If you want to grow and harvest the best tomatoes possible, you need to grow your own plants from seed and then get those little plants in the ground as soon as possible.. Growing your own plants at home ensures that the varieties you want are available and that they are at the optimal size for transplanting on your optimal planting date.
I have a long time reader (and long-time tomato grower) from Austin named Harry Cabluck. Many of my Austin readers know Harry as an award winning photographer that snapped some of the most iconic sports and political images of our generation. What you may not know about him is that when he was not covering politics at the state capitol he was home working very hard to grow a perfect tomato. The main thing he has learned is that early harvests of tomatoes come from plants that were planted as early as possible. To do this Harry grows from seed in a home-made grow center in his garage. Harry was kind enough to share some of the secrets he has learned about growing tomatoes from seed.
Media - Harry starts his seeds in expandable coir pellets. These pellets provide a loose media that is perfect for germinating plants. Early on, the expandable pellets fit nicely into a specially designed rack. After the plants form their true leave, Harry transfers the entire pellet to 3-ounce bathroom cups that come from the supermarket. These cups are just the right size to hold smaller peat-pellets and they fit perfectly into the pellet rack. A red-hot nail head is applied to burn a hole in the bottom of each cup and felt-tip pen makes it easy to label the plantings.
Warmth – Even though we live and grow in a mild climate, it is not mild enough to grow tomato seeds without some protection from the cold. As Harry said “The recent cold front that blew through Austin has prompted the need for heat again for our tomato seedlings.” To speed up the seeds germination and early growth, he places his coir pellet racks on heated grow mats. Tomatoes grow best in temperatures above 50 degrees. These warming mats ensure the soil that holds his seeds stays a toasty “70ish” degrees even in his garage.
Light – All plants need light. If you are going to grow your plants in the absence of natural sunlight, you are going to have to simulate that light for them. Harry uses T5 fluorescent tubes to provide light to his young plants. While florescent are not an exact match for sunlight, you can get pretty close by buying bulbs that emit light in the warm and the cool spectrum. This is usually listed on the packaging. Harry keeps four tubes above his seedlings. He also recommends keeping them very close to the plants to avoid making the plants produce weak, spindly growth.
Strength- One of the true secrets of growing healthy tomato transplants at home is “keeping them moving”. If tomato plants are grown in an enclosed area with no air movement, they can look very pretty but be very brittle. To avoid this, you need to either run your hands gently through your plants on a regular basis or create some way to have a slight breeze blowing over them at all times. Harry’s home-made grow center incorporates a whisper-fan that he salvaged from an old desktop computer. According to him, this small fan provides the air circulation needed to strengthen stems and it also helps cools plants on warm days.
If you live in Austin it is a little late to start your tomato seeds at home. However, if you live a bit further north, you may still have plenty of time. By following Harry’s tips you can ensure that you never have to search for your favorite variety again. If you follow Harry’s advice and start your seeds at home a couple of months before their recommended planting time, you will have strong healthy plants that will provide you with the earliest and best tomatoes anywhere.