Garden and Greenhouse

It’s Time for Tomatoes!

In my last post, I detailed my seed-starting procedure, beginning with peppers. All of those pepper seeds germinated in the plastic bags on paper towels, were planted in containers of warmed, moist seed-starting mix, and placed in the heated sand box to emerge. They’ve now emerged and are under a grow light (cutting several days off the time it would take to germinate them in seed starting mix) so the sand box is free for tomato seedlings. But first, I have to sprout them.

I germinate tomato seeds the same way I do peppers, on a wet paper towel sealed inside a plastic zipper bag (click link to seed starting process ), but tomatoes usually sprout much faster. The seed coat of a tomato isn’t as hard; whereas, a pepper seed might take up to a week (or even a little longer) to sprout, tomato seeds usually sprout within three days or so in the bags, and the seed leaves usually emerge from the soil just a couple of days after planting the germinated seed.

(Note: of the ten varieties of tomato seeds I started on 2/22/15, five of them, including Red Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Rainbow, Black Vermissage, and Roma) have sprouted some seeds within 48 hrs. of placement in the bag, and others are showing the characteristic “pointing” of the seed coat which indicates that the radicle (embryonic root) is beginning to push through the seed coat.)

The seed packet says the seedlings should emerge in 8-10 days when planted directly into soil, so you can see that germinating on paper towels in plastic bags can cut up to five days off the initial germination process. As I said in the previous post, five days might not matter to some folks with a longer growing season, but it makes a big difference to me. I have to cope with a short growing season usually started by a delayed and chancy spring, and often ending in an early, bitter fall.

I taught myself something this year about the paper towel/plastic bag method of seed starting. I learned the paper towel sprouting method online, but the site I used (years ago—I have no idea where it was now) said to roll up the paper towels into tubes and insert all the tubes into one single plastic zipper bag. I never thought inserting all the tubes containing  different varieties into the same bag was a good idea—it’s possible to transmit diseases on some of the seeds to all of them that way, so I always used separate bags for different varieties of one plant or different species altogether. In addition, I’ve had some trouble with the tubes in past years. If you wait just one day too long to plant your seeds, the radicle will have grown into the paper towel, and then you have to be very careful not to damage it when you remove the seed for planting in the containers, and this is complicated further by the need to unroll the tube. This year, I thought, why not just fold one thickness of paper towel over the seed, put each one into its own zipper sandwich bag, and let it go at that. And I discovered that doing this makes it really easy to check for germination. You just hold the bag up to the window or a bright light, and you can see how many seeds have sprouted without even opening the bag. You can decide whether some of the seeds need to go into the soil immediately, or whether you can wait another day for the laggards.


Because I already have seeds sprouting and will be planting them in soil today, yesterday (3/24/15)  I had to get the six packs filled with organic sprouting medium, moistened, and into the heat/sand box to warm up, so that the sprouted seeds don’t get shocked moving from a warm environment (the bag by the stove) into a cold one.


If all my seeds sprout, I’m going to be a little short on space in the heated sand box, but I’m not expecting 100% germination out of the older seed. And if I run out of space, I will have to rig another heat box with the old rope light, which should work well enough for a few extra containers.

All this means I should have tomato seedlings by the end of the week! And that means that I will have about six weeks to grow them on before it’s time to set them out in the garden. That should be just about right. Tomatoes grow very quickly, especially in the protected environment of the greenhouse. It’s also important not to set out tomato plants that are blooming. You might think you’re getting a head start this way, but the transplanting process causes the tomato stem to root, and diverts energy from fruit production. It’s actually better, even with a short growing season, to plant tomatoes before they have developed blossoms.   For more about growing on, see my post from last spring:  “Transplant.”

I planted 30 germinated tomato seeds today.  I might have gone a little overboard, as usual. I started 67 tomato seeds from 10 different varieties,and I’ll probably be planting the rest within a day or two. I’m expecting about 60 plants, because some of my seed is getting a little old, and I don’t expect more than a 50% germination rate from a few varieties. (When the germination rate for a particular seed packet, whether homegrown or store bought, falls below 50%, I discard the seed for fresh. But I have saved seeds from my heirlooms since 2010, so I have a lot of extra seed too.) Some of these plants are for my son and daughter, and if I still have more than I need for my own garden, I’ll sell or give away the extras.

Every year, I say I won’t grow so many tomatoes, because I work myself to a frazzle preserving the fruit in the late summer and fall. But every spring, I’m just too tantalized by the prospect of ripe, sweet, homegrown tomatoes to eat fresh, or turn into charred salsa or Italian red sauce or tomato-apple chutney, to restrain myself.