By Pamela Doan
Starting tomato plants from seed has been a debate in my household now that the garden catalogues have arrived. In my mind, it’s more work and hassle than we’ll reap in terms of flavor, cost and effort. In the past few years, the time involved in creating the garden — making the beds, amending the soil, fencing — has taken up the time that might have been used for planting seeds indoors during the winter in preparation. I’ve sown seeds directly, but bought a lot of transplants.
Tomatoes take up about a quarter of my garden and I always hope to can some, maybe that will be this year’s achievement. I love variety and buy only one or two of each kind with an exception for plum tomatoes, which are best in sauces. Cherry tomatoes, beefeaters, tomatillos, Brandywine and other heirlooms, the choices are divine and colorful and my mouth is watering just writing this.
Here I come to my main argument against growing tomatoes from seed — do you know how many seeds are in a packet? While I’ve never counted, it’s more than one or two or three or four. Many more. If seeds are bought, it’s hard to resist planting them and the variety is sacrificed for the bragging rights of seed-raised tomatoes.
While it seems like planting seeds is more cost-effective than buying transplants, consider the equipment necessary to growing tomatoes. Tomatoes need heat and sunlight. In my tree-surrounded house where a cat roams the windowsills, there is neither sufficient light nor safe space for flats of seedlings. Temperatures should be steady at 75 to 80 degrees.
There are several ways to do this. Turn up the thermostat. Place a heating coil or pad under the flat. Or use a special grow light that artificially produces the spectrum plants need for growth and produces heat as well. This would be my only option and lights can range in price from the $50s up into the hundreds. Just looking at the choices online gives me a headache.
The other materials aren’t costly, though. A sterile growing medium or soilless mix to plant the seeds in, and a container — usually a flat. Both are available at garden centers and from seed catalogues. The average price for a packet is $3 to $4.
When it comes to technique, here’s where detail and attention make all the difference. The flats can be enclosed in plastic bags to keep moisture in until the seeds sprout. Once the seedlings are about an inch high, remove the plastic bags and keep the flats under a 40-watt fluorescent bulb for 15 hours each day at 60 degrees.
After a couple more weeks have passed, the seedlings should be a few inches tall and have a full set of leaves. Now it’s time for the first transplanting. Tease them apart and place each one in its own three- to four-inch pot in a rich, well-balanced soil. The plants still need to be kept under lights until they’re about 10 inches tall. Every time the tomatoes are watered, add in a light houseplant fertilizer.
Transplanting the tomatoes a second time into bigger containers encourages stronger roots and a nice, stocky shape since tomato stems will root wherever the stem is placed in soil. By burying the lowest circle of leaves in the soil each time the tomatoes are transplanted, it encourages ideal root growth.
The last frost in our area is around May 15, and then the plants are ready to be hardened off before the final transplant into the garden. Tomatoes are sensitive to cold temperatures and shock. All your work could go to waste if this step isn’t carefully followed. During the day, take the tomatoes outside to get fresh air in a sheltered spot and bring them in at night for a week. For another week, leave the tomatoes in their pots outside overnight in a sheltered spot as long as temperatures are above 55 degrees.
Eight to 10 weeks have transpired since that great idea to start tomatoes from seed came up. Now that you know what you’re getting into and you’ve developed a deepening appreciation for the farmer who grows those beautiful tomatoes at the farmer’s market, what will it be? Seeds or a visit to a plant sale?