The Joy of Tomato Seed Germination
(Or, Killing Your Own Tomatoes from Seed)
By Mike McGrath, Excerpt from You Bet Your Garden® Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes
There is honestly nothing that can compare to the taste of a fresh, vine-ripened tomato, plucked at the perfect peak of sweetness and eaten warm and sugary, tart and juicy, right there in the garden as you make a big mess all over your shirt. When you start your own tomatoes from seed, and you can grow (and share and savor and really brag about) wonderful varieties that you just can’t find already started for you at the garden center, much less the supermarket, like Tigerella, Brandywine, Big Rainbow, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
To figure out when to start your seeds, you need to have some idea of when you hope to put actual living plants out into the garden. Put those plants out too early, and the poor little babies will freeze to death. Do it too late, and you won’t get as many tomatoes as you could have, then you won’t get any. Use Mike’s germination math chart to figure out the timing of your seeds.
Start your tomato garden
Fill your containers with the seed-starting mix, leaving an inch or so of space at the top of the containers. But don’t plant any seeds yet. First, put the containers into their dishes, pour water into the dishes, and go watch TV or something for an hour while the mix absorbs the water. If the dish is dry when you come back, add a little water, and keep doing this until water starts to pool up at the bottom of the dish, despite time having passed. Then, place two seeds in each six-pack cell. If you’re starting more than one variety, keep a chart of which variety is where.
The term “Average Frost Date” has killed more tomatoes than summer hailstorms. Daytime temps don’t matter—it’s the nighttime lows (and Mother’s Day snows) that will getcha.
You can’t beat the taste of tomatoes fresh off of the vine! Whether you have a big backyard or only a small terrace, you bet you can grow beautiful heirloom tomatoes with this handy guide!
- Complete guide to growing heirloom tomatoes in every space
- Learn about tomato varieties, germination, planting, staking and caging, food, water, maintenance, pest control and diseases, and harvesting
- Understand the benefits of growing your own tomatoes
- Fascinating tomato lore, expert tips, and techniques all flavored with irreverent wit
- Fun and conversational, written in the tone Mike McGrath is known and loved for in his popular NPR radio show, You Bet Your Garden ®
Then cover the seeds with a little more of the mix, somewhere around a quarter to half an inch. You can now mist the top of your freshly planted seedbed with a gentle sprayer (Your mister must be clean—don’t use a sprayer that previously had chemicals, vinegar, or anything other than water in it!), or just add a little more water to the bottom of the dish. Don’t water from above with anything stronger than a mist—your seeds will wash into each other’s parking spots, you won’t know what’s where, and you’ll be confused and discouraged, and you haven’t even gotten anything really started yet.
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Now, cover the top of the whole shebang with a loose sheet of plastic wrap (don’t make it tight and clingy) to help keep things moist. Then, place this extremely professional setup someplace where it stays nice and warm—70° to 75°F (21° to 24°C) is ideal. Examine your precious babies every day. Lift off the plastic to let them breathe a bit and check the moisture level of their dirt. If the top of the soil is obviously moist and no sprouts are visible, don’t do anything. If the surface seems dry, give it a spritzing or add a little water to the bottom of the holding tray.
After a week or so, you should see sprouts pushing up out of the soil. Yes, this will really happen. And yes, you will feel really good about it. If you want a more detailed step-by-step instruction and tips from Mike from growing start to finish, get your copy of You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes!
And, what if you screw up and your first run of starts all die? Honor dictates you try again at least once before you go out and buy the strange-looking overfed Big Boys at Wal-Mart! Besides, there are a lot of seeds in those packets. But you won’t fail, and they won’t die!
About Mike McGrath
Garden guru, public radio host, and former editor of Organic Gardening Editor, Mike Grath knows his tomatoes! You may recognize Mike’s voice from his popular NPR radio show, You Bet Your Garden, which has answered your toughest garden, lawn, and pest problems since 1998. Mike’s radio shows are still running syndicated through PBS39 and on NPR across the nation. Mike continues to inform readers through his column at GardensAlive “Question of the Week”.
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