Starting tomatoes too early

You know what they say about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? There are several horticultural equivalents to that (one of them frequently masquerades as “intensive gardening” but really isn’t) and the one I fell for again this year was starting my tomatoes a bit too early.

When I was a younger gardener, and just embarking on seed-starting, I jumped the gun and put tomato seeds in pots as early as mid-February. This resulted in enormous plants long before it was safe to even take the seedlings outdoors, let alone plant them in the ground. I’ve since settled on mid-to-late March as the best starting time – but something about my schedule this year made me decide that March 11 was a good date, and those few days (plus some really vigorous seedlings) make a difference.

I should have put a ruler into the photo for context, but that big one in the back is 11 inches tall. Good thing my lights are adjustable. I have cold frames for hardening off (after this cold snap is over – make sure your vulnerable plants are protected tonight and tomorrow!) but considering how this year’s going, I’m not planning to put plants in the ground until after Mother’s Day.

Really I should learn to be like Bob and start my plants in late April, but I just can’t help wanting to have those green monsters cheering up the house in early spring/late winter/whatever it is. Of course, after going out of my way to acquire seeds for Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes, I forgot to start them with all the others, so they went in the first week of April, and will be much more reasonable in size when planting time comes around. I’m sure they will catch up just fine.

Other varieties I’m growing this year (speaking of eyes being bigger than gardens, even though I have two gardens to plant in): Abruzzo, Amish Paste, Brandywine Sudduth’s Strain, Gypsy, Indigo Apple, Isis Candy Cherry, Juliet, Orange Icicle, Riesentraube, and Striped Roman. Some are old favorites, some are from donated seeds, and some I just really wanted to try.

By the way, the plant labels are made from plastic sticks out of a Edible Arrangements gift basket, with orange duct tape to write on. I like recycling.

I’ve got lots of other cheerful seedlings taking up space on my shelves, including peppers:

which are doing pretty well, though still suffering an aphid infestation. This is after I removed each seedling from its soilless mix and rinsed it carefully under running water before transplanting, after having sprayed with soapy water and crushed many aphids on baby leaves and stems with my gentle fingers. I’m still crushing and spraying, and keeping the population limited, because it’ll be a while before these plants can go outside. You know how people complain about ladybugs getting into their house in the winter? Where are mine, I ask? Though speaking of home-invader insects, I found a brown marmorated stink bug on one of the pepper seedlings the other day. Grr.

How are all of your seed-starting experiments going?

13 Comments on “Starting tomatoes too early

  1. Oh, I wish I had that problem! I started Brand Boy and Abraham Lincoln on February 9 and the tallest of them is now 4″. They are under fluorescent lights 16 hours a day and have a heat mat, but the basement is pretty chilly, so that might be the limitation.


  2. Well, I have fertilized mine on a regular basis, which may not have been a good idea either. 🙂 Make sure your heat mat is not TOO hot – they are of great use for germination but may be warming the soil beyond ideal conditions for growth. Ideal soil temperature for seedlings is about 70F, but you don't want to let them get cold either.


  3. I'm a firm believer in Bob's timing. Started my tomatoes earlier this week. Given the weather, I may have started them too early, but we'll see. I figure we are at least two, possible three weeks in normal spring weather. In fact, I haven't even planted my potatoes and the early broccoli and cauliflower will probably button head. Glad I started some additional broccoli and cauliflower March 1, which will be ready to go in the ground this weekend.


  4. I wonder, Larry, if maybe they don't need to go into a south-facing window rather than in the basement. When I started mine in the east-facing kitchen window under full-spectrum lights that stayed about an inch off their tops as they grew, I could still see how the plants bent toward the sunlight.


  5. Though I was (by my lights) late this year, I usually start my tomatoes too early (early March) and repot them at least once before I set them in the ground in late April/early May depending on weather. I often use Walls o' Water to warm the ground surrounding where they will go in, and then leave them to protect the plants until they are peering out of the tops (wh makes getting the W's o' W off a bit tricky, but oh well). The cherry tomato plants always seem to me to be a little tougher than the slicers, so they are the ones I put in first, usually about a week or even two before the slicers and the all-important canners/paste tomatoes.


  6. I'm just not sure what to think about timing this year! Yup, my potatoes haven't gone in either, and I suspect the cauliflower will be a loss, but mostly I grow greens in the spring which should at least produce something. If it doesn't hit the 90s next week. 🙂


  7. Don't worry about starting too early, just trim off all the lower leaves (keep 5-7 leaves at the top) and either transplant deeply OR in a trench to bury most of the “spindly” main stem. The hairs on the stem become additional roots which suck up more nutrients and anchor the plant.


  8. Kim, that's great advice for planting tomatoes out in the ground, though difficult to follow for transplanting them into pots that have to stay under lights in April.


  9. As to the stick and duct tape plant label, I've used strips cut off Tyvek envelopes stapled to the flat end of chopsticks that can even make it through a season in the garden if written with a Sharpie. I'm trying my tomatoes in eggshells this year. I saw it somewhere as an easy way to start them in what you have (washed out eggshell halves in the carton) with a little boost of calcium. You just crack the shell a bit before you place the whole thing in the ground.


  10. Great recycling examples. The eggshell thing ought to work as long as you plant the seedlings out fairly small – there wouldn't be room for a big root system.


  11. I'm not normally early enough for them to get too big! I just haven't been able to get myself together early enough.


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