On Your Mark, Get Set, GROW:
Starting Tomatoes From Seed
Our target dates for starting tomatoes here in Fullerton, ND is April 15 to April 22. We are borderline Zone 3 and 4 and are right on the 46th parallel. Typically our last frost date is the end of May. We count back 5 to 6 weeks to set our tomato planting date. We do not like to start our tomatoes too early to avoid long “leggy” tomato plants. We like shorter, stalky tomatoes that are not too root-bound.
The variety of containers that could be utilized for starting seeds is limited only by your imagination. We have an egg enterprise on our farm, so used, pressed paper, egg cartons are in good supply. We use those to start many of our seedlings. You can also use an ordinary cell tray (new or used). A 50-cell tray will provides ample room for each plant to get started. You want a small enough container to allow the roots to fill the cell; the seedlings can then be easily popped out the tray or scooped out with a spoon and transplanted into larger pots.
The first step is to moisten your potting soil. Add a little bit of water and mix with your hands; keep adding and mixing with a little more water at time until it feels moist but not wet or soggy. Next, fill your tray or pots with the moist soil, making sure each cell is nearly full of soil but not packed down.
Using your thumb, make an indentation about 1/4 inch deep; sow 5-6 tomato seeds per egg cup or, if using the top half of the egg carton, plant them in a furrow. If using a 50-cell try, singulate the seed as best you can but don't be concerned about getting more than one per cell.
Cover the seed with about 1/4 inch of soil and tamp them in. Gently water them and make sure to LABEL each variety. Cover the trays to keep moisture in and put the container in a warm place, 75-80˚ F; no light is needed at this point. Heat mats can help ensure even temperatures and a fast start. The soil temperature needs to be at least 70 degrees to mid-80s for heat-loving tomatoes.
Water gently when the surface of the soil becomes dry to the touch. DO NOT let the seeds dry out before germination, which normally takes 5-10 days. Keeping them consistently moist is critical but do not drown them. If moisture is beading on your covering, you may want to air them out a bit to reduce the moisture level.
AS SOON AS seeds begin germinating and the seedlings begin poking above the soil, you can remove them from the heat mats. Light is critical at this point; provide a strong light source. Outside light is the strongest or place in a very sunny window. If that is not possible use high output grow lights, such as T-5, for 12-14 hours a day. Keep the lights within a couple of inches from the tops of the plants; adjust the lights as the plants grow.
Transplanting Individual PlantsAfter about two weeks, or when the plants are 1½ inches tall, transplant them into 6-packs, one plant per cell. We use recycled milk cartons, cut-down halfway, using the cut-off sections to make dividers, creating 4 cells per carton (see instructions and pictures below).
If you started with larger cells but have more than one seedling in a cell, you can clip the weaker one with a nail clipper and let the stronger one grow. If you are transplanting, discard the weaker plants as you go. This early selection work will ensure the strongest plants are planted in your valuable garden space.
To transplant, gently scoop the young seedlings out of the cell, being careful to get under the roots so as not to damage them. Gently grasp the tomato plants by the leaves and gently pull them apart to singular for transplanting. If they do not come apart easily, give them a gentle shake to remove more soil from the roots. Slowly separate the plants, paying attention to gently pulling at the best angle to singulate without damaging the roots.
DO NOT grasp the tomatoes by the stems, as this can pinch off the stem and damage the plant’s ability to transport nutrients and water from the roots. This is critical and you have to pay close attention to only handling the tomatoes by the leaves. DO NOT handle the stems or the roots.
Once you have separated a seedling for transplant, use your finger or a thick pencil or marker to make a hole in the soil. Making sure the hole is deep and wide enough to accommodate the roots. This will allow you to insert the plant without handling or damaging the roots. Place the seedling at the depth you want it and pinch the dirt in around the roots and stem. Avoid the urge to "pack" the soil; you may crush the roots. Watering will settle the soil around the roots just right.
Always water gently, using warm tepid water, never cold. Do not drown the plant. You can use watering cans with a narrow spout; we use dish soap bottles with the pull-out spout, (thoroughly rinsed so there is no soap residue) with a vent hole in the bottle to allow free flowing watering.
Research has shown that turning a fan on low, and positioning it so that the plants receive a gentle breeze, helps to mimic wind action, strengthening the trunks. You can also “pet” your tomatoes to strengthen them by brushing the tops of the plants with your hand, gently going back and forth right before watering them.
As time moves closer to transplanting your tomato plants in your garden, take your plants outside for a few hours a day in a sunny, protected spot. This will help them harden off and reduces transplant shock. We create a cold frame using square bales to place our transplants in to acclimate them to the outdoors. They are exposed to full sun and breeze action but are still somewhat sheltered. We cover the cold frame with plywood boards during the night-time hours to protect from possible frost.
Final TransplantingWhen danger of frost has passed, transplant your seedlings to the garden. We mark the spacing of the plants and then dig each hole. Place the soil surface of the transplant plug just below ground level so the top of the transplant is covered with a thin layer of soil. This will seal off the plug from the outside air and ensure that no roots are exposed.
If your tomato plants are getting too tall before transplanting, you can sink the plant down deeper into the hole. The tomato will send out more roots along the buried stem, helping to better anchor and feed itself!
Right after transplanting we gently water the plants in with tepid (not cold) water using 1 to 2 cups of water per plant (depending on your garden's soil moisture conditions). Be sure to water all the way around the plant to settle it into the soil. Water again 12 hours later.
Now watch your tomatoes take off!
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Select six packets and at checkout enter the coupon code: 6PACKSFOR15BUCKSHelping you go GREEN on EARTH DAY!