Tomato Seed Starting Hack

Simplify planting tomato seeds with this easy method.

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Midnight Snack Cherry Tomato

Midnight Snack Cherry Tomato

Growing tomatoes from seed lets you start unusual varieties, including purple cherry tomatoes like ‘Midnight Snack’ tomato.

Photo by: All-America Selections at All-AmericaSelections.org

All-America Selections at All-AmericaSelections.org

Heirloom tomatoes are one of my favorite summer crops. Who doesn’t love biting into a tart-sweet Green Zebra or a fruity Mr. Stripey? Some of the new introductions have also caught my eye, like the All-America Selections winner ‘Midnight Snack’ cherry tomato. That dark skin delivers even more antioxidants per bite.

If you’re like me and you want one of everything in the heirloom tomato world along with a few new varieties, try growing a plant or two of your must-haves from seed. Here’s an easy way to get tomatoes off to a great start.

Supplies For Planting Tomato Seeds

Supplies For Planting Tomato Seeds

Create your own pots for growing tomatoes from seed by cutting the tops off 2-quart milk containers. Start the cut on each jug with a box cutter, and remove the top with scissors. Use a nail to poke drainage holes in the bottom of the container.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Prep Your Pots

Raid the recycling bin for this tomato growing hack. When you grow tomatoes from seed, your goal is a stocky seedling with deep roots. One way to get that is to start your seeds in a deep pot. Nursery pots work great but take up lots of space. I like to use 2-quart milk jugs with the top removed. It provides ample space for roots and lets me skip repotting seedlings from cell packs.

Get your containers ready by cutting off the tops. I mark a line around the jug to help me cut straight, use a box cutter to make the first cut, and finish the job with a pair of scissors. Use a nail to poke drainage holes in the bottom of the jug. Make a minimum of four holes; I usually add six.

Fill Milk Jug Pots With Soil

Fill Milk Jug Pots With Soil

Fill each 2-quart milk jug pot with a lightweight soilless planting mix. Fill pots one-third to one-half full at planting time.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Sow the Seeds

Fill the containers roughly one-third full with soil. Plant two to three seeds per container, covering them with about a quarter inch of soil. Gently press seeds into soil, and use a spray bottle to moisten the top layer of soil. Cover the containers with a piece of kitchen plastic wrap to help retain moisture. Set pots in a warm spot—on top of the dryer or a heating mat. Tomato seeds germinate best at air and soil temps of 70°F minimum. Don’t forget to label containers.

Tomato Seedling Leaf

Tomato Seedling Leaf

After tomato seedlings have several leaves, remove the small seedling leaves, the first little leaves that formed. Bury the exposed stem by adding soil to the container.

Add Soil

When seedlings appear, move the pots to the brightest light you have or put them beneath supplemental lights. High light is vital to stocky seedling growth. The first leaves that appear are called seedling leaves. Slender and oblong, these leaves typically shrivel and fall off as the plant grows.

Once the seedling has about five leaves, carefully pinch away any seedling leaves that remain and add soil to the container, burying the stem to just below the first leaf. Tomato stems form roots along the stem, so each time you bury the stem, you’re encouraging a deep root system. This is the point where I snip away extra seedlings so each pot has just one.

Tomato Seedlings In Milk Jug Pots

Tomato Seedlings In Milk Jug Pots

As the tomato seedling grows, remove lowest leaves on the stem. Bury the exposed stem by adding soil to the milk jug pots. Doing this allows you to skip shifting seedlings to larger pots as they grow.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Trim Leaves and Add Soil

Once leaves clear the top of the container, carefully remove (I use small scissors) lower leaves and add more soil, burying the stem. Bring the soil level almost to the top of the container. With this method, instead of transplanting the seedlings to larger pots, you get the growth you want in the same container.

Grow On

  • Keep your seedlings in the sunniest spot possible.
  • Water to keep soil moist. Don’t let seedlings wilt, but don’t overwater them, either.
  • Rotate pots so that seedlings don’t stretch toward the light.
  • Run a fan on a low setting so that it’s blowing on the seedlings. This helps to promote stocky stems.

If you start tomatoes early, you may still need to shift these seedlings into larger pots prior to planting out in the garden. I try to start my tomatoes with a 5-week lead in Zone 6, which has them ready for the garden just in time for spring planting.

More Tomato Tips

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