TomatoPatch: T-day 2011, let the season begin!

Ready to plant tomato seeds!

Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Year’s and Christmas, and holidays between. And T-Day.

You haven’t heard about T-Day?

That’s the day I start my tomato seeds. This year it was Monday, April 24, but the date varies.

Why so late? Because I like tomato plants to be about eight inches high, sturdy, ready to blast off when the hot weather tells these tropical plants to grow, flower, and fruit. And I’ve learned over the years that it takes my plants four weeks, plus or minus a few days, to grow that tall in individual cups under fluorescent lights in our basement utility room.

Here’s how I do it:

Step 1, Getting Ready: I open the tailgate of my Tacoma pickup—the perfect height for this job—and gather the essentials: seed packets, sterile starting mix, watering bottle, cups, a Phillips screwdriver, trays, ballpoint pen/sheet of paper/clipboard, a marking pen, a sharp knife, and a tablespoon.

Step 2, Preparing Cups: I use wide-top, six-ounce yoghurt cups or small (a.k.a. “tall” at Starbucks) paper or plastic coffee cups. Why buy when you can recycle so easily and for free? I stack two or three cups together and with the Phillips screwdriver punch two drainage holes in the bottoms. Then I place the cups into the trays. I find it best if all the cups in each tray are the same height, which makes it easy to adjust the fluorescent lights under which they will be growing. I end up with 18 yoghurt cups in one tray, 15 coffee cups in the second, and 16 yoghurt cups plus two coffee cups in the third. I use the knife to cut the two coffee cups down to the height of the yoghurt cups.

Step 3, Adding the Mix: I use one of the yoghurt cups to measure starting mix into the cups. I fill each about three-quarters, shaking each cup to level the mix. I fill each cup over the open bag so spills fall into the bag, and I don’t have to clean up later. One eight dry-quart bag of mix is enough for at least 40 starting cups.

Step 4, Dropping the Seeds: I drop two seeds into each cup. That sounds simple, but first I have to figure out how many cups I want to start of each of the 10 tomato varieties I’m growing this year. I’m starting 51 cups, each of which ultimately will hold one plant. Wouldn’t four or five plants be enough for Ellen and me? Well, yes, if I weren’t a tomato freak who wants to grow both old favorites and new varieties—and have both plants and fruit to give away too.

Notes help keep things straight

Step 5, Making Notes: The pen, paper, and clipboard are essential. After I’ve decided how many cups of each I’m starting, I make notes as I add the seeds of each variety, including an abbreviation for each variety. “By-R,” for example, means “Brandywine Red.” The last note on my list—“5×2 Brandywine Red (By-R)”—means I’m starting five cups, 2 seeds each, of that variety. Why two seeds? That’s the minimum. Sometimes three drop in. Germination rates of tomato seeds are high. Johnny’s Selected Seeds packets say their rate is 80%. So two seeds should get me 1.6 plants on average, but in reality, both seeds in most cups will sprout.

Yes, that is a Sungold plant, not a Juliet

Step 6, Marking the Cups: Every time I finish dropping the seeds for a variety, I stop and make a note on the paper and then use the black felt-tip pen to write the abbreviation for that variety on the side of the cups holding that variety. There’s nothing worse than having several varieties of plants and not being able to identify them when it’s time to transplant them into your garden or give them to friends.

Step 7, Watering: After seeds are in their cups, I water them gently with a home-made plastic watering bottle—a water or soda bottle works well—that has a small hole in its cap. I make the hole by heating the tip of an awl on our electric stove and pressing it through the plastic cap. I gently squeeze the bottle to regulate the water flow just the way I want it. This year I used Miracle-Gro Seed Starting Mix, which is slightly moist to the touch, so I didn’t have to add much water—just enough to help the seeds sprout. Some mixes are dry and must be wetted down first—a messy pain in the bucket to my way of thinking.

Small hole in bottle cap

Step 8, Covering Seeds: I use the tablespoon to cover the seeds with starting mix. Trial and error led me to the tablespoon. A rounded spoonful of mix covers the seeds in each cup “just right,” about a quarter of an inch.

Step 9, Watering 2: After the seeds are covered with mix, I gently water each cup again. The drainage holes in the bottom of the cups let me know when I’ve watered more than enough. I’ll check the cups daily until the seeds sprout and give them a little more water if the top of the mix looks too dry. When it dries, the color of the mix turns to light brown from dark brown.

Step 10, To the Utility Room: At first opportunity I move the trays of cups to our utility room, where I place them on a growing stand that friends recycled to me. The temperature there is about 73, just a degree or two below optimum temperature for tomato seeds to sprout. I’ll check the cups daily, and when the seeds sprout in five to seven days, I’ll turn on the lights.

T-Day: I’ve planted my tomato seeds. From time to time I’ll post about what’s happening in my TomatoPatch.

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