[tomato] Advice on starting my nxt crop of Tomatoes

ChuckWyatt/Md/Z7 (Tomato@GlobalGarden.com)
Wed, 2 Jun 1999 06:58:47 -0400

There seems to be a lot of reluctance toward raising tomatoes from seed. 
This is unfortunate because it is a simple procedure that will pay for
itself as well as open up all sorts of variety for the gardener.  Then you
can raise what you want, rather than the varieties the Garden Center wants
to sell you.  Your plants will be stronger and will be of the correct age
to transplant. There are a few cautions, which if followed, will bring good

Many first time seed starters are stricken with Damping Off diseases.  This
is caused by a variety of soil borne fungi.  Seedlings rot at the soil line
and fall over.  This can be controlled in several ways.  The primary one is
to use only a sterile starting mix such as Pro Mix or Ready Mix.  These
mixes are best moistened the night before planting to allow full absorption
of the water.  The mix should be MOIST which I classify as being somewhere
between damp and wet.  If you are going to err, make it on the dry side.

Another frequent cause of failure is contaminated containers.  Wash
anything that will come into close proximity of the seedlings in a weak
Clorox solution before using the container or implement.  About a cup of
Clorox to to a gallon of water is OK.  

The most common seed starting setup is comprised of an 11" X 22" plastic
tray with a clear plastic cover.  All sorts of inserts with sections for
individual plants are available.   There kits are available at garden
centers as well as Home Depot type places.  You will also benefit greatly
from a common two tube shop light.  These can be purchased for under
$10.00.  Plain old cool white tubes have proven to be as good as the grow
lite ones and they coat about 1/10  as much. In 99 and 44/100% of the cases
you are kidding yourself if you think a sunny window will suffice.  You MAY
get away with a sunny window if the Spring is extremely sunny, which it
usually isn't.  Tomatoes need more light than almost any flowers so don't
let that mislead you.  Remember, I'm trying to help you succeed, not fail. 
There are too many variables in sunny windows and hundreds of people think
they can't start tomatoes from seeds because of that system.

Start by backing up six weeks from the date you want to set your
transplants out in the garden.

Place moistened mix in your selected insert and punch a 1/4" deep hole in
your  mix with the eraser end of a pencil or similar instrument.  Put two
or three seeds in each hole and cover with 1/4" of mix.  Press down lightly
to insure good contact.

Place the plastic top on the tray to maintain the moisture and put the
setup in a warm place.  The top of a hot water heater or a refrigerator
seems to be a favorite place.  Heating mats are available but they are not
absolutely necessary. Light is not needed at this stage. The mix should not
need additional water until after the seeds have sprouted.  If it seems to
be dry and no seedlings have emerged after ten days, add a little water and
wait another week.

Your seedlings should appear in four to ten days, As soon as you see them
starting to pop up, remove the cover and put the tray under the shop light.
 The seedlings should be within 2" of the light.  Light decreases by the
inverse square of the distance traveled which means that there is only 1/4
as much light when that distance is doubled.  This is most important to
keep your plants from becoming "leggy." Temperatures in the 60 degree range
are best from here on.  A cool basement is good.

Keep the light on for sixteen hours and off for eight.  A cheap timer makes
this simpler. Either raise the light or lower the tray to keep the tops of
the seedlings within two inches of the tubes, the closer the better.  You
won't burn them if they happen to touch.  I like to set the shop light up
about 18" above the shelf that holds the tray.  Then I use wooden blocks to
get the proper height and remove blocks as the seedlings grow.  Some folks
use books for the same purpose.

The leaves you see at this stage are the cotyledons, seed leaves.  In about
two weeks the first pair of true leaves will emerge.  This signals the time
to "pot up" your seedlings.  I find a four inch pot to be best for this but
it's not critical.  Used soda cups work well if sterilized and with holes
punched in the bottoms.  Use the same mix you used to start the seeds and
moisten it as before.  If you are using cell packs for your seed starts,
make a hole the size of the cell containing each seedling.  Gently prick
the seedling from its cell and place it into its new container.  Plant it
right up to the base of the cotyledon.  Roots will grow on the base of the
stem and give you a stronger plant.

Continue with watering as needed and light adjustment until your seedlings
are about five weeks old.  At this point, begin to gradually harden off
your seedlings to outdoor conditions.  On an overcast day or in shade, set
the seedlings out for one hour.  Double this every day until they are
outside all the time. This should coincide with your desired planting out
date.  At this point you should have some nice stocky transplants ready for
the garden and a lot better than you can buy.