Growing Tomatoes Successfully is a little like raising children, they both need nourishment, a warm home environment, and tender loving care. Whether you want to grow several rows of heirloom tomatoes in a large vegetable garden in the country or just one cherry tomato plant in a pot on your sunny patio or balcony, the requirements for successfully growing tomatoes are the same. You will need seeds, containers, a good seed starting mix, water, plenty of light, warmth, and a little of your time. After a few months, the tomato plants you have lovingly cared for like little children should provide you with a bounty of tomatoes that you can enjoy throughout summer and into early fall.
Early each spring, I like to order my tomato seeds from one of the many online garden supply companies. They have hundreds of varieties of tomatoes that are not available as tomato transplants at my local garden center. I start my seeds indoors 8 weeks before I plan to plant them in my garden. In my area of New England, that means I start my seeds on the 1st of April and plant the tomatoes outdoors around the end of May when the threat of frost has passed. If I were to sow my tomato seeds directly in my garden in May, the tomatoes would take so long to grow that the first killing frost sometime in October would destroy the plants before I could get even one ripe tomato.
I plant the seeds in a light seed starting mix, water and cover the containers with kitchen plastic wrap. The seeds don’t need light to germinate but they do need warm soil so they need to be placed near a warm sunny window, on top of a refrigerator or special heating mats made for seed germination. This year I put them in a closet where the TV cable box provided the seeds with constant warmth. The majority of the seeds germinated in 5 days, much faster than in the past when I’ve placed them near a sunny window.
The seedlings need 12 to 16 hours of light so once I saw tiny green sprouts, the plastic wrap was removed and they went under a fluorescent shop light. The light needs to be adjusted as they grow, staying about 3 inches above the plants. If you grow your seedlings by a sunny window, be sure to rotate the pots daily so that the plants will grow straight.
When the tomato seedlings are 3 or 4 inches tall and have their second pair of leaves, they go out to my potting shed to continue to grow. The potting shed is heated because the young plants need to be kept at about 65 to 70 degrees until they are ready to go into the garden. The shed gets lots of natural light from north and south facing windows and a skylight in its roof but I still use a fluorescent light over the young plants.
Now that they are 4 inches tall, they are ready to be transplanted into 4 inch pots. After carefully removing the little plant from its original growing cell, I gently loosen the roots at the base and around the sides of the root ball with a thin bamboo skewer. This will allow the young plant to quickly adjust to its new pot. Since the tomato stem can develop roots, each seedling is replanted right up to the lowest set of leaves. I continue to use the light seed starting mix even when potting up to a 6 inch pot as it lets the roots spread easily compared to regular potting soil which is denser and more compact.
Even though you plant all your seeds at the same time, you will notice that each seedling may grow at a different rate and they will have to be transplanted according to how quickly they grow.
You might call me an over protective parent as my tomato plants have spent their short lives protected from the cold, winds and rain in the warm, sunny potting shed. Because of that, they won’t do well if they go straight into the garden without being “hardened off”.
About two weeks before I intend to plant the tomatoes in the garden, I carry the plants outdoors for a few hours a day for a week, setting them in a sunny but protected spot that doesn’t get too much wind. During the second week, I leave them outside for most of the day if the weather is nice. I put them back in the potting shed in the late afternoon and water them well before placing them back under the lights. At this stage, some people leave them out over night but I don’t. There is always the threat of an unexpected storm that could blow them over and break them or worse yet, critters that would love to munch on their tender young leaves. No, they overnight in the safety of the potting shed.
By slowing acclimating them to the outdoors, my tomato plants should then be able to withstand the hot sun and strong breezes once they are planted in the garden.
The soil in the garden has been tilled and amended with aged manure and peat moss. Now I’m just waiting for the days to pass until I can safely transplant the tomatoes one last time at the end of May into the sunny garden at our New Hampshire home. Hopefully, I’ll have a successful growing season without too many challenges from nature and have a bountiful crop of tomatoes.
I wish you the same because the rewards of growing your own tomatoes from seed or starter plants bought from your local garden center will be evident with your first taste of a freshly picked vine ripened tomato. It doesn’t matter if the first tomato picked goes into a BLT sandwich, is simply sliced and drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, or chopped and tossed with pasta, olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs, the flavor is outstanding.
Just remember that the secret to a great tomato is to grow it yourself and I hope my tips will help you grow tomatoes successfully.