Starting Your Own Tomato Plants is Easy!
by Lillian Davis
~for Illinois, zone 5a ~
(for northern zones- add two weeks, for southern zones, subtract two weeks)
Start in mid or late March~ They grow fast enough so there’s no need to start sooner as you’ll be tending tall leggy plants until time to put them out. The warmer it is the better they grow.
You don’t need a greenhouse or fancy grow lights, just about any container will work as long as it’s deep enough for root growth and you can poke holes in it for drainage. Over watering will kill a seedling just as fast a under watering!
You can use a prepared organic seed starting mix (they are easier to find now), or use plain sphagnum peat moss. Don’t use potting soil or garden soil yet, it’s too heavy and drains too slowly. Soil-less is best. Prepare you containers, moisten seed mix and add two or three seeds per container. Cover seed, it needs darkness to germinate. Cover container with plastic wrap or lid that came with your seed starting tray and depending on the warmth of your soil, you should see sprouts within a week (warm soil = faster sprouting).
Now, when you see the sprouts remove cover and place under lights. This is the only thing I recommend if you don’t have the luxury of a sunroom or greenhouse. Putting in a windowsill is not enough light to keep seedlings from getting spindly.
Use a standard 4 foot shop light with cool white bulbs. I hang mine from the ceiling in my basement with simple chains. You can make a simple frame with PVC Pipes (a rectangle shape- I’m looking for the plans- will post when I find them or you can search on your own- there are all kinds of brilliant ideas out there)
Depending on how many you start, you will need one to four lights (more if you want to start a lot). Two is ideal.
Hang the lights “just” above the tiny plants. They need the brightness of the light to grow straight and stocky. As the plants grow, move the lights with them, keeping the bulbs just above the leaves, but not touching. Using a chain works well here.
Now, when your little seedlings develop a second set of leaves, pop them out of their original container and plant them in a larger one (unless you already started them in a large container~ then you can leave them). Single size yogurt cups or a larger yogurt cup is an idea size- for example, but any recycled container will do as long as you can poke drain holes and the plant can slide out at planting time. Use more of your seed starter mix or a mix of 1 part compost or worm castings, and two parts sphagnum peat moss. You can now fertilize with an organic fertilizer- You can use fish emulsion (which smells really bad ~ I don’t recommend it for indoor use but your cat will love it if you do!) or use a dry mix organic fertilizer and soak about a cup, wrapped in cheesecloth or thin towel for a few days to a week in a five gallon bucket of water. If you want to make a smaller batch, use around a tablespoon in a one gallon watering can and soak for a few days.
Water seedlings with this once a week (this is what I do). You can also mix the dry fertilizer in the seed starter recipe above. About a couple of tablespoons per gallon of mix (I also do this).
Continue keeping the lights just above the leaves until it is warm enough to put them outside during the day and bring them in at night. This is hardening them off so they can adjust to growing outside in the garden. Leave them in a sheltered spot in the sun for about an hour the first day and work them up to being out longer every day. When night time temperatures stay above 40 degrees, plant out in garden. This is around Memorial Day. You can put them out sooner if you protect them from frost- using hot caps made from gallon milk jugs the bottom cut off and weighted with a rock or brick, but remove if it will be a warm day or you will “cook” your plants. This is when we all watch the weather report religiously.
Now forgive me if I’ve left anything out- but this is how I grow my tomatoes. You can use these same methods for Peppers, but don’t put them in the garden until night-time temps stay above 40 degrees. Peppers won’t grow well in cold weather.
Find your hardiness zone here: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/