The sight of the wind blowing through the midwinter barren oak branches hardly encourages me to begin to start my summer garden. The way I feel doesn’t matter, however, because around the corner comes the summer heat and for my garden to be part of it, I have to start now. Sure, I could buy the vegetables for the garden when I do buy them, I choose Bonnie Plants – they are GMO free), but planting by seed gives me access to many more varieties than those available at the nursery and allows me to grow my garden less expensively. I also plant a lot of heirloom vegetables from seeds saved from the previous year.
Since the nightshade vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, take the longest to produce fruit, they should be started indoors before any of the other vegetables.
Plan to seed tomatoes around 6-8 weeks before your average last frost. If you live in the South, they should be the only vegetables that you HAVE to start early.
Sure, you could get a head start with your other vegetables, such as squash and melons, a couple of weeks before the last frost, but they produce relatively quickly and often have trouble transplanting. I find it best just to plant them directly into the garden.
STEP 1 – Prepare Soil
To begin, prepare small containers (cell trays that contain many small compartments on one flat work great) with a good seed-starting soil medium. Don’t substitute this soil medium for potting mix, which contains large pieces of bark, or garden soil, which compacts easily. Believe me; results are poor.
STEP 2 – Plant Seeds
Place 2 or 3 seeds in each container, at 1/4” deep. Pat down soil medium, and water the soil.
STEP 3 – Keep Plants in Warm Location
Place the newly sown vegetables in a warm location, preferably 75° or warmer, but temperatures of 65° or greater will work fine are much easier to accommodate (like in the house). Like most plants, the vegetables need to consistently be in moist (but not saturated) soil throughout their growing season. Once the seedlings emerge, relocate to a sunny locations where they can receive 5-6 hours of light and enjoy the comfortable temperature of around 70°. Water the seedlings with a weak, half strength solution of liquid fertilizer when needed.
STEP 4 – Transplant and Harden Off
Once the first true leaves appear on the seedling (when they are around 2 inches tall), transplant vegetables in 3-4 inch pots filled with similar soil medium. Also at this time, snip the extra seedlings you planted in each cell so that each pot contains only one plant.
A couple of weeks before planting, begin to harden off the seedlings by bringing then outside. Start by placing them in a partly sunny area for about an hour one day when the weather begins to warm. Follow this by a couple hours of sun the next day. By the end of a week or 10 days of hardening, the tomatoes are ready for the garden.
A Few Extra Tips for Tomatoes
Tomatoes, however, benefit from a couple more details. When you transplant the tomato seedlings to bigger pots, plant the tomatoes a little deeper than originally (up to the true leaves). Also, following transplanting, occasionally run your hand through the tops of the tomatoes or have a fan gently blowing on them (to simulate wind) for sturdier plants.
By simply following these guidelines, you will have great healthy young plants that will give you amazing flavor fantastic dishes for your family. Enjoy the great outdoors and the harvest of your hands!