Thursday, March 19, 2009

Starting Your Own Killer Tomatoes

It's that time of year - specifically 6-8 weeks ahead of the last frost (usually around the second week of May).

There are two choices when planting a garden: either buy your plants ready-to-plant from the store, or start your own seeds. Frankly, I find I do better with store-bought plants. They seem stronger, hardier, and the bigger the plant you buy, the further ahead you are in the game.

But since I whined for years about having a greenhouse, now I feel like I should try to get my money's worth out of it. Not that just being able to go out in the middle of January, and sit in the 95 degree heat isn't worth every penny, but this year I thought I'd try starting my own seeds.

Turns out it's not rocket science but there are a few considerations you need to pay attention to, such as moisture, warmth, and a little boost of fertilizer after the plants are established.

First - pick reputable seeds. This is not the time to be planting the ones you found in the back of the kitchen junk drawer, packaged for 2006. At least not if you expect them to come up. These happen to be Burpee, mostly because I was in Target in January, and the seed display sucked me in. I remember thinking if I was buying seeds, it couldn't be that long till spring.

Read the back of the package -it has all the info you need: how soon to plant, how deep to plant, how far apart to plant (in case they are going directly into the ground -and tomatoes shouldn't be this time of year).

You can start your seeds in the large, multi-section seed flats BUT eventually you'll need to transplant them to larger containers, and then finally out into the garden. That extra step is just additional stress on a young plant, so I save up my larger containers and eliminate that middle transplant step. Eventually these plants will go directly into the garden.

To keep the plants moist and well-watered, set the pots in plastic (ACK...more plastic) pans (think cleaned and sterilized old kitty litter size pans), then fill them with soil. Some gardeners prefer to use special seed-starter medium, but I've never had much luck with that. My choice of dirt is the standard least expensive, 40 lb bag found at Lowe's. I also have no problem using the Miracle Gro soil (yep, I think this makes me non-organic, and I'm okay with that).

Using a pencil, or something of similar size, poke 2-3 holes in the soil, approximately 1/4" deep.
Place one tomato seed in each hole, pull the soil lightly back over the seed.
That's it.
That's exciting as it gets.

All you do to finish up is water lightly (in this case, daughter is pouring water into a used styrofoam cup with holes poked in it to disperse the water) onto the soil/seeds.
Then pour an inch or so of water into the pan itself. The soil will then water itself for a week or so, and save you having to constantly check on moisture levels.

Seeds and seedlings love warm, moist environments to get started. I use cling wrap (More Plastic -I am going to hell for this).

Put a piece over the top of each pot, and secure with a rubber band, making each pot into a mini-greenhouse.

Tomato seedlings come up in 7-10 days, at which point the plastic should be loosened (or poke a couple venting holes)to let the hot air escape.

For today, the only item purchased new was the pack of seeds and the bag of soil (purchased last year with the end of the season markdowns, and stored for use until this spring). The plastic pots are ones that plants came in previously, and they will be re-used until they disintegrate. The plastic pans are recycled kitty litter pans, and the metal trays they sit on were purchased at a garage sale, specifically for sitting soaker plants in. The milk cartons have been saved up for holding water all winter in the greenhouse, and when the young plants go out into the yard, they will be cut down and made into individual protectors.

The styrofoam cups (*EVIL*, I know) are recycled from my dad's -he swears by them to start his seedlings, and no amount of discussion will change his mind- so I keep them and re-use them as much as possible. The ice-cream buckets are re-used for everything from watering, to mixing fertilizer, to filling in for a quick planter, to holding extra water plants through the winter, to those August days when there way too many tomatoes and not enough baskets to carry them inside.

Starting your own seeds can save you a bundle and the garden/greenhouse is the perfect place to recycle and re-use items while trying to be a little more earth-friendly. Or at least "friendlier" -obviously there's a lot of plastic stuff here,but the idea is to re-use what you've already purchased, or at least find what you need at garage sales,etc. versus buying new items.

We'll check back on the seedings in a couple weeks and see how they're doing.
Hopefully it won't freeze again at this late date!


  1. We planted our seeds yesterday & I must admit I use last year's seeds & the year before & they almost always come up - just plant a few per pot & then when they germinate thin out any excess to leave just one strong plant.
    We'll have to compare notes on our tomato seedlings!
    In the summer when there are loads of tomatoes on the plants in the polytunnel & they start falling off, Lucy & Toby go in & eat up the fallen ones - who knew that dogs liked tomatoes! The chickens love them too & will mug you for a tomato!

  2. We're planning on starting our seeds this weekend. Though, as usual, I'm running behind and haven't ordered all of my seeds yet (every year .. I need a better routine!).
    Good luck with your seeds. You have me longing for a greenhouse now!