The tomato has come a long way since it was widely believed to be poisonous in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is one of the most widely-eaten fruits in the world now, and is a fundamental part of the cuisine of many cultures. Because they’re so popular and easy to grow, it’s no wonder that tomatoes are one of the most common edible plants in American gardens. This is especially true in the era of organic gardening, as more and more Americans want to inexpensively feed their families more wholesome, home-grown tomatoes and vegetables. Many gardeners are hesitant about starting their tomatoes from seed, though, and I get emails almost every day asking me for vegetable seed starting tips. In hopes of dispelling some of this hesitance, I am going to briefly explain how to simply and dependably start great home-grown tomato plants from seed.
The first step is to choose your seeds. Your first concern in choosing seeds should be what you’ll be using the fruit for. For instance, if you want huge tomatoes for slicing onto a burger, you’ll probably want to go with some sort of Beef Steak, such as ‘Better Boy’ or ‘Park’s Whopper’ tomatoes. If, on the other side of the spectrum, you are looking for tomatoes to pop in a salad, you’ll want to go with some sort of cherry tomato. Standard tomatoes are somewhere in between these extremes, and paste or plum tomatoes are generally used for canning or sauces. Whatever type of tomato you choose, whether it’s something hard-to-find (such as piccolo tomato seed), certified organic seeds, or just the standard tomato seeds to grow something similar to what you’re used to buying in the supermarket, be sure that you buy your seeds from a reputable source. The price difference is next to nothing, and the germination rate and quality of the plants produced can vary quite a bit.
Once you’ve decided on your seeds, you’ll probably want to start them indoors in the late winter. You can direct-sow tomato seeds in the spring, once the temperatures stay above 55 degrees at night, but you’ll have stronger plants and a longer producing season if you start them earlier. To figure out the best time to start your seeds, find out from your local extension office, University, or garden clubs when the last expected frost date is for your area, and count back five to seven weeks. This should give your seeds plenty of time to germinate and grow strong seedlings ready to transplant. It is best to sow your seeds in sterile starting mix rather than soil, as this will protect your plants from disease and competition while they’re in their most tender stage. There are many good seed starting mixes available, as well as some great seed starting kits, such as Park’s Bio Dome, with trays and protective domes that maximize germination, as well as individual cells for each seed, which makes transplanting much easier.
If using a seed starting kit, follow the sowing directions that come with the kit. Otherwise, combine your starting mix with warm water until it is thoroughly moist, but not wet or soggy. This may take a while, as the mix should be dry when you take it out of the package. Sow your seeds in your mix and cover lightly (about ¼ inch). If you’re not starting your seeds in a tray with individual cells, keep in mind when spacing that you’ll probably have to divide the seedlings when you transplant to individual containers later, so don’t sow your tomato seeds too close together. For germination, place your seeds somewhere warm. Temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal. Keep the seeds moist, as dry seeds will not germinate. Your tomato seedlings should start to pop up in between five and ten days, and it will be time to move them into the light.