Tomatoes are probably the most treasured plants for gardeners and fruit/veggie lovers. There are thousands of varieties (and hybrids) available, some of which are more suitable for warm climates, some more suitable for wet climates, cold climates, etc. Most people look forward to the spring when plants appear in their local home improvement and hardware stores and glance over the packs of seeds that appear weeks ahead of the plants.
Most people start veggie gardens on an impulse. Those of you who spend all winter and early spring planning your gardens but have been intimidated by growing from seed might find this useful. Remember, these are MY preferred methods, so you may have to work on finding something that works for you!
Tomatoes are traditionally started indoors 6-8 weeks before your area's last predicted frost date. I start mine in trays with a soil-less potting mix. These mixes contain no compost or 'dirt', and usually have peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite, and bark. Soil-less mixes tend to develop less mold and fungus growth, stay more consistently moist, and tend not to sour as quickly.
My trays are about 3" deep, which I'd consider a minimum depth, and I pack the mix about 2/3 of the depth. After tamping it down, I plant seeds in groups of three every 3" apart. Then, I cover with about 1/4" of mix, lightly tamp, and water lightly, but thoroughly. Place trays in a warm place. Mine usually live on top of the refrigerator until I notice seedlings emerging. The warmth encourages speedy germination.
Watering is probably the most difficult task for those inexperienced with growing from seed. I use a small pump sprayer with the schnoz sent to mist. I mist until the mix is wet about half way down. You can check this by just sticking your finger into the edge of the mix. I water daily for a day or two, before watering only when the surface appears to be dry.
Seedlings should begin to appear in a week to three weeks, depending on whether seeds have been fermented or cleaned of the gel that the tomato encapsulates the seeds and inhibits germination. If seeds don't appear after a week, wait awhile longer and continue watering.
After seedlings appear, continue watering when surface appears to be dry. Supplement with a well balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer of your choice every few weeks. I would also suggest supplementing light, to prevent your seedings from getting too leggy, if you are growing them in a place without bright light.
The first leaves you'll see on your seedlings will most likely be elongated and smooth. These are the first leaves, cotyledon leaves, or seed leaves. Your plants will put out 'true leaves' that are shaped differently, and this is a good indicator that the plants are on their way to needing to be transplanted.
I transplant my seedlings when the second or third pair of true leaves appear. Transplanting is pretty daunting for a new gardener, but it's actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it! What I do is stick my fingers in the dirt about an inch from the seedlings' base and scoop along the bottom of the tray and lift the seedling and clump of dirt together.
If you need or want to separate the seedlings, I'd suggest sitting the clump of dirt on a solid surface and brushing away dirt. Once a lot of the soil is away from the clump, you'll be able to lift the seedlings and shake them apart without the weight of the mix pulling and damaging the roots.
Once you've got the seedlings from the tray, pack mix in containers and support the stem with the roots above the packed mix. Shake handfuls of mix around the stem you're holding with one hand and gently pack it down. Don't worry about burying the plant too deeply, because tomatoes root along the stem and you'll create a more sturdy plant if more stem is under the mix. Make sure to leave all of the leaves exposed.
After you've successfully transplanted your seedlings, water thoroughly. When the danger of last frost is over, plant out your tomatoes and prepare to enjoy a tasty summer!
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