Growing Tomatoes From Seed - Tips for Tomato Success

By Pauline Rausch and Robert Davids

If you're interested in growing tomatoes from seed, then you're probably looking for tips to make your gardening venture a success.

The good news is that raising tomatoes is not hard, and even the gardening novice can grow a bumper crop with a little care and attention to detail.

1. If you're planning to put your tomato plants outside after last frost, (generally in the month of May sometime unless you live in extremely cold country), then you want to start your baby plants from seed about 6 to 8 weeks before the last date when it's possible to have frost. For example, we live in southern Wyoming and the last chance of frost is typically May 15. This means that I will want to start my seeds about March 15.

2. You want to start your seeds in sterile medium. This prevents other plants or fungus from competing with the seeds for nutrients. Check carefully for sterile medium, and choose a well known brand if at all possible. I've found that several big box stores carry something they call sterile, but when used, lots of little things start to grow, and not the seeds that I planted!
3. Growing tomatoes from seed means that you'll want an heirloom seed variety for good propagation. You 
may have saved some hybrid seeds from last year's crop, but hybrids do not do well when replanted. They just don't have the vigor needed for a plant to thrive.
4. The place where you're planting your seeds needs to be warm. This is imperative! The temperature needs to be a stable 70 degrees or higher, and 75 to 90 degrees is better. Tomatoes love heat!
5. The simplest method of growing tomatoes from seed is to use peat pellets. They are not expensive, and you can find them at the big box stores or home improvement stores about the beginning of February. They are already sterile, so you can disregard tip #2 if you use the pellet. You simply cover the pellets with warm water. Wait about half an hour for the pellets to absorb the water (they will swell to full size) and then you're ready to plant!
6. Take a sharpened pencil and poke a couple of holes no deeper than ¼ inch in the pots. Place a seed or two in each hole, and cover. Water the new seeds with warm water, and presto! Your tomatoes are planted.
7. Keep your newly planted seeds moist at all times. Do not drown them! You may want to water with a spray mister. Remember to keep them at least 70 degrees, and again, 75 degrees or higher is better. Within 4 to 10 days you should have germination.

8. Once your seeds have germinated, you need to start providing them with stable light. They need at least 14 hours or more. I've used a grow light with great success. A grow light is simply a florescent light fixture like you'd find in most garages, except it has grow light bulbs in place of the regular florescent bulbs. The grow light bulbs provide the proper light wavelengths needed by growing plants. Place the light fixture down very near the plants, just a few inches away. As the plants grow, you'll need to raise it up to give your seedlings room to continue upward, so you might consider some "s" hooks and chain to mount your grow lights. And just so you know, a windowsill will not work. You'll get spindly plants that will not thrive.
9. When your plants are about 3 inches tall, you'll need to decide which seedlings to cull. You want your tomato plants to succeed, and sharing a pot with each other will not help them. Snip the weaker plant out of each peat pellet cell. Don't pull them out, you'll risk uprooting the plant you want to keep.
10. Do you fertilize? Well, yes and no. If your starter medium has built-in fertilizer, then no, do not fertilize. But if there is no fertilizer in the peat pellets, then yes, you can fertilize after the first few true leaves have appeared. If you do fertilize, only use half-strength fertilizer that is water soluble. You don't want to kill your seedlings with something they are just not ready to handle. (It would be like feeding Red Bull to a newborn baby, you get the picture.) If you've used a sterile mix, you'll probably fertilize at most two times while your plants are indoors.
11. Here's something most people have never thought of: Train a modulating fan on the seedlings so that they get a gentle breeze for 15 minutes a day, morning and afternoon. Do not position it full force on the seedlings, but imagine a lightly blowing wind stirring the leaves of the plants. This will encourage your seedlings to develop strong stems.
12. When you water your seedlings, always use warm or room temperature water, and again, it's a good idea to spray mist.
13. Another tip to help develop firm, stable stems is to brush your hand - very lightly - across the tops of your seedlings.
14. Tomatoes don't like to be crowded, so about the time there are 3 or 4 true leaves on your plants, transplant them to 4 inch pots. Plants them as deeply as you can in these pots, and you can even pinch off the bottom leaves if you want to. Roots will develop from the places where the leaves were pinched off, so if you pinch, make sure there is soil covering up to and over those pinched places on the plant's stem.
15. Continue with all of the above: grow light for 14 hours or more per day, mist gently to keep moist, and keep the seedlings warm.

16. Growing tomatoes from seed means that you'll need to harden the seedlings before you transplant outdoors. This helps them to get used living outside, and helps them to withstand outdoor conditions. Some people will use a wall 'o water with great success. I usually start to take my tomato seedlings outside for 2 hours the first day, 4 hours the next day, and so on, giving the plants the chance to get used to being outside. Take at least a week to do this, always increasing the amount of time each day that the seedlings spend outside. Give them a variety of sun and shade. If you're able to harden your plants over 10 days or 2 weeks, even better.
17. You're not done! Now comes that actual transplanting. Pinch off the bottom few leaves and plant your tomato seedlings as deep in the ground as possible, but keep at least one quarter of the plant above ground. This encourages strong roots, which means healthier plants. Do not mulch, since at this time the ground is still on the cool side and mulch can keep the ground around the plants cooler. Give a week or two before you add mulch. A wall 'o water will also help to keep your seedlings warm.
18. Water immediately, but use warm water - not cold water from the hose. Remember your seedlings have been used to indoor conditions, don't make the transition any harder for them than need be.
19. Watch the weather religiously for the first few weeks; even though the last date of potential frost is supposed to be May 15 in my area, we've had frost as late as June 22. If frost is forecast, or even if it just might get close, cover your plants.
20. Wait a few more weeks, and get ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

As you see, growing tomatoes from seed isn't hard, it's just a matter of treating the plant gently and with care.

Pauline has been a writer and researcher for 20 years. You can read some of her experiences at Hanging Tomato Planter [] and Growing Tomatoes from Seed [].

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