When Spring is finally within reach after a long, dreary winter, gardeners start purchasing their flower and vegetable seeds for the coming summer. They are making the difficult but fun decisions about which varieties they want to grow this year. This is especially true with the multitude of tomato varieties that are available. If you’ve purchased your plants from a nursery in the past, you know the number of varieties available is limited. That is what makes starting your own tomato plants so appealing.
You can try any of the heirloom tomatoes which were grown for flavor, and some have unusual colors and shapes. If you want your tomatoes for making sauces, you can choose a few varieties of tomatoes that will ripen at about the same time and compare the flavors. If you love the smaller cherry tomatoes to snack on or for your summer salads, there are many varieties to choose from. Organic vegetable seeds including tomato seed is also available for the organic gardener. So, let’s get started!
Set Up for Growing
Tomatoes are actually tropical plants that like heat and light. The easiest way to provide both is with a seed starter kit. These systems come with pre-formed grow material in a small size or a larger size that minimizes the need for transplanting before moving to the garden. Of course, you can plant your tomatoes in pots or even paper cups. If you don’t have a really warm spot to grow your tomatoes, use a heated grow mat. These waterproof mats will provide the appropriate heat that tomatoes need to grow.
Once your seeds germinate, they will need light. You can grow tomatoes in a bright window if you can protect them from cold drafts, and they get full sun for most of the day. The alternative is artificial light. There are seed starting units that include lighting systems or you can use a simple fluorescent shop light. You will also need a source of water for your plants.
Plant your tomato seeds about two months before your last frost date. This will give enough time to grow healthy large plants ready to transplant into the garden as soon as it is warm enough outside. The soil should be moist but not saturated. Plant two seeds in each pot. It takes about 5-10 days for tomato seeds to germinate. You won’t need light during this period, but warmth is essential for good germination. Check the moisture level of the soil a couple times a day minimum, especially if you are using bottom heat. As soon as you see signs of germination, add light.
Keep the tomato seedlings happy with warmth and light. Position the light about two inches above the seedlings and raise the light as they grow, keeping the two-inch distance. An easy way to do this is to attach the light to chains with hooks and move it up a couple of links as the plants grow. Continue to provide adequate moisture. If you bottom water, the delicate seedling won’t be disturbed, and you will have less chance of damping off. Damping off is a fungal disease that attacks the seedling where the top of the soil touches the stem.
Tomato stems become stronger when they are exposed to movement. You want a strong stem to support the weight of all the tomatoes your little seedling will eventually have. If they were outside, the wind would take care of it, but a small fan will do the trick. Just turn it on for about an hour each day. If your plants are in an area where you are near them throughout the day, just run your hand gently over the tops each time you walk by.
Watch the root system of your tomatoes. You don’t want them to become root bound. If the roots look like they are outgrowing the pot they’re in, you’ll have to transplant them into larger pots. Expect to do this at least once before they go into the garden.
Into the Garden
When the weather is warm with no danger from cold, start to harden off your tomatoes. This is very important for tomatoes as they will not tolerate cold. Protect them from the cold and wind and never let them be in temperatures less than 50 degrees.
When your tomatoes are hardened off, you are ready to plant them in the garden. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that can be planted deeper than they were growing in the pot. If your tomato plants are a little spindly, remove the lower sets of leaves and plant deeper. The stem will grow new roots along that portion of stem also. If you plan on using support for your tomato plants, insert them now. Adding your tomato cages or stakes while the plants are small will prevent damage to the roots or plant later.
In a month or so, you will be eating sun-warmed cherry tomatoes straight off the vine, and a short time later, you will have the first of the early tomatoes.