The decision to grow tomatoes from seed is a personal one. Many tomato gardeners prefer to simply purchase plants to transplant directly into their yard, garden or containers. Others are a bit more adventurous and prefer the more hands-on process of growing tomatoes from seed. Of course, this is a much more time-intensive process than simply buying an established plant at the store. However, it is tough to beat the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing the results of your patient efforts take shape.
Growing tomatoes from seed isn’t too difficult, but it does take a little know how. For starters, you have to start with the right kind of seeds. You won’t get great results with hybrid tomato varieties. They just don’t grow true to the parent plant the way a good, old-fashioned heirloom will. For recommendations on good heirloom varieties to grow from seed, you may want to consult a local gardening professional or poke around on online gardening forums.
So do yourself a favor and start with seeds from your favorite heirloom varieties and follow the steps outlined below. Soon, you’ll be growing the healthiest and most beautiful tomatoes you can imagine.
You’ll want to start this process indoors roughly 6 to 8 weeks before the last spring frost in your area. If you aren’t sure when to start, a quick Google search for “last frost in Zone 5” (or wherever you happen to live) should do the trick. You can also look online to find out when consistent 50 degree Fahrenheit night temperatures will arrive. Then, just work backwards from that estimated date and sow your seeds 6 to 8 weeks before that time.
To get started, purchase several containers of sterile seed growing mix. Moisten your containers, and make very shallow rows with a pen or pencil about 1/4 inch deep. Then, drop the seeds into those furloughs roughly 1/2 inch apart. With your thumb and forefinger, tenderly pinch together the soil to cover each furlough, placing 1/4 inch of soil over each seed. Water very gently, and then place these containers in an area which consistently reaches and holds 75 to 80-degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures.
As soon as you see the seeds begin to sprout, immediately add a strong light source from either florescent grow bulbs or natural sunlight. After about a month you will notice the first “true” and identifiable tomato leaves begin to appear. This tells you that it is time to transplant your seedlings to bigger containers. This is known as “pricking out” your seedlings.
With a spoon or fork, scoop out each individual tomato seedling. Transplant individual seedlings into containers at least 3 to 4 inches in diameter filled with moistened potting mix. Gently water in the seedling after planting. When spring weather reaches and holds 55-degree temperatures at nights, move your plants out into the sun for a few hours at a time to harden them off. Gradually increase sunlight exposure daily over a week, until they can sit outside all day.
Before transplanting your seedlings, be sure to check the pH level of your soil to ensure it is not too acidic or alkaline. You’ll want your soil pH to be between 6.0 to 6.8 for tomatoes. Home soil testing kits can be purchased at gardening and home improvement stores, and many major cities offer laboratory testing.
When you are ready to transplant your plants, remove the bottom branches and plant up to just below the bottom leaves to ensure healthy growth and a strong root system. Add tomato support in the form of cages or stakes and water gently. As your tomato plants grow, simply water soil when dry and enjoy your harvest!