Planting Tomato Seeds
These tomato growing tips are for inexpensive ways to stretch your gardening budget. After all, part of the reason for gardening is so you pay less for vine-ripe tomatoes! Not to mention the deliciousness of homegrown tomatoes. 😀
There’s a book out on the $64 tomato, where a gardener says that after he tallied up all his costs associated with his tomato plants, and divided it among the tomatoes harvested, it came to something like $64 a tomato.
No, it doesn’t cost that much! I haven’t read the book, and I’m sure part is tongue-in-cheek. But it is true that if you don’t watch it, you, too can be spending a whole lot more than you intended.
Tip #1: Household Items
Some of the household items I like using include used (washed) pantyhose; cut them in wide strips and you can use them for tying up the tomatoes to their stakes.
Small 3-ounce Dixie cups are fantastic for germinating tomato seeds and really inexpensive (especially if you get the store brands).
Gallon containers like plastic milk jugs and tea jugs are great for mixing up fish and seaweed emulsion fertilizer drenches. Just remember to label the containers with their new ingredients! Two liter bottles are fine as well.
All kinds of household plastic and waxed paper containers can be used for temporary potting, before setting out in the garden. Just make sure to punch holes for drainage.
Tips For Fertilizers and Soil Amendments
Most fertilizers have a high nitrogen component, which is not what you want for tomato fruits! And most fertilizer instructions want you to apply them far too often. If you have enriched your garden soil with compost or composted manure, you will need far less fertilizer. I generally apply my fertilizer at half the strength suggested on the label instructions with good results.
If you have the room, set up a compost pile. depending on your climate it can take anywhere from a month to a year for finished compost, but your tomatoes will thank you. And since compost is made from food scraps you’d normally throw away, it’s a great way to recycle.
If you live in an area with cows or horses, see if you can arrange to cart away some of the manure; normally you can get your manure free this way — put it in your compost pile to make it even richer.
OK, what if you don’t have room for a compost pile (or you just don’t want one). Go to your local garden center and find a fertilizer which can be diluted before applying to the plants. One small box of Miracle Gro is pretty inexpensive (I like Miracle Gro for Roses) and lasts quite awhile.
Thoughts on Garden Equipment
If you have a small garden (100 square feet or less), try renting a tiller for a day or two instead of buying one. If, however, you have a larger garden, buying your own tiller may make sense for the long run.
A shovel, spade, hoe and pitchfork are really all the hand tools you need. The pitchfork is optional, and mainly used if you have a compost pile.
You can make your own tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire; useful if you have a lot of tomatoes that need staking as they do seem to last forever. Rebar makes for good tomato stakes, if you have easy access to it. But if you have only a couple-three plants, you can use commercial tomato towers and cages and save yourself the trouble. I’ve found that most commercial cages/towers last quite a few years and tend to be easier to store.
Don’t have a lot of room for a garden? I’ve found the 5-gallon grow bags are great for medium-sized indeterminate tomato plants and are pretty inexpensive. You can go as small as 3-gallon for smaller and determinate tomatoes, and 10-gallon for the larger indeterminates.
Plants Versus Seeds
Hands down, it’s cheaper to plant seeds than buy tomato plants. Some of the best-producing tomato varieties may not be available as plants in your area. For $3, you can grow 20 to 40 plants from seeds…or you can buy one plant.
Keep in mind that if you store them in a cool, dry place, your tomato seeds will be good for several years. So if you don’t plant the whole pack this year, you automatically have seeds available for next (and the next…)!
Now it’s true that if you plant seeds you need to get some seed-starting soil; you don’t want to use anything from the garden, as it will have bacteria that may cause problems. But you’ll use very little per seed; a small 4-quart bag can be used for many, many dozens of seeds. Around here, the big-box garden centers (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.) carries the small bag for between $4 and $5.
You will also need a germination tray or two, but they are also inexpensive and last year after year. I had one windowsill mini-greenhouse that finally bit the dust…after 10 years.
Final Tomato Growing Tips
You really don’t need to spend a fortune to grow your tomatoes; household items will suffice in many situations, and other more permanent items (shovels, cages, etc.) will last many years if you treat them properly.
Not all tomato varieties produce the same number of fruits. Cherry tomatoes are far and away the most prolific! In general, the larger the tomato fruit size, the fewer the tomatoes produced. The heart-shaped tomatoes as a group tend to produce the least. For a continuous crop of larger (i.e. not cherry) tomatoes, go for the indeterminate plants whose fruits average around 6 to 10 ounces.
So go ahead; grow your tomatoes! And may your homegrown tomatoes be abundant and delicious-tasting.
Saving tomato seeds isn’t terribly difficult, although it can get a wee bit on the aromatic side. Here are some tips on how to save tomato seeds.
Know Your Tomato Variety
The first thing is you need to know if the tomato variety you want to save the seeds from is a hybrid or open-pollinated.
A hybrid is a cross between two different tomato varieties. Seeds grown from the hybrid may or may not be like the plant from which they came. (Most likely they will be different.) Don’t save seeds from hybrids unless you want to be surprised!
If your tomato variety is open-pollinated (which includes heirlooms), then the plants you grow from the seeds you save will be just like the parent plant.
Saving Tomato Seeds
Here are the steps for saving tomato seeds.
- Pick the best examples of your ripe tomatoes (choose three or more tomatoes from each variety of the plants).
- Slice the tomatoes in half and squeeze the tomato juice and seeds into a small plastic container. Put only one tomato variety in each cup.
- Add a tablespoon of water.
- Label the container with the name of the tomato variety.
- Cover the cups loosely with plastic wrap and set them in a warm location (between 75 and 80 degrees is best). If it’s warm enough, you may want to set the cups outside because the next step can get, um, aromatic (smelly).
- Let the container set for at least three days; you will see white scum appearing on top of the liquid in the container. This is normal. And a bit strong-smelling. This is the fermentation process.
If the temperature is warm (around 80), let the container sit for another 2 or 3 days after the fermentation starts; if it’s been cooler, you may need 4 or 5 days. Then you’re ready to clean the tomato seeds.
Cleaning and Collecting the Seeds
Here’s how to clean out the containers and get the seeds. (Hint: do this outside if you can.)
- Grab a pail and either a garden hose with a pistol-grip sprayer or several small bottles of water.
- Add some water to the container with the seeds and swish it around some. The good seeds will fall to the bottom; bad seeds will float to the top.
- Dump out as much liquid as you can, along with the bad seeds, then add some more water and swish again. Dump out the excess water.
- Repeat until the water is clear, which means the seeds are clean.
- Grab a paper towel and dump the seeds onto it, to absorb any extra moisture, then transfer to a paper plate.
- Spread the seeds around on the paper plate so they aren’t piled up; they need to air dry. Label the paper plate with the tomato variety name.
- Move around the seeds once a day to make sure all sides are sufficiently dried. They should be good after two or three days, unless you have the paper plate with seeds in a humid location. If that’s the case, give it a few extra days.
- Store the seeds in a paper envelope, small plastic bag or a small container with a lid. Label your container!
Place the seeds in a cool, dry place and they should last several years (although they are best used within 2 to 3 years if possible). However, I have seeds over 10 years old that are germinating fine, even as I write this. Still, the sooner you use (or share) the seeds, the more likely they are to germinate and thrive.
In my previous post about germinating tomato seeds, I mentioned that I had planted quite a few seeds that were at least 10 years old. While I expected some of these seeds to germinate (I do have some rare seeds in my collection), I wasn’t expecting a high germination rate. At most, I was hoping 25%.
Wow, have I ever been surprised! For some of the varieties, the germination rate has been in the neighborhood of 75%. Brandywine is one of them; Yellow Cherry another. Then there are varieties in the 60% range, like Pineapple and White Bush. Of all the varieties I planted, only Big Rainbow has had a low germination rate. Then again, it might be that it’s been slower and more seedlings will start popping their heads above ground today or tomorrow.
I’m trying to decide if the Terracycle I sprayed on the soil on Sunday helped the germination, or at least hastened it. Sunday hadn’t shown much action with the seeds, but Monday a whole bunch showed up. Tuesday a whole lot more. And even today I see some more new seedlings starting through the soil.
The next batch of seeds, I’ll remember to spray the Terracycle sooner (my fault, my plant sprayer had disappeared and I had to go get a new one…and was a bit slow about it). But now I have a new sprayer.
There’s a Problem, Though…
I have a problem now, but it’s a good one to have. I planted way more seeds than I had needed, because I thought the germination rate would be really low. Yikes! I now have way more tomato plants than I have containers, by a large margin. Time to gift my family and friends with some seedlings, or maybe take them to a farmer’s market to sell, in another month or so (after the second transplant).
So, don’t throw out those old seeds without giving them a try, and keep in mind that they may take somewhat longer to germinate than newer seeds. Remember, when germinating, tomato seeds like warmth and humidity.
I’ll give another update next week on how the seedlings are faring.
Germinating tomato seeds, or more specifically growing tomatoes from seeds, really isn’t that difficult. Using seeds, you can grow a whole lot more varieties than what you find in your local garden shop.
If you’re adventurous, why not try growing a new variety (or varieties) of tomatoes from seeds? Maybe some heirloom tomatoes, while you’re at it?
Tomato Seed Germination Rates
Before I get into the technical aspects of planting, I want to discuss germination rates for tomato seeds. It’s quite rare for all the seeds you plant to germinate, or once germinated, to thrive. While I’m glad when it happens, I don’t expect it. In my experience, 75% to 80% of my seeds in any given packet germinate and thrive. So, I normally plant 25% more than I think I will need of a particular variety. If everything germinates and thrives, I can give away or sell the extras.
A lot of things affect the tomato seed germination rate. For one, how old are the seeds? Whether you buy them online (which is what I do mostly) or pick up the seeds in a garden center, you don’t know how long those tomato seeds have been sitting around. The older the seeds, the lower the germination rate.
(That being said, I have seeds 10 or more years old that still germinate…just slower and with a lower percentage.)
Another issue is how have the seeds been stored? Two things can hurt seeds; too much humidity and…not enough humidity! Too much, and the seeds want to sprout, or else they can mold. Too little and they can dry out and not germinate at all.
How Long Does It Take for Germination?
There isn’t really a set time for tomatoes, as different varieties germinate at different times. The fastest I’ve ever had is 3 days; the slowest 12 days. In general, most germinate in 5 to 7 days. I generally wait 2 weeks before I consider a set of tomato seeds a lost cause for germinating.
Right now, I have SuperSweet 100, Brandywine and White Bush sprouting. SuperSweet 100 raised it’s head after 4 days and at 7 days (which is today), I did the first transplant to a slightly larger container. I had a 75% germination rate with a fairly new packet of seeds. (I planted 4 seeds and 3 germinated.)
White Bush is the next in line, sprouting yesterday (6 days). Brandywine is just starting to poke its head above ground today (7 days). My germination rate is really low with these two, because I am using 10-year-old seeds. (I just did plant some newer Brandywine seeds today for comparison.)
I have about 3 other varieties that haven’t sprouted yet, but once again, these are all 10-year-old seeds. What can I say, I am curious as to how they grow and thrive! Some of my 10-year-old seeds are pretty rare, and I want to try them again.
(Read my update on how well the 10-year old seeds germinated, 10 days out – I was amazed!)
Germinating Tomato Seeds – Tips
First, make sure that you have a nice, warm place for your seeds to germinate. I use a windowsill greenhouse in a south-facing window; some people use the top of their refrigerator. Others use a seed heat mat or a grow light. A soil temperature of around 80 degrees is ideal for tomato seed germination.
The “soil” I’ve had most luck with is a seed starting mix. It’s lighter than a regular potting mix, so it’s easier for the plants to poke their heads above ground. The soil needs to be moist but not wet.
I tend to plant my seeds rather shallow, 1/4 inch or less. Keep the humidity high while you’re waiting for the seeds to germinate. This is where I like the mini greenhouses (windowsill and table-top, because they have a cover that keeps the seeds and soil nice and moist. Not to mention they take up very little space.
I have used jiffy pots and compressed peat disks, with fairly good results. The main reason I don’t generally use them these days is because I plant 5 to 10 different varieties at a time, and I need to label my pots with the variety name. But if you just plan on growing one to three varieties, then the jiffy pots and compressed peat disks work fine.
Once your seeds have sprouted, they need light — from sunlight or a grow light. If you live in a chilly climate, grow lights might be your best bet. Where I live (South Florida), a windowsill works fine just about any time of year.
I hope all these tips have helped, and that you have much success in germinating tomato seeds!
Today was a day for tending to my tomatoes. Between planting tomato seeds, re-potting seedlings and transferring larger seedlings to the garden, it’s been busy. But a fun kind of busy, because the weather was gorgeous and it was nice being out in the fresh air and sunshine.
Tomato Varieties – Re-Potted
OK, first was transplanting some small tomato plants up. These were seeds I planted about 3 weeks ago, and they were growing very strongly. These were Supersweet 100, a hybrid indeterminate red cherry tomato. Since I had 3 Supersweet 100 plants, I am running an experiment. One I planted into its final container outside with the rest of the tomato plants. Another I planted up to the next container size and left outside in a location with bright indirect light. The final I planted to the next container size up, and I am keeping it inside, on a south-facing windowsill.
My next plant was a surprise. Some of my 10-year old seeds for White Bush sprouted and one of the seedlings was going for the sky! White Bush is, I believe, a determinate with ivory-colored skin and flesh; I didn’t save a whole lot of information on it so I am not sure (oops). It’s an open-pollinated tomato. So, I planted the strong one by itself the next container side up, and thinned the remaining to the two strongest and placed then together in the next container size up.
Then there was Yellow Cherry, another of the 10-year-old seeds. It’s an open-pollinated indeterminate yellow cherry tomato (pretty obvious from the name), but seems like it will be a smaller plant than Supersweet 100. I thinned the seedlings to the three strongest and planted them up to the next container size.
Planting Tomato Seeds – The Varieties
I also planted more tomato seeds today. Two were for heirlooms, and one for a hybrid I’ve been wanting to try.
The first heirloom seeds planted were Kellogg’s Breakfast, an indeterminate beefsteak tomato with orange skin and flesh. It’s a late season variety, so I don’t expect to be eating any of these tomatoes until sometime in May or June. But I sure am looking forward to them!
The next was the heirloom seeds for the tomato variety called Pineapple. These are the seeds I have planted for The Great Tomato Experiment, so it’s now officially underway! Pineapple is a personal favorite, with the flesh being sweet and delicious. Pineapple is a yellow tomato with red stripes on the skin and red marbling of the flesh.
My final tomato variety I planted seeds for today was Tomatoberry. It’s an indeterminate hybrid tomato whose fruit is roughly the shape and size of a large strawberry. A mid-season tomato variety, I expect to be nibbling on the first ripe fruits in late April. Tomatoberry is supposed to be be really sweet and juicy; I guess I will find out in a few months!
Plants I’m Still Waiting On
Brandywine is taking its time at the moment; lots of seeds germinated (to my surprise) from the 10-year-old seeds. The seedlings are still too tiny to re-pot though. The same goes for Big Rainbow. Both will likely be plenty big next week to re-pot to the next size container.
I had planted some Juliet seeds last week, and when I looked this morning, nary a sprout. I went about my morning chores, then all my garden work. When I came back in a few hours later, I was surprised to see 4 seedlings! Juliet is a grape-shaped cherry tomato, which I do so love to plant, seeing as they are practically foolproof to grow.
Before I leave for the day, here’s a photo of one of my first tomatoes in the garden, on the plant called Celebrity. The tomato is teeny-tiny at the moment, and hopefully it will be joined by others in the very near future.
That’s all for today; see you again tomorrow!