In the Garden:
New England
January, 2013
Regional Report

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You have a wide choice of tomato varieties, including many heirlooms, when you grow your own tomato plants from seed.

Grow Your Own Tomatoes from Seed

American gardeners have a love affair with tomatoes! More people grow tomatoes in their home gardens than any other vegetable. And it's understandable, because no veggie tastes more delectable when picked fully ripe from a homegrown vine -- and more like cardboard when picked half ripe and shipped many miles to a supermarket shelf.

Tomato seedlings are readily available at many garden stores and greenhouses in spring, and they make planting your tomato patch quick and easy. But the selection of varieties of these purchased plants is often limited. If you're interested in trying out some unusual varieties, perhaps some of the heirloom ones with a flavor that everyone raves about, then starting your own plants from seed expands your possibilities and isn't difficult. Or if late blight has been a problem in your garden, you can grow some of the new resistant varieties like 'Defiant PhR' and 'Jasper'. Here are some tips to help you grow the best plants from seed.

  • Invest in a fluorescent light fixture to provide young plants with plenty of light. A shop fixture with two cool-white bulbs is sufficient and not terribly expensive.

  • Start your seedlings about 6 to 8 weeks before the date when it's safe to set them outside -- when all danger of frost is past and the soil is warm. Sow seeds in individual cells of a cell pack, 2 seeds per cell, placing seeds 1/4 inch deep. Use a heat mat to speed germination.

  • Once seeds sprout, put them under lights hung just a couple of inches above the young plants. Keep lights on 14-16 hours a day; using an automatic timer makes this easy.

  • When seedlings develop their first set of true leaves (the second pair, with serrated edges), cut off the weaker seedling at the soil line with a small pair of scissors.

  • When the leaves of the seedlings touch, transplant them into 4-inch pots. Fertilize growing plants weekly with a dilute solution of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Gently brush your hand over the tops of the seedlings a couple of times a day to produce sturdy stems.

  • Seven to ten days before outdoor planting time, begin to "harden off" seedlings to prepare them for life in the great outdoors. Start by setting them outside in a lightly shaded spot for an hour or two. Gradually increase the length of time spent outside and the amount of sun plants get so that they'll be adapted to outdoor conditions before they go into the ground.

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