For years — the only vegetables I didn’t raise from seed were “early” tomatoes and peppers. I reasoned I couldn’t get the soil warm enough for germination and couldn’t supply them with enough light to get them to grow. I would always buy a few plants at a local nursery in April to get me started. As the weather warmed, I’d start more tomatoes and peppers from seed.
And then came a year I was unable to get the starter plants. I figured I’d just have to wait on the weather. Fortunately, a friend who starts his tomatoes and peppers early brought me some. Had it not been for our friend, I wouldn’t have had tomatoes until August that year; not to mention peppers.
After that I resolved to make an attempt to start tomatoes and peppers from seed in late winter —– proper conditions or not! Also resolved not to buy anymore starts — ever — so I left no room for failure.
Anyone Can Do It
Happily, I’ve been successful and if I can do it with the poor conditions I have — just about anyone can. So – take heart and get out your pots (or flat), potting soil (or gro-mix) and tomato seeds. You still have time to get some great tomatoes going. I’m starting another batch tomorrow as well.
(By the way – if you’re new to seed starting — be aware that you have to wet the gro-mix well BEFORE you plant the seed.)
Plant in Flat or a Pot
I planted 5 seeds of 5 varieties on February 26 in rows in a flat and marked each row with the variety name. Tomatoes appreciate a bit a light to germinate — so I just barely covered the seed.
Top of Refrigerator
Believe it or not, even if your house is rather cool (and ours is) you can get the soil in the flat warm enough to germinate the tomatoes by placing it on top of the refrigerator. That was hard for me to believe because my refrigerator top felt cool, but for some reason it warms the soil in the flat just enough for germination. Maybe it’s just because heat rises. Anyway – it works.
(If you have radiant floor heating, put your flat on the floor. It’ll work.)
The seeds all germinated in about a week.
They need light
Immediately I moved the entire flat to our enclosed back porch which was about 60 degrees in February and March. The flat got direct morning sun only. Those tiny little seedlings were stretching for the light.
We had some nice sunny days the first of March so I made the decision to get them hardened off right away since I figured they’d get a lot more light outside. It didn’t take but two days to get them use to the outdoors. (Had there been a lot of wind — it may have taken longer. ) I brought them back inside at night.
Newbie note: You must “harden-off” all plants started indoors to get them use to the outside. Wind, hard rain, and severe cold can kill your seedlings. Even when the weather seems perfect — keep an eye on them until you know that they are going to be ok. The sudden transition even in good weather can be quite a shock, so be ready to bring them in if it looks as if they are taking a turn for the worse. Depending on weather conditions this can take up to a week to ten days. (I got lucky.)
I repotted them in bigger pots when they were only 3 days old!! Didn’t even wait for them to get their set of leaves as you see recommended.
One of my small makeshift cold frames made the perfect cold-weather home for the potted seedlings. They’ve been under the cold frame every night since. If it’s really warm during the day I take the cold frame off. If it’s cool I lift the cold frame with a brick so they’ll get the air and stay hardened off.
The seedlings are getting to the point they need more room.
I don’t want to repot them again. So I’ve already started to move them to the garden. A plastic gallon jug serves as a mini-cold frame over each seedling until the weather warms a bit.
It doesn’t bother me that they are rather small and lanky. I’ll plant as much of the stem underground as I can and roots will sprout from it and take in all that good stuff in my soil and I’ll have wonderful tomatoes for my efforts.
Whatever method you use to start seed keep a few fundamentals in mind:
- Don’t start your seed too early. Here in Virginia mid-February to the end of February is early enough. One of the reasons I think I was successful even with improper conditions was because I didn’t plant the seed until the end of February. Nice weather at the beginning of March certainly helped as well.
- Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. After seedlings germinate it’s a good idea to either water from the bottom — or water from the top and let things dry before you water again.
- Keep air moving. (Use a little fan when they are still inside the house)
- Transplant each into their individual pot when they get their first real leaves.
- Harden them off before putting them outside. Have a back up plan (like my cold frame or plastic jugs) to protect them from cold, hard wind and driving rain until they’re mature enough to take it.
- They should go into the garden no later than 8 weeks from germination.
If you’d like to start your tomatoes in February next year and have the room to set up proper lightening conditions in your home, you’ll need a fluorescent light that you can adjust to hang 2 inches above your seedlings. Keep the fluorescent light on about 12 hours a day. If the weather stays cold you can keep them under your light until after the last frost date and then harden off and move to the garden.
Or – if like me — you just don’t have room for the proper lightening set-up — follow my procedure and try your hand at starting them anyway. It’s easy and cheaper. And with a little luck, I can almost guarantee you’ll get much better plants than those commercially grown.
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I’m new at starting from seed and have experienced mixed results. This is such a great tutorial! Every step is covered here which is fantastic for us newbies. Doing it like this will not only give you early tomatoes but it’l extend the season! Great article. Thank you.
Sure glad it was helpful Farming Bear. It will be “old hat” to you soon. 8)
Good luck will all your plants.
I had great luck starting tomato seedlings in doors last year but this year it didn’t seem like they were thriving. Plus the older set of true leaves was shriveling. I put 2 and 2 together and determined that I have fungus gnats! I will be watering from below as you suggest to keep the surface of the soil from becoming damp. I will also put “mosquito dunks” in the water to kill the larvae. Wish me luck that this solves the problem!
Sorry to hear that your tomato seedlings are not thriving this year. It does sound as if you’re keeping the soil too moist.
Watering from the bottom might well solve your problem, but it wouldn’t hurt to start a few new seedlings — just for back-up. It’s always better to have more seedlings than too few. Backup is the name of the game when it comes to gardening success.
You may want to read my post on Seed Starting – Its easy — and the one on the wintersown method.
Using the wintersown method to start your tomatoes may eliminate the problem you are having. Starting that way the grow mix is nice and moist to begin with and will pretty much stay that way once you fasten the top part on again. (Be sure to take the top off for ventilation.) Keep the jugs in the house until the tomato seed germinates and then move them outside where they can get the sun the very next day. Then pretty much forget them until the tomato in the jug get about 3 or 4 inches tall.
This is what I’ve done this year and it worked beautifully and I didn’t have to give the tomatoes much attention. Mine will soon outgrow the jugs. So, I’ll take the top part of the jug off and put bottom half containing the tomatoes under one of my makeshift coldframes until the temperatures warm.
I assume that you are putting “mosquito dunks” in your water barrels? I’ve never used them.
Let me know how things progress.