Sunday, March 30, 2014

Seeding Tomatoes

Over the past month I've been fortunate to meet many people who have taken the workshops that I have been teaching either here at my small farm or at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington.
It's been fun, and I hope it has been for you too.
The one thing I have noticed over the years of growing is that many of the "rules" I've read about gardening I have discovered just don't ring true for me. As in many other parts of our lives, absolutes are not always true, maybe because in gardening as in life, there are so many variables.
Lots of people are scared of seed and think they can't grow from seed. Some of these people have children and have managed to grow them successfully, so growing vegetables from seed should be no big deal at all.

But it is for them.
Vegetable seeds, like children are meant to grow and have a a biological destiny to reproduce themselves and produce seed so their legacy continues. Like us to some degree.
Many seeds do just that very successfully without any interference whatsoever from us. We have all seen tomatoes and squash growing out of the compost and fruiting in time or weeds that have no problem at all sprouting after they are dispersed. Likely exactly where you don't want them.
Right now is the ideal time to think about seeding tomatoes in our part of the world, Southern Ontario, Canada.
I know without much doubt that there will be a risk of frost right up until May 24th and I want to be planting my tomatoes into a warm soil when the conditions are ideal. Again in the ideal world (which I generally tell people isn't my world) I want to plant my tomatoes outside when they are between 6 and 8 weeks old.
Snow-are you kidding?

This winter has been particularly harsh and I think it is a good time to watch what Mother Nature has in store for us. I honestly didn't expect to wake up to a blanket of snow on the ground today, March 30, when it is supposed to be spring. So if the cool temperatures continue, I will let the reality of the weather dictate my actions, rather than the date on the calendar. Hence, if it's still cool on May 24, those warm weather crops will stay protected and safe.
Tomato seeds remain viable for a good number of years, so it isn't imperative to start with fresh every year, and discard the old seed. Check to see if your seed is viable by placing a sample of the seed between 2 pieces of dampened paper towel that are put in a plastic bag and the bag placed in a warm environment.. Check the seed daily to see if any has sprouted, and how much.
If only a small amount of the seed has germinated, sow your seed more thickly to make up for it.
I like to sow my tomato seeds into a soilless mix (peat/perlite/vermiculite) dampened with hot water.
I use plastic cell trays to sow into because I find they retain the moisture far better than peat pots or pellets. I use the same trays year after year, and despite the fact gardening books advise you to sterilize your used trays with a 10 % bleach solution, I have never had an issue and don't do that. My trays are stored outside and I figure the cold winter weather has killed off any pathogens that might have been present.
I gently fill my cells with my soilless mix, level it off and plant the tomato seeds on the surface, 3 or 4 seeds per cell. I sprinkled soil over the whole thing, covering the seeds with twice as much soil as the seeds are large, maybe 1/4 of an inch.
I cover the tray with humidity domes, put them under my fluorescent lights in a warm room, my kitchen by the woodstove, and within 3 or 4 days most of my seeds are up. I don't have to have them under lights as they germinate actually and there are times I run out of light space and pop them on top of the fridge until they are up.
At that point they need the light though and I remove the humidity dome, so that no nasty little diseases like damping develop because of an overly warm and humid environment.
I keep the lights low on the seedlings and generally move them into the basement under lights I have there because they prefer that cooler environment to grow on.
This is the point at which I begin a gentle round of fertilizing. It's diluted kelp all the way.
I usually use it most times I water, and I water so I am not saturating., only when the seedlings are dry to the touch.
Can you grow your tomato plants in south facing windows? Oh yes, many people do, but it is realistic to think that they will get leggier and weaker because they must reach for the light.
Just make sure that when you transplant them you are sinking that long and lanky stem very deep under the soil and a stronger root system will be encouraged.

Tomatoes like to be transplanted.
Stay tuned...that's up next!

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