, or else they’ll be damaged by that process. When sufficiently dry, flour and dent corns shatter when struck with a hammer, flour corn just mushes. Large flat seeds snap apart when bent, indicating sufficient dryness. Smaller seeds intended to be used as seeds should just have remained at room temperature for a few weeks. I do freeze seeds such as fennel or coriander if they’re to be used as spices. Freezing kills insect eggs that would hatch into destructive insects in storage, and could kill the seed embryo.

Saving tomato seeds is easy, especially if you scoop them into a container, add water and let them ferment for a few days. Then empty container into a sieve, rinse and dump out onto a plastic, pottery, or china plate to dry. If you dump them onto paper, seeds will stick, complicating seed storage and planting.


New voices in gardening are popping up, many repeating old advice of rotating crops. In many cases, especially in Boise’s North End, a gardener may have one spot that receives full sun (six hours) each day. Plant a tomato there, and if you haven’t had a soil-borne disease, you can continue to grow your tomato there year after year.

Plants such as tomatoes form mycorrhizae, thread-like fungi that draw nutrients from humus and transmit it to the plant root hairs. Thus a tomato plant prepares the soil to grow tomatoes again. The mycorrhizae is in place, especially if the gardener has not tilled that area. This argues against crop rotation. I’ve grown tomatoes in the same spot for most of 40 years.

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