The Secret To Raising Perfect Tomato Seedlings
More Than Meets The Eye To Raising Tomatoes From Seed
I had such a good response to my previous article on How to grow tomatoes that I thought I would go back to Granddad and get tips on how to raise tomatoes from seed. According to Granddad, great tomatoes don't just happen, they take careful care and planning from when they are a seed. So over a pot of tea we sorted out what worked best when raising tomato seedlings and how to ensure the strongest, tastiest tomatoes on your street.
If you let your seedlings grow into each other you aren't giving them any room to branch out and grow. To combat overcrowding once your baby tomatoes get their first true leaves plant them out into their own 4" pot.
Once your seedlings are out in your garden they will need at least six hours of sunshine every day to grow. When they are baby plants this is no different. Keep your plants close to the light source and provide plenty of strong sunshine or artificial plant growing light.
Keeping them exposed to such artificial light for 14 hours a day is not overdoing it – these babies want to grown and light, sunlight or artificial light, is going to enhance that. If you are using florescent lights keep the light source close to the seedlings, raising the lights as your plants grow taller.
Ensuring Stocky Seedlings
You may not realize it, but the gentle breeze the tomato seedlings get when raised outdoors actually strengthens their stems. When you raise the seedlings indoors they don't get that gentle stimulation and their stems are not as sturdy. (True fact I promise!) If you're growing inside, use a fan for a few minutes each day to simulate a gentle breeze or you can do it by gently running your hands across the top of the plants. You need to to this every day to ensure good, strong, healthy plants.
I was scratching my head at this one myself. What did Granddad mean? He means warming up your garden bed by placing a large dark colored cover over the bed such as a tarp or black plastic. It will draw in the heat from the sun for a few weeks and heat up the temperature of the soil you are about to plant your seedlings into. Those few extra degrees of soil temperature will translate to earlier, tastier tomatoes.
When you come to plant out your seedlings, plant them quite deep. If you plant the entire seedling all the way up to the top few leaves you will have a tomato plant that develops a strong root system all the way up its stem which you have planted into the soil. Strong roots = strong plant.
Time Your Mulching Carefully
Mulch is a gardeners best friend. It conserves water, protects the plants from soil borne disease and conditions the soil. But … mulching too early can prevent the ground from heating up. Mulch will shade the soil and prevent the sun from heating up the soil and helping your tomato seedlings along. Hold off on the mulch for a little while, at least until your plants are more established. For those gardeners who love to mulch regardless there is a plastic variety you can get for heat loving plants like tomatoes and peppers.
Pruning Your Plants
Your tomato seedlings will begin to grow well and they will soon reach a good height of about three feet. at this point, you need to remove the leaves from the bottom 1 foot of the stalk. These leaves wont get much sunlight, they will be prone to fungal diseases and will inhibit air circulation.
To ensure a bumper crop you need to pinch prune the suckers. These are the tiny shoots that develop at the joint of two branches. These are only energy drains on your plant, they wont bear any fruit. Don't over prune the rest of the plant, the other leaves are photosynthesizing and helping your tomatoes be flavorful.
Deep, regular watering while your plants are developing is crucial. If you miss a week of watering and then try to 'catch up' your plants will become susceptible to cracking and blossom end rot. This is definitely not ideal for your infant tomato plants. So … the rule of thumb is your plants will need approximately an inch of water every week but you should also use your common sense. If your plants are looking wilted they are telling you they need more water. If you stick hard and fast to the one inch rule of thumb and your plants are always wilting they will become stressed. Stressed plants will drop their blossoms and / or their fruit and you will be left with no tomatoes.
Once your fruit begins to ripen ease back on how much you are watering. Your plant will concentrate its sugars if you water less and the tomatoes will have a better flavor.
Tricks To Help Set Your Tomatoes
You don't have to be at the mercy of the weather, there are a few tricks which will help your tomato plants set without having to wait for the sunshine. There are two types of tomato plants – determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants are those which grow to a certain height, flower, set their fruit and produce your tomatoes in time for canning and making red sauce.
Indeterminate plants keep on growing and producing until the end of summer. They reach for the sun and like to grow tall before they flower and set their fruit. You can pinch off the tips of these plants in early summer – this will get the plant to stop putting its energy into growth and more into the fruit.
If you are reaching the end of summer and want your tomatoes to set and ripen, pinch off new growth to encourage your plant to put its energy into the fruit rather than growing taller.
Pick off new flowers – this will encourage your plant to put its energy into the existing fruit rather than push energy into creating more tomatoes. Likewise keep a daily watch on those which are ready. If you have ripe fruit on the vine your tomato plant will keep feeding the fruit. Once its ripe take it off and let those vital sugars go into the fruit still growing and ripening.
Reduce your watering but not by too much. If you let them wilt and stress too much they will drop their fruit.
A few days before you harvest give your plants a drink of compost tea for a quick energy boost and they will push that into the fruit.
If you have no choice but to harvest, for example a hard frost may be just around the corner, you can harvest your tomatoes green and ripen them indoors or you can uproot the whole plant (not kidding). Take the whole plants indoors and hang upside down in your basement or somewhere they wont be disturbed. Allow plenty of air flow between each plant and don't let them get direct sunlight and you will find that the tomatoes you have left on your plant should ripen up. Keep an eye on them every day and remove ripened fruit before it falls off.
Growing tomatoes is an art form as I have recently learned. My granddad grows wonderful, juicy tomatoes all summer, and this summer I intend to follow his instructions and grow some of my own. He also mentioned that I should sing to them – he chides me gently when I say seriously Granddad, they're just plants, they are so much more than that he says. So while I may hold back on the lullabies, I thought I should throw that in just in case it really is the secret to raising perfect tomato seedlings.
Do you have any more tricks for growing perfect tomato seedlings?