Want to have the first fresh, home-grown tomatoes in Tallahassee this season? Do what the local farmers and growers do and start you tomato plants indoors in early January. In four to six weeks you will have little tomato plants ready to be tucked into your yard. If you protect them from late frosts, you may have tasty tomatoes to feast upon as early as April! Starting from seed also allows you to try new and interesting varieties that might not be available at your local nursery yet.
Turns out you don’t need to have a greenhouse as long as you can supply your precious seedlings with warmth, moisture and a sunny window. A sunny, preferably South-facing window is critical because without it you will end up with spindly, weak seedlings that will decline and eventually die. Even if you are lacking said window you can still be successful with the addition of a plant grow light, or fluorescent bulbs.
After selecting your seed, look for a seed starting tray at your local nursery. I like the reusable Styrofoam plug trays that come with a black plastic water-holding tray beneath and clear plastic tray above to hold in moisture and warmth. You can also use those clear plastic boxes that store-bought lettuce comes in to create the same greenhouse effect, with small black plastic six pack pots placed inside. It is important to use a sterile, soil-less seed starting mix instead of regular potting soil. This light, airy medium must be mixed with water before filling into flats or pots.
After each pot is filled with moist starting mix, drop one to two seeds in each cell on top of the soil. Press them gently against the soil and cover them with a thin layer of moist starting mix. The most common mistake people make when starting from seed is planting their seeds too deep. The general rule for planting seeds is to plant at a depth that is three times the width of the seed. So very small seeds like tomatoes should only be planted around one-fourth of an inch below the soil.
Once you’ve planted your flats, you will be watering them from beneath to avoid disrupting the soil, seeds and eventually the delicate seedlings. Simply pour a shallow amount of water into the non-draining plastic tray beneath so the cells soak up the water. Cover your tray to trap in moisture and place in a consistently warm place until the seedlings pop up. Sunlight is not necessary for germination, but consistent warmth and moisture are. In one to two weeks once your seedlings have emerged, they will need light and must be transferred to that sunny window or beneath a grow light. Remove the covering and begin paying close attention to their water needs. Seedlings must be kept moist, but not soggy. If they completely dry out just once, they will die. However, if they are kept too wet they are susceptible to fungal problems. Thin them out to one plant per cell and rotate the position of the tray in the window so the plants aren’t leaning too much. If your seedlings become long and weak-looking, they are not getting enough sunlight and may need an artificial source.
In two to three weeks you plants should be putting on some size and ready to be transplanted into larger, four-inch pots. I pinch off the lower leaves and plant them an inch or two deep into the soil. Once transplanted, I begin fertilizing with fish and seaweed emulsion every two weeks. Now your little guys are ready to begin acclimating to the outdoors, in preparation to be planted outside. This process is called “hardening-off”. I begin by putting my young plants out on my porch where they get indirect sunlight for the day while I go to work, and bring them in when I get home. After a few days they move to a partially sunny spot in my yard, where they’ll get a few hours of direct sun, but they still come in at night if the temperatures are below 45 degrees.
One week of hardening-off and your plants are ready for the great outdoors! I plant my tomatoes deep in the ground, plucking the lower leaves and leaving just three or four sets of leaves exposed above the soil. If the nighttime temperatures are still in the low 40s or we get a late frost, I will cover the small plants with an upside-down gallon plastic pot overnight. Continue fertilizing and paying careful attention to their watering needs. With good weather and care you will be enjoying home-grown tomatoes earlier than you ever thought possible!