It’s that time of year up here in Northwestern PA it’s seed starting time for our summer gardens. Yes, it is officially time to get those seeds into their growing trays so our plants are the right size come Memorial Day. This is just about when we put our plants out into our gardens. Now, if you have not yet tried your hand at starting tomato plants from seed it’s so much easier than you think.
And it’s a great way to start a garden from scratch and really ensure you know the exact source of your food.
Where I live a flat of tomato plants can cost around $18. Whereas a packet of good seeds cost about $3 and the organic seed mix is usually under $5.
Two packs of seeds and a bag of dirt will give you about 2 flats of plants if not more.
So you can see right off that growing your own plants is a cost saver of about $28.00. Just another reason why you should give this a try!
Before we dive into starting plants from seed, there are a few things you will need to have first.
1. First, you will need a place to grow your plants. A place that is preferably warm (although it’s not a requirement) and one that is out of the way of tiny hands and nosey pets.
2. Next, you will want a stand of sorts to hold your flats of delicate plants. Sure you can purchase stands and pretty elaborate growing systems. But I like to do things on the cheap. To reuse what I have on hand before heading out to the store to buy. If you have shelf that you are not using or a table that you can repurpose. Something that is sturdy and can hold a few plats of plants.
How To Start Tomato Plants From Seed
Step #1 Gather your containers.
You know those plant containers your plants come in? Well, never EVER throw those out. They are more durable than you think and perfect to use when started your new batch of seedlings.
I believe I am on my 10th year with these containers and they are still holding strong.
I also have the trays the plants came in which are really convenient when you are moving from inside to outside.
They are also great for keeping water from dripping all over your floor.
Step #2 Start with a good soil mix.
When starting tomato plants from seed the key is to use good quality starter soil.
I prefer to use organic seed starting mix, although I have used others with good success. I just like the quality of this mix and have always had great luck with it. Remember if you want strong and healthy plants then you need to start with good quality soil.
The good news is, it is surprisingly inexpensive and sold just about everywhere both online and in stores.
Step #3 Clean and sanitize.
If you choose to reuse planters you already have you will want to wash and sterilize them. I like to use a bottle brush (bought from the dollar store) and warm soapy water with bleach.
Wash each one, rinse well, and stack on a large towel to air dry.
Make sure to wear gloves so the bleach does not irritate your skin. The ratio I use is super exact. I fill a bucket and pour in a little bleach. 🙂
Your goal here is to remove any disease, if there is any, before planting your seeds.
Step #4 Prepare your soil.
One of the best tips I can pass on to start plants from seed is to make sure you presoak your starter mix.
I have tried to plant my seeds without presoaking and they took forever to sprout. The mix holds in moisture giving your seeds the perfect foundation for growth.
To soak your soil you will need a large container like this washtub I found again at the dollar store.
Pour in some mix and add a generous amount of water. Next, take a large spoon and work that water into the mix. Continue doing this until the soil is thoroughly damp yet not soaked.
If you get it too wet you will want to let your soil sit for a day or two.
Once the soil is to the right consistency begin by putting a layer of soil into each container. Using your fingers lightly tamp down the soil without compacting it.
Step #5 Plant your seeds.
When planting your seeds please be sure to follow the instructions on your seed packets. The actual time you plant your seeds will all depend on the zone you are in and when you are able to transplant your seeds outdoors. You can find your zone here. Usually, you want to start your seeds indoors approximately 6-8 weeks before the last frost of spring in your area.
Begin by placing 2 seeds per pot to ensure the growth of at least one plant. If both seeds take, you will need to pull one out later so that all the water and nutrients in the soil will be focused on just one plant.
Once all the seeds are dispursed cover them with a layer of soil. Again you want to tamp down the soil lightly over each seed.
Step #6 Set up a growing system.
The great news about setting up a growing system is anything at all will work!
When I first began growing my own seeds I used a table in my craft room. I placed my flats under the table so they were out of the way and suspended my lights from lightweight chains attaching them to the sides of the table.
The lights I use are 4 feet long and are the perfect size for a flat of plants. If the area of the home is warm normal bulbs will usually give off enough heat allowing your plants to grow well.
If you are growing your plants in a colder area such as a basement you will need to do a bit more to keep your delicate seedlings warm enough to grow. You can use inexpensive plastic sheeting to wrap around your growing area. This will help to keep any warmth inside with your plants, turning your growing area into sort of a makeshift greenhouse.
Your goal is a temperature of 65-75 degrees. Place a thermometer inside and monitor the temperature daily.
Step #7 Water correctly.
In the first few days, you will not need to water since you already dampened your soil. When you do begin to water your seeds, I suggest using a disposable water bottle. I find I can control the amount of water much better and there is less risk of drowning the seeds.
Remember to water gently giving just enough without saturating them.
Once the young plants have sprouted you can then switch to a spray bottle. This will water your delicate seedlings without crushing them. It is so important not to overwater in the beginning. If you are not sure, just check the soil with your finger. If it’s wet, don’t water.
Depending on the type of seeds you plant you should see something sprout at about 6-8 weeks. If after 10 or 12 weeks you still see nothing then I would assume the seed did not take. Please refer to your seed packet to verify that you have given your seeds enough time to sprout. If your temperatures are not warm enough it may take longer for your plants to break the soil’s surface.
Step #7 Add more soil.
You may notice after the first few days the seed mix begins to settle a bit. This is normal and will happen a few times in the beginning. Now is the time to add more soil lightly covering each seed as you see they need it,.
Remember to make sure it is also damp but not soaking wet.
Step #8 Thin your seedlings.
This is always the hardest part for me.
Remember in step 5 I told you to put 2 seeds into each planter? Well if you notice that you have 2 or even 3 sprouts you will need to remove all but one.
Choose the strongest seedling to keep and gently remove the extras. The best way to do this is to use your finger gently holding the base of the seedling you are going to keep. You can then safely remove the other seedlings.
SLCG Pro Tip: If you had seeds that did not sprout and now find you have empty seed containers you can try to transplant the removed seedlings there. They may not take but I have found more often then not, they do!
Step #9 Hardening up your plants.
As it gets closer to planting time, see here for dates in your area, you will want to begin hardening off your plants. That just means getting them acclimated to the weather. This is especially important if you live in a cooler climate as I do.
Take your planters outside on a sunny and preferably windless day and let them soak up the rays of the sunshine. Try to keep it short and sweet in the beginning. As the seedlings strengthen up you can increase the time longer and longer.
If you don’t have a garden, don’t worry! You can grow all you need right on your front porch!
Starting tomato plants from seed is not only economical but easy and fun as well. I just marvel each summer as we enjoy those beautiful tomatoes that all started from a tiny little seed. Try your hand at it this year so you too can enjoy the fruits of your labors come summer.