Saturday, February 18, 2012

Get Started Starting Tomatoes

This is a post from our archive which I think will help now on two fronts: It reminds us that even though it is the cold of winter, it's time to get going on tomato and pepper plants for this coming summer and I am also hoping it will also inspire some of you to do it for the very first time.

What got me started, or rather, got me starting my own tomatoes was the deep longing I had for the tomatoes of my childhood. All the Big Boy and Roma tomatoes I had been growing, just didn't have the flavor I remembered from my grandmothers tomatoes. A good friend of mine, who had been gardening for 50 years assured me that it was a simple thing to start my own tomato plants
and he was right! I started searching around for the seed of that illusive juicy, sweet, tangy tomato and in my research I found so many new-to-me heirloom tomatoes that I couldn't stop at one or two...

And down into the rabbit hole I went.

I have now grown so many kinds of tomatoes over the years, it would be easier to tell you the ones I haven't grown.  But I can tell you about a few of my favorite ones.

Brandywine, of course, used to be on my list but they are a gamble for an Oregon garden. About every third summer is long and warm enough that I would get a decent crop. Now you can buy Brandywine tomatoes in the grocery store, so some years I don't use up the space. I'd rather gamble on something I can't buy.

My new favorite sauce tomato is a strange tale. 3 years ago I bought seeds from a gal in Pennsylvania for a sauce tomato called "Howard German", that same summer I bought a plant for a sauce tomato at my local Farmer's Market they called "Polish Linguisa". I planted both together in a bed. They were identical in every way. Hmmm. I saved seeds from both and the next year, they came out identical again. I guess I'm going to call it "Howard's Linguisa" or maybe just "German Sauce". It's very delicious and huge.

Because Oregon summers can be so fickle my "tomato insurance policy" in the past has been the small and dependable hybrid "Oregon Spring" but I am now on the lookout for a replacement since it seems my seed sources have been degrading in quality and I can't save my own (because it's a hybrid). I am trying Territorial Seeds "Legend" this year.

But my very favorite tomato is a large delicious, meaty... well, I shouldn't be mean. It's a tomato you can't have. I am growing my own special tomato that I have been developing from the open pollinated seed of a volunteer. I found it four years ago in the back of my garden. Someday I will name it.

I did a couple of earlier posts on seed saving, but here I would like to focus on starting your own tomatoes and peppers.

To start my tomatoes I begin with making a 2 gallon pot of chamomile tea. Yes, that's right, and this is why:
Moisten and stir up your potting soil before you use it or it will be very difficult to moisten in the pots.
On my very first effort to start toms I had several of my seedlings "damping-off". This can be caused by a few different fungi in soil, water or air and it is heart breaking to see your baby plants just fall over and die.

I asked everyone what to do. I got so many different answers I turned to the web to try to sort out what I could do. I ran across a recommendation to use chamomile tea to water the sprouts. What did I have to lose? I tried it and every sprout that had not fallen already, stayed healthy.

I used the tea the next year, only I didn't wait until disaster struck. I started with the tea. It worked again.

I don't need much more proof than the fact that I have been using this method for over twelve years and I have never had another episode of "damping-off".
I moisten the potting medium with the tea and water the babies with it for the first 4 weeks. It gets kind of fermented towards the end but the plants seem to like it.

Bottom heat is very helpful with starting tom seeds. Don't let people convince you that you need an expensive set up.

For years I have been very happy with my results (usually about 98% germination) by simply putting my trays (covered with plastic wrap) on a card table and putting a lamp with a 100 watt bulb in it, under the table (not closer than a foot). The mild heat from the bulb will be plenty of warmth. In a heated house it really works well.
You can also set the trays on your water heater or on top of the fridge (feel it... it's warm up there).

This year I am at a disadvantage because I do not have a heated space to start seeds in, so I am using a heated plant pad someone gave me.
After they have sprouted they don't need the bottom heat anymore.

Whatever method you use, check on them every day because when they do sprout you need to get them into some strong light the next day or they will get tall and lanky. Like mine did. Not the end of the world. They will be fine. It's not rocket science.

You can put them under grow lights or in a South facing window. Several plants take up very little room.This tray holds 72 plants. That's a lot of plants.

 Two important things to remember are that you do not want to have your plants root-bound (the pot is full of roots) or ever be stressed from lack of water. These two things will substantially decrease the productivity of the plant for the rest of its life. (this is routinely the problem with store bought toms). If you put your toms into large enough pots they will not have either of these problems. If the roots start to come out the bottom of the pots, it is time to re-pot.

After all danger of frost (April 15-May 10, in Oregon Willamette Valley) let your baby tomatoes spend a couple days out in the shade, bring them in at night.
Then let them stay out for a couple half a days of sun.
Then let them stay out all day in full sun.
Keep them safe from rabbits, birds and dogs, but especially SLUGS.

Start Watering them after 4 weeks with a diluted fish fertilizer.

Plant them when your night time temperature is 50 degrees F.

My friend who got me started also recommended just planting the tomato and pepper seeds straight into the ground (when it was warm enough). He assured me that they would do better and catch up to even the biggest hot house tomato start by the end of the summer. I tried the experiment one year and he was absolutely right! The seedling did just as well as the transplant.

The only problem is that if a slug eats it or a bird picks it (that really happened to me. I watched it happen out the kitchen window) then you have nothing. I like to start them indoors because then I have plenty of plants to cover any disaster that may come and some extra plants to give away.
I guess my point here is that you don't need to worry if you start your toms a little late in the season. A lot of the time the small tom plants do much better.

I will tell you that a cold frame sounds great, and many people love them, but I do not. They are one more building project and they heat up like an oven on a sunny day and one day when you are gone and all your baby plants are tucked away in your cold frame, the sun will come out and 4 hours later your plants are dead. It's much easier to just do the shuffle in the spring (in and out) for a few days and have a happy ending.
That's right, that is a quarter sitting on this tomato. I didn't grow the quarter, but I did grow the tomato.


  1. This is a great set of tips and tricks for starting your own tomatoes. I was really hoping we would be prepared to start our own seedlings this year, but I think we are going to focus more on house remodeling. Hopefully by next year we'll be ready, and I'll pull up this post for ideas.

    I might try starting some tomatoes by direct seeding though. That's a good idea. I just read that direct-seeded onions can work fine in our climate too, so that's on my ToDo list as well.

  2. Thanks Lee, I know it seems like a lot of things to do in the spring when you haven't finished the house yet. I always feel like winter will never end and then one day I realize it ended and I have a million things to do!


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