Starting Tomatoes from Seed

Epic Tomatoes

If you live in a northern climate, I hope you haven’t planted your tomatoes from seed yet! Yes, it’s easy to get excited but it’s still too early.

I used to start my tomato seeds indoors in early February. I figured the plants need to be large and robust before planting them out into the garden in mid-May. I quickly discovered that they’ll grow rapidly indoors and before you know it, you’ve got leggy plants that flop all over the place. That’s definitely not a good start!

So the following year, I decided to wait a whole two weeks (ha) and see if that made a difference. The result? Floppy, leggy plants.

tomatoesOK, let’s wait until, gulp, the 1st of March. The result? Yes, still floppy, leggy plants. Darn.

Then I decided to walk on the wild side and wait all the way until the 15th of March. And still I had floppy, leggy plants! Argh.

This year, I am going to try waiting until the first of April. I say “try” because I honestly don’t know if I can wait that long, but it will definitely be after the middle of March.

So what method do I use to start my tomato plants and produce robust plants for the garden?

But first, I should probably share my favorite cultivars with you. For slicing tomatoes, you can’t be ‘Jetstar’; I’m crazy about ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes; and my two favorite paste tomatoes are ‘Italian Pompeii’ and ‘Amish Paste – Kapuler’. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole lot of amazing varieties out there, but for now, those are my go-to tomatoes.

I plant the tomatoes in flats and place them under grow lights. Once the seedlings have at least one pair of true leaves, I transplant each one into an empty quart-size yogurt container. When a gardener re-pots (or pots up) a plant into a new container, I realize it’s typical to just go with a container that is a little bit larger than the previous one it was in.

But I find the tomato seedlings do great with this jump in pot size and it saves me time by not having to do multiple transplantings into large pots.

I have a small, unheated greenhouse so that’s where I move the seedlings to once they’re in their yogurt containers. I watch the temperatures carefully and, if necessary, will cover the plants with a sheet of floating row cover to give them a little extra frost protection.

Once the temperatures have stabilized in mid-May, I cover the garden beds that they’ll be growing in with a sheet of red plastic mulch (a.k.a. SCRM tomato mulch). This does two things: it increases the soil temperature –which heat-lovers like tomatoes love — and it increases the amount of light that is reflected up into the plants. You wouldn’t believe the difference in productivity¬†one gets by using this plastic mulch!

tomatoesAt planting time, I cut an “X” into the mulch for each plant and plant the seedlings deeply to encourage additional root growth along the stems. I water them in well and cover the beds with floating row cover for about two weeks, to keep the air around the plants warm.

You also better believe I watch the weather like a hawk for those first couple of weeks! There’s no point in letting a late frost ruin my carefully-tended seedlings, right?

tomatoesTo support the plants, I don’t use tomato cages anymore. Instead, I plant the seedlings on either side of a vertical sheet of concrete reinforcing wire and use a bit of twine to attach the plants to it. This works great and is much easier than using cages.

I hope this information will help you get your tomato plants off to a good start. Look for more tomato-growing (as well as other veggies) as we get into the garden season.