ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Q: I really want to grow several tomatoes from scratch this year. How soon should I start the seed and is it easy to grow tomatoes from seed? — R.G., South Valley
A: If you have lots of patience, proper equipment and a warm sunny spot — even in the nighttime hours — then, yes, you can grow your own globes of delight easily. For the patience part, look at the type of tomato you are choosing to grow. All of the packaging will give you days to germination and, in theory, days to maturity. Having that information, you’ll need a calendar to keep notes. Let’s say the tomato you pick says it’ll germinate in seven to 10 days. Then you’ll want to advance the baby plants twice, maybe three times into larger containers before you will set them in the garden. Each larger container will house the babies for upwards of two weeks. So let’s count: three weeks for germination and initial growing, then four weeks for two sets of larger pots. That’s seven weeks. Being that this is the first full week of March, the count will be the last weekend in April when these babies will be big enough to start their outdoor life. Now remember, our last average frost date here in the metro area is April 17. So you’d still want to be ready to offer protection at the drop of a hat! With that, you could start this weekend, just remember to be patient.
As for equipment, here’s the very basic list. First is peat or plastic starter pots in three graduating sizes. The 2 1/2-inch peat pots, or four- to six-pack “cells” are the first stage. Then you’ll want 4- to 6-inch pots and, finally, gallon sized pots for the last move. You’ll want “seed-starting soil.” That is a “soil-less” mix of perlite and vermiculite so your germinating seeds aren’t exposed to any soil-borne fungi or bacteria during the first stage. Get some true potting soil to mix with the seeding soil the next moves; just don’t start the seed in true soil. You’ll want a tray or plenty of saucers to set your starts on, too. If you have a sunny spot but it gets chilly in the evening consider heat cables, especially made for nursery exposure to set the trays on. They are an investment but, with proper care, they’ll last for years. Then, don’t forget the seed!
Next, set up your nursery. Fill your first-stage pots with the seed-starting soil, place on the trays and wet them completely. Poke a hole into each pot or cell with a pencil and set two, better three, seeds in each pot. Push the soil gently back around the seed but don’t tamp them down too much. Keep the containers damp and warm and within seven to 10 days you should have babies. Now’s when you start to use the calendar. Two weeks after the babies are up, move them to the next size pot. Fill these pots with a two parts seed soil mixed with one part true potting soil. You can even separate the babies if they have all popped up and have even more plants! Then, on schedule, make the final move to the largest pots containing all potting soil. If the weather is pleasant during the day take your treasures outdoors, set them in a protected spot and let them start to toughen up! Just remember to keep them adequately watered and safe at night. When you are ready to plant out in the garden be sure to set them deeper so they’ll root all along the stem making for a sturdier plant.
It isn’t hard to grow tomatoes from seed, just a bit of a commitment but well worth the effort, especially if you’re ready to start Digging In!
Need tips on growing your garden? Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send your garden-related questions to Digging In, Rio Rancho/West Side Journal, P.O.
— This article appeared on page 09 of the Albuquerque Journal