Between the Coronavirus and an uncertain economy now is a great time to start your own garden from seeds. There is comfort in knowing that no matter what happens you can have some great food from your back yard. You want to start some seedlings, but maybe you need a little help. Here is what I am doing to get my seeds started this year.
Why grow your own seedlings?
- Cost. It can cost between 50 cents to $6 per plant depending on the size and the type of plant you want to buy and where you buy them. Seeds can cost between 25 cents a packet to $10 a packet and grow anywhere from 25 to 1000 plants depending on what you buy. If you grow your own seeds, you can save a little or a lot depending on what you want to grow and how many plants you want to grow.
- Grow your favorite varieties. When you grow your own seeds, you can pick the exact varieties that you like and in the quantities you want. One of the most frustrating things you can run into when growing a vegetable garden is when the nurseries do not have either the variety or quantity of plants you want. At that point you are out of luck and are forced to pick another variety that you may not like as much or go without.
- Plant health. I find that when I grow my own seeds indoors typically my seedlings look better and are healthier then the ones I buy at the store.
- Timing. When I grow my own plants indoors, I can time the plants so they are ready to go at the time I need them. Sometimes I have to either buy varieties I want early so the nursery doesn’t run out, or I have to buy them late because I didn’t get them in time.
Tomato Seedling Indoor Set-Up Guide with Pictures
Here are step-by-step pictorial instructions to help you get a great tomato harvest by planting from seeds.
1. Figure out what tomato variety you are going to plant
When getting tomato seedlings started, you first need to identify what seeds you are going to plant. My favorite variety of tomato paste plants to plant as seedlings are the large sauce tomatoes like Big Mama or Super Sauce. You also can’t go wrong with classic heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine, Mister Stripey, Cheroke Purple, or Kellogg’s Breakfast. These are all beautiful tomato plants that can be pretty expensive and very difficult to find. Trust me, there isn’t much better you can put into your mouth than a vine ripened heirloom tomato.
2. Figure out when the seeds need to start
Start your tomato seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before you want to plant them outside. The best way to figure out what date to start is to use the planting calendar from Farmer’s Almanac what the last frost date is in your area and then use a calendar to count back 6-8 weeks. To be completely safe you may want to go back another week from the last average frost date.
If you plan on using wall of waters to insulate your plants, you can plant up to two weeks earlier. If you don’t know what a wall of water is a fantastic invention where plastic tubing filled with water is tied together in a teepee shape to surround and protect a plant from the cold. This works because the wall of water will absorb heat into the water that allows the plant to stay warmer at night. I like to use water plant protectors a few weeks after the last frost or until the lows are above 50 degrees F to allow the plants to grow just a little faster.
3. Buy the shelving
It is important that you have a place to hold the seed containers as well as a place to put the lights overhead. My favorite type of setup is with moveable shelving. I personally set up one shelf at 6″ above where the seeds are started, and another at about 8-10″. This gives me some flexibility to get the light up close when the seeds are started and move it back a bit when the plants get a little taller.
4. Buy the lighting
This is one of the more underrated parts of your setup. I strongly recommend buying grow lights that shine a natural range of light, or in other words a full spectrum of light. I like to buy two 4 foot bulbs that together are about 6″ wide. You can buy regular shop lights, but your plants will not end up as strong or healthy as they will with true grow lights with a full spectrum of light range.
5. Buy the soil
There are two different options that I have done well with. I like the seed pellets that expand into place, but my favorite setup is to buy potting soil and just fill the container with it. This soil is hard to wet out, and you have to apply water a little a time in order to get it stay moist. It works well and there is a reason that this is what most people use for indoor plants.
6. Buy the trays
The best seedling tray setups have 3 different items included:
- Transparent cover over the tray
- Plastic under tray that holds the water that seeps through the seed trays
- Plastic seed holding trays
7. Plant the seeds
Planting the seeds is done in 4 steps
- Use a pencil eraser or finger to create an indent in the dirt
- Place 2-3 seeds in the hole
- Cover the seeds with a little soil
- Water the tops of the soil with a little water, and place more water in a tray underneath so soil can absorb water from below.
8. Arrange lights and schedule
I like to arrange the lights so they sit on a metal mesh shelf above the seedlings. The desired distance can also be achieved by holding the lights from a shelf with some chain or another attachment. For my 60w LED grow lights, I placed the lights about 6″ to start above the seedlings. I adjusted it higher as the plants grew. This is a definitely an advantage of a flexible shelving system. You can also adjust the height of the light by adjusting the chains or whatever is holding the light. If you are planting multiple varieties of seeds, make sure to label the rows so you can keep track of which seeds are in which row.
9. Let the plants grow
Let the plants grow for a week or two until they are 4 or so inches high. Make sure that the plants are watered daily. I prefer if you have a plastic pan to hold water so I can water the plants from the bottom up. Simply pour water in the bottom of the tray and the plants will absorb the water.
10. Transplant the seedlings
At some point your seedlings will start to get too big for their initial location. After a few weeks I normally transplant my best looking and largest seedlings into a larger container. With some of the bigger seedlings I do this twice before planting them in the garden. When planting tomatoes, I like to angle the roots so that the a portion of the stem gets placed in the dirt. The roots will then grow down from the stem that was placed in the dirt to create a larger root base.
11. Get the plants used to sunlight
It is important to harden plants by slowly acclimating them to regular sunlight so they don’t get scorched by the sun’s strong rays. You can let the plants go outside if your weather is above 50 degrees. Make sure that if you bring the plants outside that you slowly warm them up to full sunlight. Typically I will start with 1 hour, then 2 hours the next day, and 4 hours the third day. After that you can let you plants stay outside for 8 hours.
Make sure the plants always have enough water. I typically will leave excess water at the bottom of the plastic containers so that the water can be absorbed into the planting material throughout the day. Warning: Not following any of these recommendations can ruin all of your hard work. It is critical that your plants have at least a few days in regular sun before planting.
12. Plant the seedlings in the garden
Take your hardened plant seedling and plant into the garden. I like to plant earlier in the morning on warm days to make sure the plant gets a little extra time to acclimate to the soil. Tomatoes like to be planted next to an herb garden or pepper plants, but don’t plant tomatoes near corn or green beans (they are enemy plants).
13. Enjoy the spoils
Growing a vegetable garden is a lot of work, but there is so much satisfaction that can be gained, not to mention that everything tastes so much better. There are so many great tasting things you can make out of tomatoes like sauce, tomato juice, salsa, or you can dehydrate tomatoes to use later. It is definitely worth the work to grow your own tomatoes from seeds!