Tomato plants at the end of Aptil, ready to put in the garden

Tomato seedlings at the end of April, not quite ready for prime time..

Growing You Own Tomato Pants From Seed

Your local nursery will carry tomato plants at the appropriate time of year, and buying stocky and vigorous tomato plants at the nursery, ready to plant into the ground, is preferable to making the space and spending the time growing seedlings. But doing it yourself is an alternative if the store's selection is limited. You may be itching to try out that new variety, or maybe you're needing just a few plants of several different varieties. Starting your own plants is easy, they pop up in your compost pile, so how hard can it be? It isn't hard at all, but there are a few things to keep in mind when starting your own seeds.

Starting out with poor seed handicaps you at the very beginning, no matter how much time, effort and money you put into the project. A reputable seedsman or seed company can supply you with high-quality seeds that have been stored under optimum conditions. If you take good care of them they'll stay alive for four years. 

Also note that  this a commitment—you'll need to baby sit your tomato plants for two months. They're going to need attention several times per day and will need much room once they grow beyond the seedling stage.

Planting and Growing the Seedlings

Toward the end of February, fill a container with a sterile coir or peat-based seedling mix, available at your local nursery or hardware store. We use a different pot for each variety and will put up to a dozen seeds in each, about a half-inch apart and a quarter inch deep. Click to enlarge
Stupice tomato seedlings in mid-March. Each one of these seedlings is ready to move into its own four-inch pot. Click to enlarge.
Usually a four-inch pot provides more than enough room for that dozen seedlings, but if we need many plants we will use something larger. Don't forget the label or to put the seed packet back in storage

Place them where they will keep warm, on top of the refrigerator is good, they don't mind the dark. Check every so often to make sure the medium does not dry out. After four days pass, check it at least twice daily, and if you see any stems arching up out of the medium, immediately place that pot in an area that gets lots of bright light, at least sixteen hours per day.

Not enough light causes leggy and weak plants, and there is not enough sun in even your sunniest window right now, so you should provide supplemental lighting. Bright overhead florescent lighting is suitable but keep the tops of the plants almost touching the tubes. Shop lights work if you use the four-tube model or if you angle two fixtures side by side. High intensity lights should be kept further away to prevent burning. This is actually when the roots would really prefer to be cooler, around 60°F or so.

Poke the plants a bit, and on a regular basis. Run your hands over them or fan them with a piece of cardboard. Let them know you're there and they'll react, and it will keep them healthier. Talking to them will keep you healthier.

Transplanting the Tomato Plants

When the little plants grow a decent first true leaf (at about 20-30 days) it'll be time to transplant. Click to enlarge
A dozen or so different tomato varieties at about mid-April. We close the cold frame at night if frost threatens. Made the top out of a free shower door.
Click to enlarge.
Use a fork to lift up the plants, separate the roots, and transplant each tomato plant to its own four-inch pot. Handle the plants ONLY by their leaves, do not touch the stem as even the tiniest pinch will do permanent damage. Be nice to the roots. With tomatoes, as with many other plants, it's all about the roots, the top can take care of itself.

Use a good potting mix and bury each plant up to the stalks of the first leaf. The extra stem part you buried will develop more roots. To keep the plants from stretching keep them around 60°F and continue providing lots of light. We still use those four-inch pots at this point with one plant in each pot, but if we have lots of extra seedlings, we'll place two or three in each pot and snip the stems of the weakest ones after a week or two.

The seedlings will spend about four weeks in these pots and will then be moved into a gallon pot. Why repot again? To keep the plant from being root bound. Tomato plants experience a rapid growth stage and then enter the fruiting stage. You will not want it to start the fruiting stage until after it has completed growing a strong set of roots in the ground and a sturdy stem above. A root bound plant will enter the fruiting stage and will never grow a decent set of roots in the garden. When done right you will plant a robust and stocky plant, absolutely necessary where you have a cool growing season.

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It's the end of April and the soil under the black plastic is warm enough to plant the tomatoes, three different varieties here. The leafy stuff in the back is garlic.
Click to enlarge.

When do they go into the ground? About three to five weeks after they moved into the gallon pots. If there are good days, move the plants outside, maybe permanently by mid-April. Plant during the first half of May; later is better because the soil is a bit warmer. Planting in cold soil puts the plant on hold and it's hard to get it started again.

Plan to put black plastic down in their planting spot two weeks before you move them to help warm up the soil. Why warm the soil? Tomato roots do not function below 50 degrees and will begin to deteriorate. April soil is generally around 50°F. And, also during May, if the night time temperatures reach down to 40 degrees, put a cover over the plants. Once they are a bit more established they can handle cooler temperatures without freaking out.

When do you harvest the first tomatoes? Here in Fortuna, our first Stupice and Early Girl tomatoes are generally ready around the fourth of July. The Oregon Spring comes in a few weeks later. On the next page we'll share some planting tips.

NEXT: The Best Tricks in Planting Tomatoes in Your Garden