Recycle cups and milk cartons for starting seeds.
By Debbie Roland and Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardeners
If you are growing your tomatoes from seed, now is the time to start seeds indoors. Most stores sell transplants beginning about March 1. In some parts of the country that should be fine but in West Texas our plants need to have fruit set by the time hot weather sets in so we need to begin very early. Our last frost date is now March 30.
When you look at the back of the tomato seed packet, it states that you should start seeds indoors eight weeks prior to the last frost. Counting back from our freeze date, our last planting date is February 2. Most long-time gardeners in our area have their seeds in the soil the first week of January. While you have the packet handy, read the entire thing. You may be surprised - all the information you need is right there.
If the “sell by” date is 2021 (or another older date) don’t be deterred from using them. I just read that scientists have germinated a 32,000-year-old seed so you will probably be just fine. The germination rate may be lower, but some may still be viable.
The seeds will germinate when the soil temperature stays between 70 and 80 degrees. So how do you get your seeds started and give them the best possible outcome?
Choose a container with a depth of at least 3” with holes in the bottom. This is a good time to recycle those milk cartons or other containers you have on hand. These should be placed in a tray so there is no damage to your floor or countertop.
Germinating mixes (potting soil is one) are great since they do not need compost or fertilizer added. Never use soil mixes that have been previously used since they could contain diseases. Tomatoes do not need fertilizer to germinate since the seed contains its own nutrients. Backyard soil is too compact and should not be used for the germination of tomato seeds. It can also contain diseases and weed seeds.
I always wet my potting soil before I plant anything in it. Simply pour it into a bucket, add water (I use warm water which seems to germinate more quickly) and mix until it is saturated. Then grab a handful, wring it out like a sponge and put it in your container. This will prevent the problem of having a medium that never seems to get wet except on the surface.
Next, plant your seed to the depth stated on the packet (usually ¼”). I plant several seeds in each container just in case one doesn’t come up. If you get two let it grow several weeks and then pick your favorite. Pull the other one. I know it will be hard, a little like tossing one of your kids, but you will thank me later when that tomato plant is 6’ tall and living happily in your garden. Water again and let drain. Check your containers daily to see if you need to water. The soil should be kept moist. In about a week you should see sprouts.
Transplant to your garden when danger of frost is passed. As we all know, there is really no way to predict that accurately. I make sure that I have a way to quickly cover them if a late freeze suddenly looms for the night.
If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.
Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.
Thin seedlings to one in each container.
Transplant seedlings to outdoors when threat of frost is over.