Published February 2005

Winter still has a firm grip in Feburary on our area of northcentral Ohio, but spring is coming and before you know it, the first crocus and daffodils will be pushing up through damp soil. Before that happens, you might like to give a little consideration to tomatoes.  Tomatoes are great plants, good not only for eating warm out of the garden and slicing onto salads, but for interesting little chemicals in their juicy flesh that can inhibit certain cancers and promote general health.  So, many folk who don’t have a garden will at least slip a few tomato plants into their flower beds or place them in patio pots in full sun.

If area tomato growers have a problem, it’s that they tend to go with a few kinds of plants, and that limits choices for those who want to grow some variety.  Personally, I like to plant at least six kinds of the rosy orbs because I believe that each kind will react differently to water, sun, drought, and other factors, and by placing my eggs in multiple baskets I’m almost sure to make a good crop.  The usual varieties sold these days seldom contain heirloom tomatoes either, those old timers that grew in your grandmother’s garden, and some of these are worth growing.

The obvious choice is to grow your own seedlings, and it’s easier than you think.  Seeds should be started indoors about 6-8 weeks before the last frost date, and that means around early March in our area.  You’ll need planting containers at least three inches deep with bottom drainage holes, and these can be anything from last years “6 packs” to peat pots, plastic pots, even plastic yogurt containers.

You’ll need a good potting mix too, and while I’ve bought some at area department stores, the best seems to come from nurseries that sell plants, the specific kind they use themselves.  Add water to the seed starting mix until it’s well moistened but not soaked, then fill each container to within an inch of the top.  Make a little furrow  with a pencil or whatever, and add individual seeds about an inch apart, then cover with more potting soil and firm gently.

Tomatoes need a warm spot to start germinating, something between 75 to 85 degrees, so either place them on top of a water heater or floor vent or use a bottom heater that can be purchased in most nurseries and department stores. Cover with  plastic and check occasionally to make sure seeds aren’t drying out. They’ll sprout in 5-10 days usually, then you have a choice to make.

On occasion, I’ve used a large gro-light, placing the baby plants on my cool basement workbench.  I leave the light close to the plants, raising it gradually as the plants grow, and the method produced some fine, sturdy, stocky plants.  I’ve also used my upstairs plant stand in a south facing window, and kept the room at about 65-70 degrees, turning the little guys occasionally so they don’t bend in one direction.  That tactic isn’t as good as a gro-light, but it works okay.

When the seedlings are a couple of inches tall, you’ll want to move them to larger containers or individual pots so they can grow without being restricted.  Then when spring arrives and night-time temperatures outside reach the 50 degree range, you’ll need to harden them off by placing the lot in an outside environment.  I made a large box with a window glass top (cold frame) that I could lift during the day and close at night, but you can harden them by placing the plants outside for half a day in a shaded spot, then move them gradually into full sun and increase the length of day.

Even if you buy plants it’s wise to harden them off, because they came from a controlled environment in a greenhouse and sudden exposure to hot sun and cool nights can shock them literally to death.  Finally, plant them several feet apart, stake and mulch well, and watch them grow.

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