Tomato Seed Starting Hack
Simplify planting tomato seeds with this easy method.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.