Now that I have more space for gardening, it really isn’t economical to purchase transplants – especially if you enjoy heritage varieties like I do. If you happen to have a tomato obsession, it’s especially costly. I plant a flat of 72 tomatoes for about $20 bucks. You can find ways to make this more expensive obviously, but if I purchased 72 plants from a greenhouse I’d be pushing $250.00 pretty easily, so doing it myself not only makes financial sense, it gives you a little therapeutic boost in the doldrums of February to take care of your baby plants. The only condition I hold myself to is that I wait until after the first week of February. After that, any day I feel crappy could turn into tomato day. If hypothetically, you were more disciplined than I, you might count backwards 5 weeks from your last frost date to schedule step #4, and backwards 5 more weeks to start your seeds.
There is still time to do this here on Hoth, but if you’re going to try, don’t delay any longer, it’s time to get moving. Our last frost date in the Finger Lakes is May 1 – so we aim to have plants mature enough to be set outside by then. People have lots of ideas and preferences when it comes to seed starting, so let me just preface these “instructions” by saying there are many right ways. I’ll tell you what I do, and you can make your own adjustments.
1. What kind of tomatoes? Here are some things so consider:
– Do you mainly put cherry tomatoes on your salad? Like to make sauce? Slice them for sandwiches?
– What zone am I in? Different varieties become ripe at different rates. If you have a long growing season, this is less of an issue. Up here in zone 5, I can grow just about any kind here but it’s nice to have some earlier cool hardy varieties. If you don’t know your zone or last frost date, visit the Old Farmer’s Almanac online, they will hook you up with a quickness.
– How much space? There are determinate and indeterminate tomatoes – determinate, as the name implies, produces all of its fruit at once in a large crop and then dies off. Most are what you’d imagine as average in size. This is great for making tomato sauce, not great if you’re hoping to pop outside and grab a tomato to add to your salad all summer. An indeterminate plant will keep producing fruit all season until it’s finally too cold for it to survive. This means that it will also keep growing all season and some of these plants can become truly massive, so read the descriptions of each type before tossing that packet into your cart. If you have a small garden, consider a dwarf variety, or a variety that can be trellised vertically. This is a large beefsteak type beside a dwarf type.This doesn’t have to be fancy. For example, I like to plant the Italian Tree tomato next to my porch stairs – it needs only a small space to go into the ground but grows to about 10 feet in length by October and I just keep tying it to the railing all summer long. I easily took over 50 tomatoes off of this one plant last year.
– To heirloom or not to heirloom? There’s a lot of hype about heirloom tomatoes these days. I personally prefer them, I find them to be more flavorful, more disease resistant and generally more interesting. I’m not going to take the time here to discuss what makes an heirloom an heirloom because frankly, some of them walk the line. If this is the first time you’re starting seeds, I honestly wouldn’t worry about it much, time is of the essence. But if you are, you must, and you do, these are my favorite places to look for tomato seeds online in order of preference:
http://www.fruitionseeds.com (by far my fav)
2. Collect your materials (all are available inexpensively on amazon, slightly more expensively at your local gardening store). You will need:
– A seed starter tray that holds water…I also retire my old cookie sheets to this position.
– Small planting cells of some kind – I use plastic 6 pack cells, but egg cartons or dixy cups work too. I reuse mine and take them from other people who would throw them out but if you do this, please wash them or soak them briefly in a 10:1 bleach solution – mold and fungus off all kinds can live on these for a long time and last year’s mildew or critter eggs can kill this year’s tomato baby.
– Seed starter soil mix of some sort – there are fancy varieties available, but I find that the cheapest kind actually works the best, so I get the organic jiffy seed starter from Lowe’s or Home Depot (it is usually several dollars cheaper at these large stores). I do not use my own garden soil for the same reason that I wash my used cells.
– Pitcher of water
– Something to mix dirt in…a bucket, a large bowl, a storage tote, whatever you think is a convenient size.
– Optional but recommended – Espoma Tomato Tone or Garden Tone. My gardens are organic, so this is what I use. If that is not important to you, many greenhouses use Jacks 20-20-20 to get their seeds started. Both are commonly available at your local gardening store. I have also used nothing, and waited to fertilize my plants until they were large enough for a second pot (more on that later), and although the plants managed, I won’t do this again. I also keep a liquid fertilizer on hand in case there is some sort of emergency in which my plants need help faster than the solid crumble will break down.
– Optional – seed starter heat mat. The application of heat greatly speeds germination in tomatoes (which is useful at this eleventh hour), but if you can’t find one quick or on the cheap, the top of your refrigerator works in a pinch. Avoid any ideas involving your home’s radiators or forced air vents…better to wait longer for your seeds to sprout than cook or dehydrate them.
– Labels! Unless you are growing only a couple of plants, you’d be surprised how easily and at how many different points you have the opportunity to mix them up. Anything – popsicle sticks, masking tape, those white things you get at the garden store. Note that even sharpie will quickly wear off outdoors if you use the white things (I use a label maker).
3. Mix up the dirt (I know, I know, it drives proper gardeners crazy when you don’t say “soil”). I must admit that my method of seed starting fertilization is a less than exact science. Disclaimer – fertilizer companies pretty much never advise using your bare hands to apply their products, organic or not. I will also not advise you to do so. This is what I do:
– For every bag of jiffy, I add what might be considered 1/3 – 1/2 cup of Espoma. I fold that into the jiffy to keep the dust down immediately. I then add water and mix until I’ve got something resembling the saturation of wet sand. This allows you to see the true volume of what you’re working with. Since we’re obviously not using our hands here, a little trowel or even a kitchen spoon is nice to have on hand.
– I fill my cells with this mixture up to about 1/4 inch from the top and then tamp it down without smooshing. I put only one seed in the center of each cell. Many people plant 2 or more and then cut away the least viable seedlings after they emerge. This is not a bad idea if you want to try starting seeds now. In a tray of 72 cells, 5 or 6 won’t germinate – if you’re only trying to grow 3 tomato plants, that’s a tomato roulette. The older the seeds are the less viable they become. In general however, tomato seeds are awesome in that they last several years. I get the most out of my seed packets by planting only one in each, waiting for them to emerge and then immediately replanting in the cells that had a bum seed. When you start your seeds in February, there is time to do this once or even twice. I top the cells off with more dirt, arrange them in the tray and then water again from the bottom (so I don’t displace the tiny seeds) – 1/4 inch will be fine. If you purchased one of those seed trays that has a little greenhouse top, do use it. As a general rule, heat to germinate and light to grow – so if what you have for heat is a refrigerator, no prob, they don’t need light yet, they have no leaves. Check the tray daily to make sure it doesn’t dry out.
– Once they emerge with 2 little leaves the temperature can be reduced and they’ll need a sunny window or a grow light. The roots are very shallow at this point and it’s important to continue to keep the tray moist like that original wet sand mixture. At this point you will see the plant’s seed leaves. These are not “true” tomato plant leaves. Eventually a new set of leaves will emerge that actually have that distinct tomato shape.
4. Transplanting the babies. Around 4-5 weeks, the plants will have developed 4 or 5 true leaves…some of the seed leaves may start to turn brown and fall off. At this time I pull out all of my planting stuff again. These leggy (tall & skinny) little things need a bigger pot to develop their roots. All of the little hairs that line the tomato stem are potential roots. At this point it’s helpful to the plant to mix a little heavier soil than just the fluffy jiffy – I use whatever is around as long as it’s sterile (from a bag at the store) – compost, potting soil, garden soil, a mix, whatever. I add another round of Tomato Tone and water just like the first time, remove the seedlings from their cells as carefully as possible, pinch the seed leaves off if they’re still there, and re-pot them in a larger pot all the way up to the bottom leaves. Again, tamp the soil down without smooshing. Now that the plants are more stable, I water from the top.
– A week later you’ll be saying to yourself “didn’t I bury that whole stem!?” Now I just have to keep them happy for a few more weeks while their roots grow and their stems get stronger.
5. Close to our last frost date, I harden the plants off. This keeps them from becoming damaged by the outdoor conditions they are not used to. All it takes is putting them outside for a few hours each day for a few days to a week. I just keep an eye on them. They can become sunburnt if given too much exposure too fast, or in my case, it’s very windy here and I’m careful to keep them from breaking.
5. Move them to the garden. I shoot to have my tomatoes ready to transplant by the last week in April just in case the weather is especially nice. But it’s important to use your area’s last frost date as your guide and watch the weather report. If it frosts after you plant, it is necessary to go out and put something protective over your plants such as a cardboard box or bushel basket. When I transplant, I use all the same principles as with the transplant. In a full sun location, I add a fertilizer, plant them very deep again and then water heavily (at the base so as not to break the foliage). Then I’m good to go and I can finally reclaim my windowsills.
This is long, I’ll stop there and save staking, pruning and drainage for another time! Thanks for reading, if you have questions I’ll do my best to help. Happy planting!