Growing Tomatoes From Seed

All gardeners know that a tomato tastes best when it’s grown in your own garden. They are the number one home vegetable crop: more people grow tomatoes in their backyard than any other plant. It’s no surprise that nurseries and home centers sell tomato plants by the millions.

Buying a plant and putting it into the garden is the primary method most people try. Quite a few gardeners have attempted growing tomatoes from seed, not had success with it, and reverted back to buying plants. By following a few key steps, growing tomatoes from seed is very doable. You’ll save money and after all your effort the fruit tastes even better.

My young tomatoes

Start by choosing seeds that will do well in your garden. Just because seeds are sold in your neighborhood store, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in your garden. One variety named “Delicious” sounds too good to pass up, but it takes 90 days to produce fruit after planting; that may be too long if you live in a cool region. One variety I’m trying this year, “Rose”, takes just 70 days; that means I’ll have a nearly an extra month of harvest compared to “Delicious”.

Tomato seeds should be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Then the seedlings should be planted about two weeks after the last frost date. That means you’ll have tomato seedlings in your house for a full two months or more before they go in the garden. Anticipate the space required and choose an area that you can spare for two months.

You can fill a large planting tray with sterile potting soil or seed-starting soil mix and sow your seeds. Plant about 1/4 inch deep, lightly cover with moist soil, and keep moist until they germinate. If you follow the large tray method, at some point you’ll have to transplant the individual seedlings into larger containers of their own. Transplanting can help develop stronger root systems. This is also a good method if you are planning to grow dozens of plants, but transplanting can be stressful to the plant and the gardener if not done correctly.

You can use large peat pots or pots filled with potting soil as the primary growing location to avoid transplanting. Spread five or six seeds per pot. You’ll probably have very good germination and all of the seeds should sprout. This means that at some point you’ll have to sacrifice some of the smaller seedlings so that one one or two plants remain in each pot to grow strong. Thinning out or cutting the small seedlings can be stressful for the gardener too, so you have to decide which method of sowing you prefer.

Tomato seeds in peat pots

Your planting container should be kept in a warm location to aid germination and growth. That means a spot that stays at least 70 degrees F (21C). A few degrees cooler is okay, but germination may be slower. Cover the tray or pots with a plastic cover to help keep the soil surface from drying out. In just a few days you’ll see the seedlings start to emerge.

I re-used plastic bags from the produce section

As soon as you see the little stems, it’s critical that they begin receiving a strong light source. Let me repeat that point because it is the most important aspect of starting tomato seeds indoors. As soon as the seedlings begin to emerge from the soil, they need to receive strong light.

Seedlings just emerging

Many people think they can put the tray on a south-facing windowsill and the sun will do the work for them. This leads to the reason most seeds fail when started indoors. The spring sun is not strong enough to provide the best light. The seedlings that result in this case are spindly, weak, and light-colored because they’re reaching for the light. If you do this, occasionally turn the pots to try and balance the light levels.

To get the strongest plants, the light source should be directly above the plant by just a few inches. This may mean the tray or pots are placed in special grow racks designed for this purpose. I built a wooden frame that holds a fluorescent shop light. The chains that support it can be shortened as the plants grow so that the light is always just above them. You can buy grow lights with stands that do the same thing. Whatever light source you use, it must remain as consistent as possible, with the light remaining on 12-16 hours per day. I attach my light to a plug-in timer.

My grow light

You don’t want to over water the seedlings after they have their first few sets of true leaves. Letting the soil surface dry out very slightly will help keep them growing strong, but don’t let them wilt from lack of water. It’s better to keep the soil moist, not wet. If you occasionally blow hard on the seedlings or drag a pencil or chopstick gently over their tops, you can stimulate growth that will produce a stronger stalk too.

You can grow tomatoes in just about any container. Paper milk cartons is a perennial favorite. Starting the seeds in egg cartons can make transplanting to a larger container easier. Yogurt cups work well too. You can even try planting them in eggshells.

When growing seeds in eggshells, punch a few small holes in the bottom of the shell to allow water drainage. Use a small nail from the inside of the shell for best results. Fill with potting soil and sow the seeds. When the plants have grown large enough for transplanting, put the entire shell (gently crushed) and plant into a larger pot. One of the most common issues with tomatoes in the garden is Blossom End Rot. One of the causes of this problem is a deficiency of calcium in the soil. By planting tomatoes in an eggshell you are introducing the roots to the calcium in the shell. Though not all of the calcium in the shell is available for the roots directly, it is an innovative way to add minerals to your soil.

Egg shell pots

Growing tomatoes from seed can be done if you follow the few suggestions above. The most important key is the strong light for the seedlings. If you can solve that step in your home seed starting setup, you are almost assured success.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by timelesslady on February 15, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Great post. I’ve just planted dozens of heirloom tomato seeds to grow indoors for a few weeks…Amish Paste, Black Brandywine, etc. I’m excited. It will be the first time I have attempted to grow my own tomato transplants. I’ve grown annuals indoors for years…hopefully I will have the same good luck. I have two light tables so I will take your advice and really lower the lights or raise the tomatoes up to their level. Kathy

    Reply

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