How To Start Healthy Tomato Plants From Seed

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 6, 20170

For many gardeners, homegrown tomatoes are the flagship of the vegetable garden. Tomatoes are versatile in their uses, and with proper care, the plants are capable of producing many times their worth in juicy, ripe tomatoes.

Starting tomatoes from seed can significantly reduce the amount of money you spend on vegetable plants, and it also gives you a head start on planting before the springtime even gets here.

Starting tomato plants from seed can be an enjoyable pastime and it helps to get you through the remaining weeks of winter, perhaps with cabin fever tugging at you. As long as you can remain dedicated to your tomato seeds, providing plenty of light and water, and increasing their growing space as needed, you should soon enjoy a healthy crop of homegrown tomatoes. Simply follow these steps to help you start your tomato plants from seed.

Planting Tomato Seeds

Planting Tomato Seeds

If you are wondering when to plant your tomato seeds inside, George Ball, Chairman of Burpee, recommends planting your seeds in the house six to eight weeks before your last frost. He adds that you can safely move the seedlings outdoors after the last threat of frost in your area, as long as they are at least six to eight weeks old.

You can check online for the USDA hardiness zones to find tips and dates specific to your location.

Depending on your preferences, you can try several different methods to start tomato plants from seeds. Something as simple as planting your tomato seeds in egg cartons with a bit of potting mix can prove successful as long as you remember to water as needed and transplant the seedlings to larger pots when they are a few inches tall.

You can also start your tomato seeds directly in peat pots or traditional flowerpots to avoid constant transplanting. Three-inch flowerpots or peat pots tend to be a great size for starting tomato plants from seed.

Perhaps a better recommendation, seed starting kits and germination stations manufactured by reputable gardening companies can give your tomato seeds a better chance at survival and healthy growth. Many of these seed starting systems have a built-in watering feature. You simply follow the directions on the package and within about 20 minutes, you’ll have a wonderful growing station set up for all your vegetable seeds.

Tips For Planting Tomatoes From Seed

Tips For Planting Tomatoes From Seed

Consider these tips to help you make the most of your tomato seeds:

  • Always read and follow the instructions on the seed packets

  • Plant two to three seeds per seed cell or flowerpot in case some of them do not germinate. After the tomato seedlings sprout, you can remove the weaker seedlings or transplant them into their own flowerpots to increase their chances of survival

  • After planting, place your tomato seeds near a sunny window or underneath grow lights to aid growth during the winter

  • Consider planting different types of tomatoes from seed; for example, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, etc

  • If you get a really good crop of tomatoes this year, be sure to save some of their seeds for planting next season

Caring For Tomato Seedlings

Caring For Tomato Seedlings

Once you plant your tomato seeds, it may take anywhere from 3 to 10 days or so for them to sprout. Once they do, make sure you keep an eye on the seedlings to ensure they have enough water and sunlight.

If you notice the seedlings have begun to grow crooked or on an angle, they may not be getting enough light. Be sure to put the seedlings in a sunny location where they can soak up as much sun as possible until the winter breaks into spring.

Remember, it is important to ensure your tomato seedlings have enough room to develop a strong root system. As the seedlings grow taller, continue to transplant them into larger containers as needed.

Once the weather gets warm enough to move them outside, you can decide if you would like to keep your tomato plants in containers or transplant them directly into the ground. Either way, you want to make sure they have a good structure for support, such as a tomato cage.

Hardening Off Tomato Seedlings

Hardening Off Tomato Seedlings

Once the weather breaks and it is safe to move your tomato seedlings outside, you must remember not to rush them. Your baby tomato plants are accustomed to being inside where there is no wind and it is constantly warm and comfortable.

Additionally, while they may be used to a decent amount of sunlight, they haven’t been in direct sunlight outside. You must ease your seedlings into their new outdoor home. Whether you keep them in containers or plant them in the ground is up to you, but you must first harden off your baby tomato plants to increase their chances of survival.

To harden off tomato plants, you are essentially getting them used to the outdoors in a gradual manner. You’ll want to expose them to the outside elements only a little at first, and gradually more and more until they are able to stay outside for good.

On the first day after all threat of frost is gone, place your tomato seedlings outside for only an hour or two in the shade. Bring them inside and repeat again the next day and the next, gradually increasing the amount of time spent outside and gradually lessening the amount of shade protecting them from the sun.

Once your plants are able to stay outside for just about the entire day, it may be time to transplant your baby tomatoes outside. Hardening off may take between one and two weeks, depending on the weather and your available time to assist with the hardening off process.

Planting Tomato Seedlings Outside

Planting Tomato Seedlings Outside

Now that you’ve hardened off your tomato seedlings, you can prepare to plant them outside. First decide whether you will keep your tomato plants in large containers or whether you would like to plant them directly into the ground.

If you are keeping them in containers, be sure to transplant your tomato plants into a very large flowerpot, wine barrel, or other gardening container. Be sure to give them a tomato cage or other support structure to ensure stability and optimum growth

If you would like to plant your tomatoes directly into the ground, follow these steps:

1. Dig a hole big enough to fit the root ball of your tomato plants in your desired location.

2. Gently pop your tomato plants out of the small flowerpots so you can plant them outside.

3. Place the young tomato plants in the holes you’ve created and carefully cover the hole and pat the soil around the plant.

Tip: Some gardeners swear by this technique: Remove the lowest set of leaves and place the tomato plant in the ground up to the next set of leaves. The buried stem should sprout new roots, providing a stronger plant and earlier production of tomatoes.

4. Place a tomato cage or other support structure to aid the tomato plants in their upward growth.

5. Water each plant using a water-based mild vegetable plant fertilizer. Be sure to water your tomatoes often to ensure they grow to their full potential.

How Starting Tomato Plants From Seed Impacts Your Lifestyle

How Starting Tomato Plants From Seed Impacts Your Lifestyle

According to a cost-analysis study conducted by Burpee, families that grow their own vegetables will receive a 1 to 25 return on their gardening investment. In other words, for every $50 they spend on their vegetable gardens, the families will receive a return of $1,250 worth of homegrown vegetables.

The folks at Burpee estimate that one packet of 30 tomato seeds will provide guaranteed germination of about 25 seeds. If cared for properly, each plant can produce roughly 40 to 50 medium to large tomatoes per growing season.

Estimating that 25 plants will produce 40 tomatoes each, with the value of each tomato at 50 cents (as compared to buying tomatoes in the grocery store), a single family’s tomato plants may save them as much as $500 in homegrown tomatoes from a single packet of seeds costing only $3 to $4.

“Money-savings aside, vegetable gardening offers lots of other benefits” says George Ball, Chairman of Burpee. “Long-time vegetable gardeners will tell you that the flavor of a homegrown tomato is beyond compare to a store-bought type. Plus, when you grow your own food, there is peace-of-mind that the food you are serving you family is safe; free from pesticides and contamination”.

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