I think the best part of summer is harvesting the first tomato.
Anticipation builds as the tomatoes go from green to pink to full-blown red. It’s a game of patience as we wait for just the right moment to pluck it from the vine and take a bite.
Then, as the warm tomato juice dribbles down our chin, we get this overwhelming feeling that all is right in the world. The heat, humidity, and bugs are suddenly forgotten as we savor the distinct flavor of a vine-ripened, fresh from the garden tomato. To say it’s a special moment in the garden is really an understatement.
To achieve this nirvana though, you must first start with a tomato plant. Soon, the box stores and nurseries will be bombarded with several varieties to choose from. But, if you want to grow your own and try different varieties (and there are hundreds), starting tomatoes from seed is super easy and very rewarding.
I am excited this year to be a part of a trial for a couple of new dwarf tomato plants. This is a project for Craig LeHoullier -also known as the NC Tomatoman. He is also the author of Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales . Mr. Le Houllier has been growing and researching tomatoes for almost four decades. The dwarf tomato idea came from customers that kept asking for tomatoes that were smaller in height and could be grown in containers on their decks and patios. He found it very hard to find a good open pollinated dwarf variety and, with the help of an Australian gardener friend, they embarked on the journey to change this. Needless to say, I am very excited to be apart of this project and the seeds he gave me are hopefully on their way to becoming a new, well-loved variety.
For those that would rather watch a video, the quick how-to can be found here. Otherwise, continue scrolling for more detailed instruction.
To start tomatoes from seed, you first need some containers, potting soil, and lights or a sunny window. Since I have an enormous amount of plants I start each year and several containers of flowers here and there, I buy this growing mix by the a bale from our feed store.
To this I add extra vermiculite and perlite to help with drainage. I don’t have specific amounts to tell you since I don’t mix the whole bale at one time.
Most smaller bags of potting or seed starting mix from box stores will be already mixed and ready to go. The key is to use a good mix from the start. Don’t skimp here! Stay away from the fifty pound bags for $.99. Those deals bring you nothing but heartache and no plants. I speak from experience.
When I’m ready to plant, I mix everything together in an old wheelbarrow. For smaller amounts, a bucket works just fine. I add water slowly to the mix until everything is slightly moist.
As far as containers go, I use plastic, nursery pots that I purchased and can be reused. Yogurt containers, plastic or styrofoam cups, and newspaper pots will work as long as there are a one or two small holes for drainage. I’ve seen where people use egg shells or egg cartons but, in my opinion, these are really too shallow and tend to dry out very quickly. Seeds need to be kept moist in order to germinate.
Fill your containers about 3/4 full of moist potting mix and place one or two seeds in each container. For these four-inch pots, I sprinkled several seeds. I do this at the beginning of seed starting season to save time and space. Sometimes, seeds don’t sprout and I haven’t wasted a lot of space under the lights for nothing. Then, later, when they sprout and get bigger, I will transplant to different containers. If you are growing for yourself, just one or two seeds per container is good.
Top off the container with a light layer of mix and gently water.
I place all of my pots in a tray so I can water from the bottom. I also use a heat mat to speed up germination. These mats can be ordered from garden supply companies and recently I saw one at our local Lowes. I’ve also heard of people using old heating pads or electric blankets but personally I have not tried those.
The next consideration is light. I have a little greenhouse now but, before then, I used my dining room table with grow lights. A south, sunny window or room that gets lots of sun will work too but, to get seeds off to the right start, they really need about 14-16 hours of light.
And probably one of the most important factor to remember if you save seed is labeling. If you remember nothing else, remember this: all tomato seeds look alike.
And, if you forget that, remember this: all tomato plants look alike.
And if you forget that, remember this: label, label, LABEL. I make up my labels ahead of time and put them in the container immediately after I plant them. I also make labels for the garden when I plant there as well. For the most part, the actual tomato will tell me what they are, but some varieties look very similar. Being a seed saver and seed seller, remembering what you plant is kind of important.
Many tomatoes are hybrids. To create a hybrid, plant breeders cross-pollinate two tomato varieties to create a new tomato. Hybrid tomatoes have great flavor too but will not grow true to seed. So if you find a great tasting tomato that’s a hybrid, be advised that those seeds need to be bought each year.
Some of my personal preferences are the open pollinated varieties such as Cherokee Purple (my favorite for sandwiches), Mexico Midget (my favorite for salads and eating straight from the garden), Beefsteak (my husbands favorite for a sandwich), and Amish Paste which is a good canning tomato.
What is your favorite tomato?