Agood garden requires a bit of time travel—at least mental time travel. Even when there's snow on the ground, it's time to start envisioning what your harvest will be on the hottest days of the year. Tomatoes and peppers, some of your favorite heat-loving midsummer crops, have a long growing season, which means they'll need to be started indoors and then transplanted once it's warm enough outside. Tomato seedlings should be grown for 6-8 weeks before transplanting. They typically go outdoors as early as two weeks after your last frost date, or whenever nighttime temperatures are above 55 degrees. Since our last frost date is around May 15th, we start seeds no earlier than the last week of March here in the Hudson Valley. That means, unless you're in a warm climate, you've still got a few weeks before you need to start planting, but the best time to do your planning and order your seeds is now. Today, we'll help you choose your varieties, sow your seeds, and care for your first seedlings of the season.
We all know the feeling of wishing we could travel back in time and make a different decision. You might think, I wish I had started my peppers just a little bit earlier, or, I wish I had planted some cherry tomatoes too. Or at least these are the things that keep us up at night... At any rate, buying seeds early means you have the leisure to pick the perfect varieties. We've got lots of varieties in our seed catalog, so if you're feeling a little overwhelmed by the quantity, here's a little guidance to help you choose:
- Take a look at your garden: Do you have a lot of space or just a little? Can you accommodate a trellis for vining indeterminate tomatoes, or is it best you stick to bushier determinate ones? Keep in mind that most of the veggies we're talking about today need lots of direct sun, so be sure to plan accordingly.
- Go by your taste buds: What do you want to eat? This may seem like an obvious question, but with so many amazing open-pollinated varieties out there, it's important to consider what you'll be using your crops for. Are these peppers sweet for your salads or spicy for your salsas? Tomato sandwiches or tomato sauce?
- Consider disease resistance: Did you have issues with disease or pests last season? If you did, plan for it this year: try not to plant your tomatoes or peppers in the same place as they were before, and try selecting disease-resistant varieties. Smaller tomatoes tend to always do better in the face of disease. Aosta and Mandurang Moon were some of our highest performing tomatoes under stress in our field trials.
- Timing is everything: When do you want your harvest? Different varieties mature at different rates (Tiny Tim Tomatoes can be harvested after 45 days, while Stone Ridge needs 90). Additionally, indeterminate tomatoes grow and flower throughout the season, producing a staggered harvest. Determinate plants grow to a specific size, flower, and all set fruit in roughly one go.
You can either sow seeds in trays with cells, 2-3 seeds per cell (see photo above), or in rows in rectangular containers (see photo at right), spaced ½" apart. Either way, seeds should be lightly covered with ¼" of soil. If planting in cells, once the seedlings are 1-2" tall, snip all but the strongest at the bottom, leaving one per cell. If using furrows, "prick" the biggest seedlings into bigger pots after about 3 weeks. Seeds from the solanaceous family (like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants) are generally pretty easy-going, but they have a few uncompromising demands:
- Heat: Pepper and tomato seeds prefer consistent temperatures of 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep your trays on a heating mat, put them by a wood stove, or place them on a windowsill that's kept warm by the sun. Try to avoid prolonged temperatures below 65 degrees, since seeds may rot. If you don't have an ideal indoor setup, start your seeds 2 weeks earlier than you otherwise would and oversow. You can also place covers over your trays to trap heat, but they should be removed after seeds germinate.
- Light: This goes for all seedlings, really: make sure your they are getting consistent light. A windowsill might not be enough; consider purchasing a grow light.
- Water: Specifically, a balanced amount of it. All seeds prefer consistent water for germination, and they should never be let to dry out. However, overwatering can be just as perilous, since it can cause rot or damping off, a fungal infection that preys on new sprouts. Keep your trays moist but not wet. Additionally, tomato and pepper seeds are small and delicate and don’t like to be disturbed, so instead of watering directly with a hose or watering can, fill up a spray bottle and spritz regularly.
- Air Flow: Place your trays somewhere where they'll have plenty of air to breathe. If you have a small fan, you can even hook it up near your trays. This will help combat any extra moisture, and it will also encourage your seedlings to develop sturdy stems which will help them when they enter the real world of the garden bed.
- Protection: Be wary of rodents: they love pepper seeds especially. If you think there's a risk of rodent infiltration, protect your trays with a covering or caging. Just be sure to remove any covers that block airflow once the seeds have sprouted to avoid damping off.
- Space: Seedlings planted too close together will compete for resources and can become stunted and stressed. Similarly, if the seedlings are sown in small cells, they should to be repotted into larger containers once they have four true leaves. Pinch off the baby leaves (cotyledons), remove the plants carefully (a spoon can help dislodge the roots without disturbing them), and replant in the new pot, burying the stem up until the leaves. This last step is crucial: tomatoes have tiny hairs along the stem that, when placed in soil, form new roots. The deeper you replant, the stronger a tomato’s root system will be. It’s a good idea to pot up once more if your seedlings reach 10" before it's warm enough to move them outside. Just be sure to pinch off the bottom set of leaves each time. Check out this video on how to pot up your seedlings:
The next step will be transplanting them, once they're big enough and the weather warm enough. For the meantime, though, concentrate on planting prep: gathering your supplies, planning your garden, and buying your seeds. Then, before you know it, it'll be planting time!