Grow Your Tomatoes
• Grow From Seed
• Store-Bought Plants
• Container Growing
• In the Garden
• Tomato Pests
• Tomato Diseases
• Heirloom or Hybrid
• Popular Varieties
• Companion Planting
• Grow Lights
• Saving Your Seeds
Grow tomatoes from seedTo grow your own tomatoes from seed, you will need these basic supplies:
When to plant tomato seedsTomato seeds aren't the kind you scatter in the garden when the soil is warm. They take much longer to reach maturity than corn or beans, so they must be planted before the last frost.
Plant your tomato seeds 5 to 8 weeks before the average last frost date in your area.
How do you find out when the last frost in your area will be? Click here to see the average last frost data for a huge list of cities in U.S. States. If you live in the U.S., there's a good chance you will find your city.
Start by selecting your state from the menu. Clicking on your state will automatically open a PDF file with a list of all the cities they have data for. Find your city or the nearest city to yours. Under the Spring Dates column, you should see a total of 9 dates under 3 different temperatures (36°, 32°, 28°). Find the date under the Probability Level 10 column. This is your safest bet for the last frost date. For me in middle Tennessee, our average last frost occurs in mid-April. I plant seeds in mid-February, about 8 weeks before our last expected frost.
Where to get tomato seedsThe best place to find the largest variety of tomato seeds is the internet. I buy all my tomato seeds on the internet. Many sites specialize in only heirloom tomatoes, but you can find hundreds if not thousands of heirloom and hybrid varieties online.
Here are a few tomato seed suppliers you should check out:
Seed starting mixUse a seed starting mix that is mostly peat moss, so it retains moisture. I use Jiffy-Mix seed starting mix that I buy at Walmart. There are many seed starting mixes on the market; however, I have perfectly good results with Jiffy Mix. Whatever you use, make sure it's soil-free and sterilized. This is not absolutely necessary, but it will reduce the risk of disease.
Seed starting traysI start my seeds in plastic egg cartons. You can use plastic or Styrofoam egg cartons, or just about any tray that will hold the seed starting mix plus water. Avoid using paper egg cartons. The roots can grow through the paper, making it nearly impossible to remove them. Planting the paper egg cups into the soil won't work the same as peat pots - the paper will not biodegrade fast enough and the roots will become pot-bound.
You can also buy plastic seed starting trays that are made specifically for growing seeds. Another popular seed starting medium is peat pellets. These are basically small plugs of peat starting mix held together with mesh.
Plant the seeds!Dump some seed starting mix into a bowl. Add water slowly, mixing with your hands until the mix is wet but not soggy.
If you are using egg trays, wash and rinse them thoroughly.
Fill each cup in your seed starting tray(s) with the moist peat mix. Firm it down but don't compress it.
Use the point of a pencil to make a shallow indentation in the mix in each cup, about ¼ inch deep.
Drop 2 seeds into each of the indentations, and use your fingers to firm the mix around the seeds.
If you are planting more than one variety, label your trays or cups accordingly! I do this by sticking tape on the edges of the egg cartons and writing the variety name on the tape. If you don't have a place to stick tape on your trays, use plant labels that are inserted into the seed mix.
When you are finished planting the seeds and they are all labeled with their variety names, put the trays under grow lights and keep the lights within 2-4 inches of the trays.
Note: Seeds do not require light to germinate, but they will need it as soon as they sprout.
Seed germinationYour seeds should sprout in a few days. You could see your first sprouts anywhere from 3 days after planting to 2 weeks after planting, depending on the age of the seeds, temperature, and variety.
When your seeds come up, you'll see the first two leaves. These are cotyledon leaves, also known as seed leaves. They came from the inside of the seed, and contain nutrients that help the seedling grow before the true leaves emerge.
Sometimes, the seed coat (outside of the seed) may be stuck on the emerging seed leaves. Apply a drop of saliva to the seed coat to moisten it; this will help it come off. Never remove seed leaves before true leaves have opened. The true leaves come out after the seed leaves, and they manufacture what the plant needs through photosynthesis.
Make sure you keep the seedlings within a couple inches of the fluorescent grow lights. Too great a a distance between the seedlings and the lights will cause the seedlings to become "leggy". Leggy seedlings have long, thin stems and the leaves are spaced farther apart than normal.
Water seedlings only when the peat mix becomes dry to the touch. Don't over-water; just moisten the mix well but don't make it soggy.
Thinning outWhen you think all of your seeds have germinated, you will need to thin them out so there is one seedling per cup. In all the cups that have had two seedlings emerge, pick out the weaker seedling to allow the stronger one to grow alone. Some cups may only have one seedling, and a few may even have none. This is normal because not all of the seeds will germinate.
First true leavesSeveral days after the seeds sprout, you'll notice the first true leaves emerging from between the seed leaves. If you are using egg cartons, you will need to move the seedlings to larger containers as soon as you see the first true leaves beginning to emerge. The cups in egg cartons are very small, and seedlings that are left in them for too long will become root bound.
Potting up the seedlingsWhen you see true leaves beginning to emerge from most of the seedlings, it's time to get out your 16-ounce cups and potting mix. The potting mix should contain a slow-release fertilizer. I prefer Miracle Gro potting mix as it produces lush, healthy seedlings.
Use as many cups as you can fit under your lights (should be as many plants as you want in your garden plus a few extra). Fill the cups to the brim with potting mix, but don't firm the soil.
In your first cup, use a pencil to make a hole in the potting mix about 1 inch wide and 3 inches deep.
Select the healthiest seedlings to plant in the cups.
Choose your first seedling to plant, and carefully loosen the mix in which it is growing. Carefully scoop out the roots and some of the mix around them. Drop the seedling into the hole in the potting mix, and let it sink up to the seed leaves.
Gently firm the potting mix around the roots and stem of the seedling. Bury the stem all the way up to the seed leaves; roots will develop along the buried portion of the stem.
Do this to all of the seedlings you choose. Discard the leftover seedlings or give them away.
Water the seedlings well in their new cups. If you are afraid of over-watering, poke drain holes in the bottoms of the cups.
If you are growing more than one variety, be sure to label the cups with the variety name of each seedling after it is transplanted.
Put the cups under the grow lights, and adjust the lights so they are a couple inches above the seedlings.
Potting mix alternative: You can use seed starting mix instead of potting mix when you plant your seedlings in the cups. If you do this, feed your seedlings with a weak solution of all-purpose fertilizer about a week after you transplant them into the cups. Start with fertilizer diluted to 1/4 to 1/2 strength. Feed every two weeks or as recommended by the manufacturer. As the seedlings grow, gradually increase the dose but never exceed full strength.
Monitor growthWater the seedlings when the potting mix becomes dry to the touch. Keep an eye on your seedlings as they grow, and make sure they are well fed (potting mix with slow-release fertilizer should keep them fed till they are ready to be planted in the garden).
Purple leaves? Don't worry if your seedlings turn purple on the stem and underside of the leaves. This is caused by cooler growing conditions and will fade when the plants are older.
Hardening offAbout a week before planting out date, or around the time of your last expected frost, you will need to adjust your plants to outside conditions. This is called "hardening off" and is necessary for strong, healthy plants. Start by bringing the plants outside in a semi-shaded area where they get filtered sunlight. On the first day, leave them outside for only a few hours.
Gradually increase the amount of time your plants stay outside, and the amount of sunlight they get. Keep them at least partially shaded for the first few days. In about a week, the plants should stay outside all day.
After about a week of hardening off, leave the plants outside overnight on warmer nights. Bring them inside if temperatures get into the 40s.
After about 10 to 14 days of hardening off, the plants should be adjusted to the changing temperatures and direct sunlight.
Planting out in the gardenIt's finally time for the tomatoes to graduate from their cups to their permanent outdoor home.
The garden should be prepared ahead of time, with compost or other organic matter tilled in if necessary.
You can actually plant your tomatoes sideways in the ground, and bury most of the stem. This will allow roots to grow from the entire buried portion of the stem, and will help the plants obtain more nutrients.
Start by digging a shallow trench about as long as your seedling. Make the trench about 2-3 inches deep, and enlarge one end of the trench to allow room for the root ball.
Loosen the soil in the cup by squeezing the cup and turn it upside down, with your hand placed over the top to avoid spilling the soil or seedling. Carefully remove the cup from the root ball, and loosen the roots at the bottom.
Place the plant on its side into the trench, with the root ball set into the enlarged end.
Remove all the leaves except the top few new leaves. Use pruners for a clean cut when removing the leaves.
Bury the root ball and stem so that only the top of the plant is above the ground. Firm the soil but don't compact it. Water thoroughly.
Over the next few days, the plant will naturally bend itself to an upright position. Water every day for the next week or two to help the plants become established.
Regular & Deep Planting
You can also plant your tomatoes the traditional way, or you can bury the stem vertically instead of sideways. Planting sideways allows the roots to heat up faster in the early spring when temperatures may still be cool. Cooler temperatures will slow growth until the weather warms up. Deep planting vertically will help the roots go deeper, but growth may be slowed while the ground is still cool.
StakingInsert stakes or cages right after transplanting to avoid damaging new root growth. If your plants are trenched, be careful not to insert the stake into the buried stem.
Proceed to tomato care in the garden.
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