HOW DO I GET A JUMP ON THE TOMATO-GROWING SEASON? By starting the seeds indoors. Have a look at these seed-starting tips which usually produce strong, healthy seedlings — the kind that are worth planting outdoors when warm weather (finally) arrives:
Tip #1: Timing is everything, so don’t start the seeds too early. The best plan is to count backwards 5-6 weeks from your last average spring frost, and sow the seeds then. The National Climatic Data Center will tell you your last average frost date. Here in the Hudson Valley, zone 5-b, the time to start tomatoes is April 17.
Tip #2: Fluorescent lights are absolutely essential. You certainly don’t need expensive, high-intensity types. I use cheap, $10 fixtures outfitted with pairs 48-inch “cool white” tubes. (Yes, I’ve had to kick the African violets out of my study in order to accommodate the tomatoes). Set your flat of tomatoes under the center of the tubes, for this is where the light is strongest. Raise the pots or lower the lights to maintain a distance of not more than 2-inches between seeds (or seedlings) and lights. Tomatoes do best with 16 hours of daily illumination.
Tip #3: Use heat-mats, which produce warmth underneath the seedlings, only if you are growing the tomatoes in an extremely cold room. Experience has shown that mats are not essential in a room that stays around 65F, or slightly cooler. The bit of heat generated by the fluorescent tubes will sufficiently warm the soil and encourage germination.
Tip #5: Choose the right containers. These should be at least 2-inches deep, and have a drainage hole in the bottom. I use recycled cell packs, first washed in the dishwasher. I also use 3-inch biodegradable pots. Biodegradable pots (including peat) eliminate the need to knock the seedling out before transplanting outdoors.
Tip #7: Water exclusively from the bottom. Top watering can dislodge seeds, and wash out soil which is covering roots. To water from the bottom, I set peat pots in a deep bowl of room-temperature water, until both pot and water become saturated. Place cell packs in a deep tray of water. Never leave pots or cell packs in standing water.
Tip #8: Provide humidity. I place a clear plastic dome over my planted containers until seeds germinate. Then I gradually accustom them to fresh air and less humidity over the course of a week by removing the lid for increasing numbers of hours each day.
Tip #9: Fertilize. When seedlings have grown their first “true” leaves, feed them with a 1/4 tsp. high-phosphorous solution dissolved in a gallon of room-temperature water. I use Jack’s 10-30-20. As before, provide this food from the bottom, not the top.
Tip #10: Harden-off gradually. Before transplanting to the open garden (and this should be when the soil approaches 70F, late-May here), bring the young plants outdoors to a shaded location that is sheltered from wind. I set mine on the covered porch. Then gradually introduce them to increasing amounts of sun over the course of a week.
I’ll update this post with more photos as my own seedlings germinate and grow.
Have you already started your tomato seeds? How are they doing?
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