“I didn’t know you could grow tomatoes from seed. My father bought and planted plants. Doesn’t everyone do that?” That was my thinking many years ago. Is it yours? If tomato plants are available, why would you want to muddle around with seeds?
Here are two good reasons.
Firstly. if you rely solely on buying seedlings, your choice of varieties is limited to what plant nurseries decide to grow and sell. There are hundreds of varieties of tomato seed available so you miss a great opportunity to try some of them. Many of these are tasty heirloom tomatoes. Once you look at the huge range of seed varieties, you can’t help but be tempted.
Secondly, you can save money. A packet of seed costs about the same as a punnet of seedlings. Tomato seeds that are stored in a cool, dark place will still be viable for up to four years after purchase. What’s more, if you grow tomato plants from seed you could try growing extras and sell the young plants or donate them to a school fair. Or you could swap some with a friend or neighbour and have an extra kind to grow, free of charge. I’m sure you could think of other money-saving ideas. Get the children or grandchildren involved.
It is easy to grow tomato plants from seed.
“Isn’t it tricky to grow tomato plants from seed?” you may ask.
No. I find it an interesting experience each year to sow the seeds I have chosen and watch them emerge as tiny seedlings, which I nurture indoors until they are nearly ready to transplant outside. The seeds can be germinated outdoors if you live in a frost-free area or if there are at least four months between the last spring frost and the first autumn one. If not, the seedlings are too tender and must be grown indoors until after the frosts cease.
Growing seeds indoors is arguably easier than growing them outdoors. When they’re indoors, you’re less likely to forget to water them. And you don’t have to traipse out into the cold to attend to them.
When to plant
You can sow tomato seeds indoors around six weeks before the last frost is expected. I like to do it eight weeks or more before that time and keep them indoors for a longer time. This enables me to replace any that the cat knocks down or that encounter some other disaster. There is also another advantage: the young plants are bigger and have stronger root systems.
Sowing the seeds
Choose a good quality commercial seed-raising mix or make your own. One recommendation is to use 1/3 each of peat, compost, and coarse vermiculite. This mix will hold water without getting soggy and will let sufficient air in.
There’s no need to buy special containers unless you prefer to use specialised seed-raising pots. You can use discarded yoghurt pots or anything similar. The important point to remember is to make drainage holes in the bottom.
Fill each pot with your chosen potting mix, press it down gently, water lightly if necessary, and place your seeds 1 cm apart (0.5 inches). Press them gently and cover them with 5 mm (0.2 inches) of the potting mix. I also cover them lightly with a piece of bubble wrap cut to size to retain moisture. This helps to retain adequate moisture and lets any steam escape. Don’t forget to label them. Place your pots in a warm place, for example, an airing cupboard or a heat mat.
Alternative germination method
You might like to try this method to speed up the germination of tomato seeds. Place the seeds (the number of plants you want plus several extra) on a damp paper towel. Cover with another piece of damp towel, and place it in a zip bag. Put this in a warm place and check daily. Germination usually occurs in 3 – 5 days but could be earlier or later depending on the variety, the age of the seed or the degree of warmth.
Transfer the seeds to pots once they have germinated, put the pots in a warm place and care for them as you would if using the conventional sowing method. The extra seeds allow for seeds that don’t germinate or for weak seedlings that don’t thrive. Using this method you know how many of the seeds will germinate and if necessary you can germinate extra without delay.
Caring for the seedlings
Check the pots every few days for germination and moisture content. The seeds should germinate within 5 – 10 days. Once you see several seedlings place the pots in a bright place but out of direct sunlight. At this stage, they need really bright light to encourage strong plants and avoid leggy growth. You could place the pots on a windowsill that does not get direct sunlight. Move them away from the window at night – it can get very cold there. Check them daily for adequate moisture.
Once the little plants have their first true leaves, feed them weekly with an organic liquid fertilizer such as blood and bone, seaweed or some commercial mixture. Dilute this to half the recommended strength.
By the time the seedlings are 2.5 cm (2 inches) tall, they will have outgrown their containers. Re-pot them individually into pots that are 7 cm – 10 cm (3 in – 4 in) in diameter and filled with a good potting mix, planting them deeper in the soil. Water them in carefully.
The hardening process
Once the days start to warm up in early spring you can place the pots outside in a sheltered place, taking them inside again late in the afternoon when the air starts to cool. Gradually they can be exposed to cooler temperatures. You will notice a purple colouring on the stems near the roots as they harden.
During the week before planting, you should be able to leave the plants outside during the night as well but bring them in if an unexpected frost is predicted. Make sure the pots don’t dry out. You should then have hardy, homegrown seedlings ready to fill your prepared tomato plot(s).
I hope I’ve shown you that it is not difficult to grow tomato plants from seed. I like watching for the first true leaves and am always surprised at how fast the young plants grow. I’ve grown some great tasting tomatoes this way. Look at the seed range and be tempted.
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