Germinating tomato seeds at home is something that I practice every year. One reason has to do with the cost savings. Another is to keep myself true to the art of horticulture.
When I hear about farmers struggling to make ends meet by buying very expensive bags of copyrighted seeds and then not being able to keep seeds, it seems anti-horticultural.
With that said, I keep seeds from the best fruit that I eat every year.
The trick to seed selection is to save a few from the best of this years fruit. Not all plants grow true to their parent, like apples. Tomatoes, however, do keep true and produce second third and even more generations after the original fruit is long forgotten. I like to put my seeds in a paper towel to dry.
Using a pen, I mark down everything that I can remember about the parent fruit such as color, size, year saved and even taste. After the seeds dry in the paper, they need to be kept in a dry cool place. My fruit cellar is littered with paper towels.
Tomato seeds only take six to eight weeks from planting until they are ready to be moved outside, so don’t get too eager. Plants grown indoors will get leggy and not survive the first week outside.
In my growth zone, the average last frost date is around the first of May, so I typically begin my seeds indoors around the fifteenth of March. It is tempting to succumb to ‘spring fever’ and attempt to start earlier, but this only leads to leggy plants and disappointment.
The seed-starting soil sold at most garden centers is perfect for tomato seeds. Using garden soil has never worked for me, as the ‘dirt’ compacts easily and harbors microbes that can cause failure. An excellent pot for the seeds are the four packs that last years plants came in. The only downside to these pots is the tendency to dry out. I dote on my plants daily, and so they do not fear drying out.
Once the seeds sprout they need direct light for sixteen hours per day. I crank up the heat in the house to 70 degrees F for the last part of the winter (after suffering at 60 most of the winter) and have fluorescent light fixtures in the living room. The seedlings will reach towards the light in an amazing show of spring fervor. If the lights are not directly above the seedlings, they will tend to bend. This is not the end of the world if the lights can be adjusted accordingly.
When the seedlings have revealed their second set of leaves (first true leaves) they are ready for transplanting. I use recycled yogurt containers that have been sterilized with a weak bleach solution. This may seem like more work, but bacteria in the warm and moist environment is disastrous to the plants.
Once the re-potted seedlings have taken, it should be time to harden. This consists of taking them outside for a field trip to their new environment. Since they have enjoyed the pampered conditions of the ‘greenhouse’ that you had them in, they will want to go outside only during fair weather.
A weeks worth of hardening during the day and inside at night will have them ready to transplant. This can only be done when the last frost is well past. At this point the plants should be as hearty as the ones bought from the store. The benefit is that you knew the parent fruit and have quite a connection with the young plants. What fun.