how do you grow your tomato seedlings?

Tomatoes are arguably (or maybe not) the most popular home-grown vegetable. But the volume of advice about how to grow them from seed is mind-boggling.

This is mine. I start them way too early, and then stress till the plants are done bearing. Simple, uncomplicated.

No, it’s the opposite of simple. I’ve realized that starting tomato seedlings requires self-control first, and that’s the hardest thing when you’ve been locked indoors for those long months. Planting too early just means tall, leggy seedlings that don’t do as well as those tiny replacements you end up buying at the nursery.

So patience is number one. 4 to 6 weeks before last frost…just like I’ve been reading on the backs of seed packets for 30 years. That doesn’t mean 12-14 weeks, oddly. Go figure.

I allow myself a couple of plants started early that get put out under two layers of frost protection. These always bear the first fruits, but it’s a very risky business, not suited for a main crop.

The details. I start with two seeds in each little six-pack of starting mix. When they have their first set of true leaves they’re transplanted into 4″ individual pots, stems buried right up to the leaves. Unlike most plants, tomatoes thrive when their stems are buried, because the stems sprout roots.

Half strength nitrogen fertilizer like fish emulsion is great at transplanting time. But too much nutrifying isn’t helpful with tomato seedlings. A light touch. Curb your enthusiasm.

After a few weeks when the stems get tallish, they get a final up-pot, this time to cut-off half gallon milk jugs filled with extra special soil, goosed with vermicompost. Again buried almost up to the first leaves to get nice, sturdy stems.

The whole time they’re under shop lights about 14 hours a day, with a little fan blowing a few times each day, to test and challenge them like nature would. Kind of like making your kids do the dishes. I was never able to do this when I worked nine to five. Maybe a split timer on the fan too?

Then they’re hardened off gradually, making sure that they don’t see direct sun for too long right away. They’ll get sunburned, seriously. I know.

That’s how I grow tomato seedlings.

I’m not an expert, just a guy. I really believe that even the most inexperienced gardener can teach me.

How do you grow yours? Give me some hints.

18 thoughts on “how do you grow your tomato seedlings?

  1. I can’t contribute much to the conversation but wanted to let you know that we enjoy reading about how you start your seedlings since we’re new to this serious gardening business. You have us looking at every food container as a possible plant pot.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hopefully I can learn from what you learn too Shawn. My biggest problem with those big food containers is making myself sacrifice the amount of compost used to start them. I’m a hoarder sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve tried to raise seedlings but I just don’t have the time to commit to baby them for as long as I need to. Inevitably they become spindly (as you describe) and just don’t do well. I’ve come to accept that I get more from the garden if I just start with nursery seedlings. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to grow from seed. Wish I had some great tips – nothing but failure over here 😦

    Liked by 2 people

    • I absolutely know what you mean. It’s really not easy to spend time doing all the putzing and babying that needs to be done while raising a family or working full time. Nursery plants are great. With time on my hands, I just like all the tinkering!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Dan – years of experience have taught me that patience is the main thing – now I try and hold off sowing seeds until March or they’ll end up looking like cress. I sow them in a headed propagator inside in March, move them to the windowsill when they germinate, then plant them out in May under plastic of various kinds, lift off the plastic in June and cross my fingers for a good summer. It sort of works most of the time. It’s really hard to not sow them now. Good luck with your babying.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your method sounds a lot like mine except I only pot up once. Instead of a fan–which I just might try–I brush my fingers over all my plants whenever I’m checking in them. It’s definitely not as consistent as a fan on a timer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. LoVed this post and comments!! My hubby is the one who loves fresh tomatoes and every year he stresses me out with seeding super early or should I restate that by saying, the seeding stresses me out. lol bring them in, bring them out and the routine will repeat its self over and over until we are clear of a late season frost, only to have our neighbor run to the local walmart or hardware store to buy her tomato plants and brag about having the first ripe tomato of the season LOL now the hubs and I seed and buy a few tomato plants to even out our odds. ps we have yet to seed up any tomatoes for this season lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the info about planting the stems – will try that this year.

    Like you, I would like to start right now but it’s three and a half months till the last frost, so I’ll just have to wait a while and start something else instead…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, Dan. I’ve started another blog linked to my ‘Home & Garden’ blog, called ‘Save & Share’. I’ve been developing seed stock for over 15 years, and am sharing my surplus garden seed on this blog. I have loads of tomatoe seed that might help, if you’re in the Northern Tier, or Maritime parts of the country. Also, when you plant out, snip off the bottom two branches and bury these below soil line. The roots will take off from those lateral junctions. I get two seasons here in the Southwest. I’ve started my tomatoes already and we’re having a warm spell, so I’m just leaving the dixie cups out on the front porch. The problem here is that the overnight temps. get so warm by late May and June, that tomatoes and beans won’t fruit. They’ll flower like mad, but no fruit until the overnight gets below 65 F again. So, I start my first batch in January using my cool-climate seed stock. I start getting my first tomatoes in late April, or early May. Then my second sowing is mid-summer, just before monsoons, and I direct sow. (Imagine that, direct sown tomatoes.) They come up so fast in the heat, they’re flowering within 6 to 8 weeks. So, by early September through late November, I’m bringing in buckets. Anyway, check out my seed sharing site and let me know if I can send you some. I’d love for you to be my first ‘customer’. All the very best, Barbara Jean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for all the good information Barbara Jean! I’ll take a look at your sharing blog for sure. I’ve also heard that tomatoes can be planted horizontally with just the top sticking out of the soil, and they’ll root along the horizontal section. So many good things to try!


      • Absolutely! I used to sell my surplus tomatoe starts at the local Farmer’s Market, and I would tell my customers, ‘The more root, the more fruit.’ I usually leave just the top-most crown of true leaves, snip off all the others and tuck them way in, but it’s hard to get people to take the shears to their little champions. When I direct seed in mid-summer, I make a deep well that I sow into, and as the strongest emerge, I thin, and add in soil around the bases, snipping off bottom leaves as I go.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I do basically the same as you do, and also plant horizontally as mentioned already along with a little well composted horse manure in each trench. It gives you really sturdy plants.


  9. Fans? Stroking? Sounds bonkers!

    We have very little space indoors that it’s such a pain having them precariously balanced on my narrow home-office windowsill. This is the perfect cure for early seed-sowing enthusiasm. When I can’t put it off any longer I sow them in a tray, then transplant twice – up to their leaves – like you, hardening them off with days spent in sunshine and nights inside, until the first time I forget to bring them in.

    Then the tomato year is considered a success if we manage to eat a few before all the plants get hit by blight ;o)

    There was an interesting tomato trial in my latest gardening mag – I’ll blog about it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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