When I took up gardening some forty years ago, bedding plants were unknown to country general stores. Gardeners propagated their own seedlings – tomatoes, cabbages, peppers, etc. – usually in an outdoor cold frame.
I have been propagating my own tomato plants for years, even when I had access to nursery plants because I love to try out at least one or two new varieties each year and these may not be available from nurseries. Here’s my story about how I start my tomatoes for the coming season.
Given our climate, I always start my tomato seedlings indoors, sowing the seeds about eight weeks (around April 7th) prior to transplanting them outdoors, which is about the right timing for my region of the North.
For potting soil, I initially used garden soil which I had brought in a bucket into the basement before freeze-up. More recently, I have been using a commercial soil mix that is recommended for African violets – I find it works exceptionally well.
For potting containers, I use 4-inch square plastic pots which I save up from buying bedding plants in previous years.
I label each pot with the tomato variety using a strip of masking tape around the top edge of each pot.
Since these pots come with fairly big drainage holes, I place a piece of aluminum foil to cover the bottom of each pot and then punch smaller holes to allow for water drainage without losing any soil.
I fill each pot nearly to the top with potting soil, as the soil will settle at least an inch. I place the pots into a tray and water the soil generously with lukewarm water and wait for the water to drain.
Then at each corner of the pot, I place 2-3 tomato seeds and cover them lightly with a thin layer of soil, tamping it down gently. I also spray the top lightly with lukewarm water.
I then neatly set the pots into a large tray and cover the whole thing with clear plastic wrap. This keeps the soil from drying out and helps to maintain a temperature conducive to germination.
I leave the plastic wrap on and do not water again until the first seedlings emerge, which is usually within 7-10 days.
I place the plastic-covered trays at a south-facing window to obtain enough light and heat to promote the germination of the seeds and to support seedling growth.
Depending on the spring weather, I generally transplant the tomato plants, now 6-10 inches tall, out into the garden.
This can be as early as the last week in May or as late as the first week in June in these parts.
The timing is important; I wait for a cloudy day, or just after a rain, or towards evening to transplant in order to minimize wilting. I keep the transplants well-watered, never using cold water, but water only at outdoor temperatures.
My only south-facing window is in the kitchen and has a very narrow ledge. Also, it is right above the kitchen sink.
My husband came to the rescue! He fixed up a stand over the sink from a length of plywood about a foot wide and four feet long, set upon two heavy cardboard construction tubes, each about 15 inches high, placed on each side of the double sink.
So for the next two months, I’m washing dishes in the twilight under this plywood stand!
During the next few weeks, I keep the soil lightly moistened. Every few days I turn the entire tray of pots around a full 180 degrees to prevent the seedlings from growing to one side towards the light.
When the temperature outdoors reaches a comfortable 15 degrees Celsius or higher, I begin taking the seedlings outside to harden them – about 15 minutes the first day and gradually increasing with time. I do not take them outside if it is windy or raining.
I also take great care to bring them inside every night. I learned a hard lesson one year when I had forgotten to bring the plants in for the night. The temperature dropped quite low that night and my tomato seedlings never recovered from the shock!
Since we generally attend to our country garden only on weekends, I have to water them really well at those times.
To maximize water retention I form a “moat”, 3-4 inches deep about a foot away around each plant. I keep these “moats” well-filled with water on weekends.
It is now April and glorious spring is upon us. I have long since received my tomato seeds by mail order, along with a bag of potting soil.
Once again, I’m starting my tomatoes, and finding myself looking forward to a prosperous growing season and a bountiful harvest to follow. My sincere wish to all gardeners is that they get as much pleasure from growing tomatoes as I do!