It may be a chilli 5℃ today, but that doesn’t mean you can’t garden. As I mentioned in my last post, there are plenty of gardening activities to do to keep green thumbs busy and warm at home during quarantine, including growing tomatoes and leafy greens.
Before you begin know that edible plants can be loosely categorized according to the temperature in which they like to grow (warm or cool), the time it takes to grow from seed to harvest (maturity date), and the best method for starting seeds (directly in the soil or as young transplants). Read the information on your seed packet. Warm-weather crops such as tomatoes can be started in the comfort of your home and then transplanted outdoors when nighttime temperatures remain above 13 ℃, sometime in May, after hardening off. Cool-weather crops like kale, lettuce, arugula, spinach and peas can be planted outside in the garden earlier, even with threat of frost. You may still want to start certain cool weather crop seeds indoors however to give them a head start, then transplant them outside when seedlings are robust enough.
I started two types of tomatoes: one large, beefsteak style indeterminate variety that matures in about 75 days and cherry tomatoes with a fairly short maturity date called Tiny Tim (see photos above).
I put two seeds about 1/4 inch deep in each cell pack filled with good quality, pre-moistened soil, waited and watched for growth. The instant gratification that accompanies every seed germinated feeds a gardener’s perseverance. Once seedlings put on a bit of growth, I plucked out (thinned) the weakest of the two and either ditched it or carefully planted it in the soil where there was more room for it to grow. This goes against most sage gardening advice, but they looked too healthy to throw away and I wanted to grow as many tomatoes as I could. Besides, what kind of mother throws her babies out if she can save them?
I have learned the following key things when starting tomato seedlings:
1)Use any supplemental lighting you have.
If you already perused the tomato growing sites online you may have read that tomatoes can easily be started by a sunny window. That may be true if you have a greenhouse or live in the south or enjoy growing etiolated vegetable seedlings. I have found tomato plants need more light than the sunniest window in your home can offer, especially if starting seedlings in late winter, when sunshine and bright light are hard to come by in northern regions like ours. If you don’t have grow lights, ordinary fluorescent shop lighting will do just fine (no need to get fancy) or order some online.
2) Tomato plants love heat
If yours haven’t germinated yet, try placing a little heat under the cell packs. If you don’t have growing equipment like a heat mat, be resourceful and place seed containers in the warmest place in your home, the top of a fridge or even a clothes dryer when it’s on will do. Artificial heat mimics what happens in nature when sun warms the soil and hastens germination. I didn’t have a heat mat and my electric heating pad died (probably from growing too many seedlings), so I used a magic bag by heating it for a few minutes in the microwave then placing the heated bag under the cell pack a few times a day. Yes, that may seem laborious, but really, what else do I have to do?
3) Tomato seedlings need air
The other thing that helped my seedlings once they germinated is circulating air. Air circulation helps prevent damping off, a fungus that regularly kills seedlings in too humid conditions. Air may also help strengthen their stems as they grow. I simply placed an oscillating fan a few feet away from the plants and set to the lowest speed for a few hours every day.
4) Give your seedlings a little T.L.C.
Although tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, they still require nurturing. But that's the the fun part about gardening, isn't it? I check on my seedlings’ progress regularly to ensure they are watered enough and looking healthy.
You can see from the photo at the top left, that after 20 days since initial sowing, my seedlings resemble miniature versions of mature tomato plants. Soon it will be time to transplant these babies into individual containers and then hardened off.
It is a gratifying experience, to watch something as simple as seeds come to life, first when cotyledons appear during germination and then later with the emergence of their first true leaves. In fact, now more than ever before, watching life unfold in front of me even from a tomato plant is incredibly fulfilling.