Tomatoes are by far the most popular edible garden plant grown in the United States. They are grown indoors and out, starting from seed or transplants. If you’re interested in starting your plants from seeds, then this information may help.
Starting Seeds Early Indoors
For outdoor gardeners, seed starting often begins about a month before the last frost and plants can be grown outside without dying. For tomato growers, this is an important time and you’ll need to think about three things before you begin:
- When is your last frost expected to be?
- How much protection will your new tomato plants need once they’re moved outdoors?
- How long is your growing season and how long do your tomatoes require to bear fruit?
The first question can be answered by looking at an almanac, asking your local agricultural extension, or by asking a local farmer. It’s important to know this date as it informs you of when you can expect, at the earliest, to begin planting your garden. Most gardeners add another week to that date, just to be sure, and use that as their guide.
The second question is also important because tomato plants are fragile and if the weather hasn’t become consistently better (which it usually won’t, in that first month of growing), you’ll have to protect those plants. Covers, water tunnels and other items may be required to keep the plants warm and safe in the worst weather. Some gardeners in harsh climates will grow their plants indoors initially until that volatile weather time has passed.
Finally, you will want to know how long your growing season is and how long it takes for your variety (or varieties) of tomato to bear fruit. If your season is long enough, you can delay planting so that you have a better guarantee of good weather throughout the plants’ growing season. It also allows you to stagger planting times so that you can have some plants bearing fruit before others, easing the harvest workout.
Starting Seeds Early Outside
If you’d like to start your seeds early, but prefer to do it in the ground, then you have some options as well – assuming your last-minute spring weather isn’t extremely harsh. In most parts of the U.S., you can sow the seeds into the ground and use a cold frame or heavy layer of mulch to keep it insulated from the extreme cold. When mulching, try to use dark-colored mulch (such as bark) as it absorbs more heat from the sun and thus warms up the earth underneath.
Cold frames are the best way to start early, though. In most areas, tomatoes can be started as much as 3 weeks to a month earlier than the last frost, but check with your local gardening clubs or shops to be sure.
Transplanting Tomato Seedlings
Once your tomatoes are ready for the outdoors, you need to transplant them. The first step is to begin hardening them to the outside. Do this by putting them out in the sun (heat of the day) for 2-3 hours, then 4-5 hours, etc. on consecutive days – avoiding days when the weather is foul, or using a covered porch or other shelter on those days. By the end of a week, they should be outside 24 hours straight.
Transplanting is a matter of digging holes and putting the plants in, of course. There are two methods popularly used. The first is straight-forward: dig a hole, put the plant in, fill in the hole. With this method, you’ll need to dig the hole slightly deeper than the plant root and its container. Insert the plant and cover up to the first set of stems, packing the earth around it lightly.
The second method is horizontal planting. This avoids breaking stems and is popular for that reason. Dig a shallow hole, just deep enough for the root bunch to be buried, and taper the holes along a row in a single direction (left-right, right-left, etc). Put the plants down, sideways, and cover the root.
This works best in loose soil. The roots will push downward and the plant will naturally lift upwards and straighten itself in a few days. The danger here is those few days, since any bad weather, wind, etc. might expose the roots and kill the plant. The advantage is that you don’t break the stems as easily during planting and the stem that stays on the ground sprouts new roots to create a larger root system for the plant.
Caring for Early Tomato Plants
Tiny tomato plants are very fragile in the beginning. It takes weeks for them to become strong enough that you won’t need to worry about them as much.
If any kind of bad weather is coming, you’ll want to cover those plants. Hail, wind, heavy rains, too-hot sun, and more can all kill your plants in minutes. So having pre-made shelters or covers of some kind is essential for outdoor tomato growers. There are many available commercially or you can build your own out of whatever is at hand. From soda bottles cut to go over the plants to complex tent and water bladder structures, the quest to protect baby tomato plants is full of ingenuity.
Pests and a few predators are also a concern in the early weeks of tomato growing. For the most part, however, they are not as much of a problem as is the weather.
Want to learn more about starting tomato seeds?
See these websites:
Master Gardener Manual: Tomatoes from Arizona Cooperative Extension
Tomatoes from University of Illinois Extension
How to protect tomatoes from insects? What pesticides do you recommend?
jerry brandt says
Get a rotisserie chicken. Eat the chicken. Put some potting soil in the black plastis bottom to plant your seeds. water it. Put the clear plastic top on and snap it. Moisture will come on the top and the seeds will produce plants. After a couple weeks – replant the starters in 3 inch pots in other little greenhouses. Good for 4 plants in each little greenhouse
Jenny Justice says
Early on insects aren’t that bad but as the summer approaches look for tomato hornworms. Hand pick those and kill or feed to the chickens. Biggest threat is disease. They are prone to a lot of wilt and fungus. Never plant your tomatoes in the same place 2 years in a row. Do not compost your tomato plants as the diseases can live on in the compost. I use no pesticide but do foliar feed with worm compost tea.