How to Grow Tomatoes From Seed
Raising tomatoes can be very simple and very rewarding. Tomatoes can be used in a multitude of cooking applications from salads to stews and salsas. They are a very well rounded fruit. Growing tomatoes from seed can help make gardening less expensive than buying plants that may or may not make it. You'll want to start your seedlings about 4-6 weeks before the last frost in your area.
The first step is to decide what kind of tomatoes you want to grow. You may even want to grow multiple types of tomatoes, if you have different uses. Roma tomatoes are good for stews and salads. Cherry and grape tomatoes make for good snacks and are also good for salad toppings. Traditional tomatoes like Early Girl, Big Boy, and Beefsteak can be used for pretty much anything you may use tomatoes for. Beefsteak can produce tomatoes that weigh in over one pound each, however, they aren't always the prettiest looking.
Once you've decided on what types of tomatoes you want to plant, you'll need to gather the supplies for planting seeds. You can use peat pots and potting soil, or you can use the peat pellets that expand when you soak them and can be used to start your seeds on there own. Putting your pots or pellets on trays made specifically for them will allow you to water from the bottom, which helps to bolster root growth early. It also keeps the seedlings from becoming water logged. When you plant your seeds, you'll want to put two seeds in each pot. Germination will take up to two weeks, depending on the breed. About a week or so after germination, you will want to pinch one of the plants in the pot off. It's best to kill off the weaker plant.
Keeping a grow light on the tomatoes will help them to grow quickly. Keep your grow light about two inches above the canopy of the tomato plants. The canopy is considered to be the top of the plant, where the leaves are. One reason using grow lights is preferred over putting seedlings near a window is that having a light source far from the canopy will cause your seedlings to be spindly and weak.
When you are about a week out from transplanting your tomato seedlings, you will want to put them through a process called "hardening off". This means that for about an hour or so every day, you take the seedlings outside to harden themselves to the cooler climate they'll be transplanted into. This helps protect them from the trauma they endure when transplanted.
When transplanting your seedling, you will want to make sure your plants are about 3-4' apart. This gives them enough room to let air flow between plants to prevent diseases and also to make harvesting easier. Start by digging a hole an inch or two wider than the root ball of the seedlings to be transplanted. This is so you can back fill with loose dirt to allow roots to take faster. The seedling should be planted up to the first set of leaves on the stem. This aids in rooting. You may also want to put something around your seedlings while they take root and grow. I've always used gallon milk jugs that I've cut the top and bottom off of. This keeps rabbits from eating your plants before they can take root. Once they get to be about a foot or so tall, take the protective covers off and place tomato cages around them. You can also stake tomatoes, but cages are less likely to restrict growth or cut off circulation.
After the plants grow to a few feet tall, you may start to notice that the very bottom leaves are turning yellow. This is because they aren't getting much light, and the plant is forwarding energy to other parts of the plant. It's at this point you may want to prune the leaves off the bottom 6" of the plant. This also decreases the probability of having disease issues in your tomatoes.
You will notice that as your plant grows, you will have more and more green tomatoes on the vine. However, in general there are two different types of tomato vines, determinate and indeterminate. Where determinate vines will grow to a certain size and stop producing, indeterminate will grow until the weather kills them off. As fruits begin to ripen, you'll want to pick them as soon as they are a crimson red color. You can pick tomatoes once they are an orange-red color and let them sit in a window to ripen if you want them to store longer. Tomatoes allowed to ripen fully on the vine, however, will have the best flavor.
When the weather turns cold in the fall, indeterminate vines will still be producing. Before the first frost, you can pick the green tomatoes that are nearing mature size. Then, wrap them in newspaper. Store them in a cool, dry place for safe storage. As you need ripe tomatoes, unwrap them and put them in a well lit window and give them a few days.
To many gardeners, no tomato beats a homegrown tomato. They are easy to grow, and with concerns surrounding imported fruit, knowing where food came from is a big deal. Raising your own can be a rewarding way to get piece of mind.
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