Almost all vegetable gardeners grow tomatoes. In fact, one survey indicated that a whopping 98% of vegetable gardeners grew tomatoes, probably because they’re so versatile, healthful, and delicious. Growing your own tomato plants from seed is both easy and fun; and, it will enable you to experience some truly wonderful cultivars that aren’t always available as plants in local nurseries or garden shops. You’ll save a little money, too.
One of the joys of vegetable gardening is harvesting and eating the first ripe tomato of the season. Getting tomatoes as early as possible requires you to start with healthy plants as soon as it’s safe to plant tender vegetables in your garden. Your safe date is determined by where you live, not just your zone but your specific microclimate.
When to Start Seeds
A good rule of thumb is to start tomato seeds indoors six weeks prior to your expected last frost date (the safe planting date for tender vegetables). If you have a lot of space for growing seedlings, you might want to start a batch six weeks before your last frost date and another batch two weeks later. This approach will produce some extra plants that you can use if any plants from your first batch don’t survive. Of course, you can always share extra plants with friends and neighbors (one of the true joys of gardening).
How to Start Seeds
Start seeds in a sterile medium (plant starting formula) in small plastic trays, egg cartons, or even egg shells. Most seed starters recommend sowing two seeds per container, and sniping one off if both germinate. We prefer to start one seed per container, as most tomato seeds are quite vigorous. Several weeks after sprouting, when the second or third set of leaves appears, transplant the seedlings to larger containers. Yogurt cups are the ideal size for the transplanted seedlings, and they’re usually tapered so that removing the seedlings is quite easy. If you’re growing more that one cultivar, be sure to label the containers.
Caring for Your Tender Seedlings
Place the seedling trays or cups under fluorescent lights or on a sunny, warm window sill. Keep them moist, but not soggy. If you’re growing seedlings on a window sill, you’ll need to occasionally turn them to keep them growing straight because they’ll bend toward the light. If you’re growing seedlings under lights, keep the lights as close to the seedlings as possible—this will help develop stocky plants with healthy, thick main stems. Don’t overfeed or overwater your tender seedlings.
Preparing for Transplanting
When the time is right for transplanting, it’s a good idea to harden off your seedlings by placing them outside, in a well protected area, for a couple of days prior to planting them in the garden. If, however, you’ve grown your seedlings in a cool basement, hardening off may not be necessary.
Seedlings can be easily removed from the second container if they’re moist, not too wet and not too dry. Simply turn the container upside down, place your hand under the top of the container, and tap the bottom with a trowel. Your seedling will pop out and be ready to transplant. Prepare hole that is twice the size of the root ball, add a little compost or dehydrated cow manure, and plant the transplant. Don’t over fertilize the new seedling, especially if you use chemical fertilizer, or you may “burn” the seedling and kill it.
If you have extra seedlings, you may want to hold onto them, in case some of your original transplants don’t survive. Or, you may reward a friend or neighbor with a wonderful gift of a new variety to try.