Generally, the time to start your seeds is about 6- 8 weeks before the last expected spring frost date in your area, planting the seedlings outdoors about 2 weeks after that date. Another method is to plan on planting robust seedlings in the garden while night temperatures remain in the mid-50s both day and night. Count back and plant seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the expected date. If you do not feel confident about timing, consult an experienced gardening friend, or ask at a good garden center or seek the advice of your local Master Gardener program.
1. Starting indoors, in a container of well moistened, sterile seed-starting mix, make shallow furrows with a pencil or chopstick about 1/4 in. deep. Plant seeds by placing them 1/2 inch apart at the bottom of the furrows.
2. Pinch earth gently together to fill each furrow, burying seeds 1/4 in. deep. Gently water each variety and identify it. Place the container in a warm (75-80 F) location. As soon as seed begin germinating and stems start to show above the soil, it’s critical to provide a strong light source such as fluorescent bulbs or a very sunny window.
3. Seedlings have germinated on Day 7. “Baby” or “cotyledon” leaves are the first to form. Since they all seem same, careful labeling of each type is essential.
4. Day 15 – The seedlings are still little, with just baby cotyledon leaves, but they are growing nicely. Take note of the tiny leaves’ lovely green hue. This shows that the plants are receiving sufficient strong light to grow.
5. Day 30 – The first set of “true” tomato leaves begin to appear above the baby cotyledon leaves. In this image, the greatest example is in front of the pencil eraser.
6. Now that true leaves have emerged on all the seedlings, it’s time to transplant seedlings to larger individual containers so they have enough room to properly grow and develop. This is known as “pricking out” the seedlings.
7. To “prick out:” lift seedlings from below, holding each one gently by their baby cotyledon leaves and scooping up entire soil ball from below. We discovered that an old fork works great for this.
8. If the roots have developed into a clump, carefully pry the seedlings apart, holding them by the young cotyledon leaves.
9. Transplant each seedling into its own container (at least 3-4 in. in diameter) filled with good quality, well moistened potting mix. Create a hole for each seedling.
10. Put each seedling to the base of its cotyledon leaves into the hole.
11. Tomato seedlings will readily grow new roots along their buried stems and the resulting plants will be sturdy and vigorous. Water the seedlings gently to calm them.
12. Here are some samples of healthy and cold-stressed seedlings. Remember that seedlings need to be kept at about 65 – 70 degrees after they have true leaves and until they are ready to go into the garden.
13. After the weather has warmed up in the spring and night temperatures are consistently in the 55 degree range, it’s time to put well-rooted, established seedlings outside. Plan to acclimatize your plants first by moving them outdoors into the light for a few hours at a time, gradually increasing over a few weeks until they are in full sun all day. This process is called “hardening off” and it avoids transplant shock.
14. At transplanting time, if hardened off young plants are more than 6 in. tall, remove the bottom branches before planting. Along the buried stem, new roots will develop.
15. Prepare the hole to receive the seedling.
16. Turn the plant over and squeeze or tap out the whole root ball. Note the snipped off lower branches on this example ready to go into the ground.
17. Settle the seedling into the hole, so the entire stem will be covered up to where leafy branches begin. Firm the dirt around the plant.
18. Water your tomato supports softly but thoroughly. Be sure they are well secured, because your plants will grow large and heavy with fruit, so you will need strong support for the branches.
19. Have fun with the harvest! For heirloom varieties like our Rainbow’s End, it’s best to wait for full ripeness before picking the luscious, color fruit.
20. Slicers, such as Crimson Carmello or Chianti Rose, may be picked at any stage.
21. Don’t forget to include your sauce tomatoes. Here’s a bowl of our Pompeii variation, all ready to go. When the weather is cold and dreary, we prefer to freeze them whole and then make sauce later. Making large batches of tomato sauce is aromatic joy.
22. Camp Joy heirloom cherry tomatoes are both numerous and tasty.
23. Garden Candy Cherries look lovely in both the garden and the kitchen.
24. Big Beef beefsteak gigantic slicers are densely packed with delicious meat and plenty of juice, making them ideal for open-faced “BLT” sandwiches.