We'd like to credit Tomato Bob with putting into words the methods we use when starting seeds.
Seed Starting Tips
Use the following tips for cherry tomatoes, yellow pear, boxcar willie, yellow brandywine, black krim, mortgage lifter, amish paste, brandywine, beefsteak, costoluto genovese, caspian pink, and many more heirloom varieties. Some of our most popular varieties include Green Zebra, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Red Pear, Caspian Pink, Yellow Pear, Soldacki, San Marzano, Cherokee Purple, White Wonder, Amish Paste, Black Krim, and Costoluto Genovese.
1. Seeds can be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last anticipated frost in your growing area. Starting seeds directly outdoors will produce plants but your yield will be limited.
2. Obtain some seed starting mix at the local garden store. Kmart and Walmart have this available at reasonable prices. The mix should contain peatmoss to help retain water during seed germination as the seeds should be kept moist for proper germination.
3. If you are starting many varieties of tomatoes or other seedlings, you should have a separate starting container for each variety. We use 1/2 gallon cardboard milk/orange juice containers that are cut down their length with the ends stapled to hold them together. These are a very economical means of separating seeds. Be sure you mark your containers with seed type. We use a piece of clear plastic (cut from a milk jug) and put a number on it then have a cross reference list with the number and variety.
4. In a old bowl, bucket, or other container, place some of starting mix and add water while mixing to moisten the mix.
5. Fill the trays with 1-1 1/2" of the moistened seed starting mix and distribute seeds over surface. Cover seeds with 1/4" of starting mix and gently firm the surface.
6. Check seed trays every 2-3 days to make sure they stay moist. We cover ours with a loose fitting piece of plastic wrap to help retain water. Seeds will usually take 10-14 days to germinate (depending upon variety). Once the seeds have sprouted, they will need a light source. We start our seedlings in our basement and use fluorescent grow lights which works very well. If you start the seeds on a window sill make sure you turn the seeds daily to keep them from bending toward the light. If starting under a grow light, make sure the grow light is within 6" of the seedlings or they will become tall and leggy. Seedlings need 12-16 hours of light a day. An inexpensive timer works well to control grow light time. If you use grow lights, make sure to keep plants within 6" of the light or they will become leggy.
7. Once the seedlings are showing a second set of leaves, it is time to transplant them from the starting tray to individual pots. We have found that the best pots are plastic as they retain more water. The peat pots work well if you make sure to keep them moist...they work great for transplanting as you do not disturb the root structure of the seedlings. Gently loosen the soil in the starting tray and separate individual plants. Fill the transplant pot loosely with moistened starter mix and use a pencil to make a hole in the starting mix. Insert the seedling into the hole up to the second set of leaves...this may require the slight twisting or bunching up of the plant's root as they can get pretty long. Gently firm the soil around the seedling and moisten once you have finished transplanting.
8. If you start your seeds very early, you may need to transplant some of your biggest plants again as they will outgrow their pots. For our healthiest plants, we transplant them into 1/2 gallon milk containers that have been cut off about 6" from the bottom...these work Great!!!
9. When it looks like it is time to plant your seedlings outside, you will need to harden off the plants. This is simply getting them adjusted to the changing conditions outdoors. When you begin this, make sure the plants are kept in the shade for the first few days of hardening so they don't get sun-burned. Plants should be returned inside at night...this seems like a lot of work but it will yield stronger, healthier plants. Hardening off usually takes 7-10 days.
10. When planting your seedlings in the garden, make a shallow trench and lay the seedling in on its side. Bury the entire plant up to the first set of leaves,,,all of the stem up to these leaves is capable of producing roots. This will greatly improve your plants ability to obtain water and nutrients resulting in greater yields!!
Plant Care in Your Garden
11. Once the tomato plants are in your garden they should be watered daily for the first week. They should be supported as they grow with wooden stakes or metal cages. We use old nylons cut into strips to tie plants to supports through the season as they do not bruise the stalks. Many commercial plant ties are also available.
12. Caution!!! Plants are very susceptible when young, to cutworms which will cut the plant off at the surface of the soil. To avoid these without chemicals, simply take a piece of aluminum (cut up a pie plate into 2' strips) and fashion a collar that slips around the plant and gently place in the soil around the stalk.
13. Tomato hornworms will more than likely be a problem when your plants start bearing fruit. They devour the foliage and in some cases even eat new green tomatoes. The easiest way we have found to get rid of these is to put a bounty out on them at ten cents a piece and have our kids pick them off. A natural bacteria is also available in plant stores that works.