Tomatoes are as American as apple pie. Nearly every backyard gardener in this country reserves a place in their garden for the tomato. It is no wonder that this is the case though, since tomatoes are found in some of our favorite dishes like pasta, pizza, salad, and subs to name a few. However, the pale, lifeless tomatoes that we purchase at the supermarket are hard and flavorless. So, any gardener worth their salt is going to grow their own to achieve the best tasting tomato.
Most often Joe Gardener is going to go to his local home and garden center and buy tomato plants. This is a great alternative to supermarket tomatoes, but your choice of tomato is going to be limited. I most often find cherry, plum, beefsteak, and yellow tomatoes at such stores. For a plant that can be found in hundreds of beautiful and tasty varieties your choices are very limited when you buy plants at home and garden centers. If you want to try something new the best alternative is starting your tomatoes from seed. In addition to variety, starting from seed gives gardeners concerned with eating organic, control of their tomatoes from the very beginning.
Here, in a nutshell, is how to start your own tomato plants from seed:
Step 1 – Buy Seeds
You can usually buy seeds in home and garden centers too, but if you want to find real variety or organic seed your best bet is to look online. There are many seed purveyors and if you want to find one that is located in your region I encourage you to search, however if you don’t like surfing the internet just go directly to the Seed Saver Exchange.1
The Seed Saver Exchange specializes in preserving biological diversity in our food supply, thus you can find a great variety of heirloom seed. Heirloom is the only way to go if you want to start tomatoes from seed because when you collect your harvest for the year you can save the seeds from your fruit and plant them the next year. If you buy hybrid seed you can’t save the seeds. You could if you wanted, but while second generation hybrid seed will produce a plant it will not produce a good fruit harvest.
One more note on buying seed is to do so as early as you can. Tomatoes seeds are best started inside two to three months before your last frost date. For instance, in zone 5 where I live it is generally not considered safe to plant outside (without protection) until after Memorial Day at the end of May, so I start seeds inside sometime in February2. To be sure that you receive your seeds in time I recommend ordering them in November or December. Really the earlier you start the seeds the bigger and stronger they will be when it is time to plant them outside, so order your seeds as early as you want but don’t order them late.
Step 2 – Plant Seeds
The best way to get seeds started is to purchase peat disc trays. These trays generally have black plastic bottoms and clear plastic covers for heat retention, and they come with dry peat discs for a planting medium. These trays come with planting instructions, and these in general are to put 2 to 3 seeds in each disc, place them in the tray, water the discs till they fully expand, and then put the cover on. It isn’t absolutely necessary to use these trays, but it is the simplest for the beginning gardener or for those with limited space.
Step 3 – Light and Water
Ideally we would all have a nice garden shed with electricity and we would be able to place our seed trays directly under grow lights, but many, like me, do not have a dedicated space to hang such lights and leave our plants. Never fear the best light for this job is sunlight anyway. Place a table near a large window in your home that is oriented south and gets lots of light. If it isn’t oriented south at the very least it should get lots of sunlight. Set the tray in the sun with the cover on. Turn the tray every day, or every other day, so that it gets even sun light. This is especially important when the seeds sprout.
When the seeds start to sprout be sure to check the peat discs to see if they need watered. Heat from the sun and plant growth will quickly suck up water. It is pretty simple to discern if the plants need water; if the discs look dry and lighter in color then they need water. Just use a spray bottle with a mist setting and spray the tray until the discs look nice and damp.
Step 4 – Thinning and Fertilizing
When the seedlings start to get 2 to 3 inches high it is time to thin them out. Each peat disc should have been planted with 2 to 3 seeds. If all the seeds germinated now is the time to pluck all but the strongest seedling from the disc so that you are left with one healthy plant.
Once I get to this point I also like to begin adding a diluted natural/organic liquid fertilizer once every 10 days to make them strong enough to handle the transplant.
Step 5 – Transplanting
When the seedlings grow to a size where they are beginning to touch the cover it is time to transplant them. I generally transplant the surviving seedlings into 3 inch peat pots filled with a good organic potting soil.
Fill a peat pot half way with potting soil. Place a peat disc with tomato seedling in the pot. Continue filling the pot with potting soil until it reaches half-way up the seedling. Seedlings tend to get a bit spindly so burying half of the plant helps to stabilize it. In addition the portion of the stem that was buried should begin to sprout roots strengthening the plant.
Step 6 – Hardening Off
Continue to water and occasionally fertilize while the plant is inside.
Two to three weeks before planting the tomatoes in the ground it is important to acclimate the plants to the outside. To do this, bring the plants outside for an hour or two every day for a couple of days to a week. Over the remaining weeks progressively leave them out longer during the warm part of the day. Eventually you should be able to leave them out from dawn to dusk. Just keep an eye on the weather and to how the plants are holding up to determine when to bring them in and out.
Step 7 – Putting Plants in the Garden
Now you are ready to put the tomato plants in the garden just as if you had bought them from the home and garden center.
As you can see this process, while more time consuming than just buying plants, is pretty easy and really doesn’t take that much time unless you are starting hundreds of plants. So give it a try. I am sure you will be even more proud of your garden tomatoes if you do.