September volunteer tomato fruit
Gardening is a task that can exercise the body, stimulate the mind and please the soul. When results are positive, gardeners celebrate successes, but when outside forces, such as destructive weather or pest attack cause failure, gardeners are left with lessons learned and opportunities to redouble efforts for the next season. One of the most frustrating and rewarding gardening jobs is starting plants from seeds. When seedlings thrive and transplant to garden spaces where they abundantly produce, gardeners rejoice, but if seeds germinate and die, succumbing to a myriad of conditions, seed-starters must act quickly to repeat the process or obtain plants from other sources.
Volunteer Plants Are Strong and Productive
After many years of starting heirloom tomato seeds indoors, last year I decided to try something different. At first, 2020 was not a successful seed-starting year for me. In February, after consulting my farmer’s almanac for the best days to start seeds, I filled several 72-cell trays with seed-starting mix, labeled and placed seeds in each cell and topped the trays with plastic coverings. I placed each tray on shelves in my “mini greenhouse” cart, turned on grow lights and zipped the heavy plastic covering in place. Within days, almost every cell hosted a tiny seedling and I looked forward to transplanting the babies to larger pots and later planting them in my garden.
Unfortunately, I was away from home for a few days (just before the Pandemic shutdown) and when I returned home, most of the seedlings were “dampening off,” a condition caused by poor air flow and too much moisture. The seedling breaks off at the soil line and does not recover. When my husband, Richard, saw my dismay, he asked why gardeners don’t plant tomato seeds directly into the soil where they will grow. He pointed out that “volunteer” tomato plants, ones that we find in growing in our garden from last year’s seed, are typically as strong and productive as those we painstakingly grow. As I replied that tomatoes are long season crops that benefit from the boost of an early start, I agreed Richard’s points are valid and I recalled a couple childhood memories that led to an epiphany, of sorts.
First big pot tomato seedling in April
Do You Really Want a Hothouse Baby?
In 1962, my mother wrapped my infant brother, born in late summer, in a soft blanket and drove us to the pediatrician’s office so my brother could have a check-up. When the physician, a kindly man whose brusque manner was no doubt shaped by his WWII experiences, saw his patient bundled to the eyeballs on a day that was far too warm for such, he immediately began to remove the blanket and he asked my mother, “Do you want to raise a hothouse baby?”
When I looked at my dying seedlings, enveloped in the damp warmth of their enclosure, I realized I was raising hothouse babies, ones that would surely struggle when they moved to my garden where they would need to adapt to various growing conditions in order to survive. That insight led me to explore childhood memories of the patient teacher who took my four-year-old self into her magical garden and not only taught me to identify weeds and pests, but imparted life lessons, as well.
My Grandmother's Technique Was Simple and Effective
My grandmother’s seed starting technique was simple and effective. Shortly before the last expected frost, she filled a large metal washtub with “rich dirt,” dark composted soil gathered from the forest. She smoothed the soil and added tomato and pepper seeds she saved from her previous year’s crops. After lightly covering the seeds, she added enough water to dampen the soil and covered the entire tub with a large towel. Lastly, she placed sticks on top to keep the towel from blowing off the tub. When seedlings germinated, she removed the towel during daylight hours, but replaced it at night until the danger of frost passed. When she deemed her garden soil warm enough for planting, she transplanted the seedlings to their new homes. One of my most vivid childhood memories is helping my grandmother wash tomatoes after we harvested the fruit. Colorful orbs bobbed in galvanized tubs and Granny showed me how to gently clean tomatoes to avoid bruising the tender skins.
When I compared Granny’s seed-starting practice with my own, I realized there was one huge difference; Granny relied on Mother Nature to do most of the work. She did not purchase special soil, tools, equipment or even seeds. Using what she had on hand, she planted seeds saved from her previous year’s best crop specimens, timing her efforts to coincide with the natural growing season. I decided to give Granny’s system a try.
I began my second seed-starting attempt in mid-April. Although some varieties are distinctive, even in early seedling stage, I like to identify which plant varieties I transplant to my garden. I gathered all the large pots I could find and stuck a label into each. I cheated a bit and added my own compost to Daddy Pete’s potting soil and planted a different tomato variety in each pot, placing seeds about five inches apart and adding a drink of water. Rather than cover the pots with towels, I moved them from my south-facing backyard into the basement when nighttime temperatures fell below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
As seedlings emerged, I lightly brushed them with my hands to encourage bushier growth. By mid-May, I transplanted more than fifty healthy, robust plants to my garden and by July, I began to harvest a crop that lasted until my last productive plant, a tiny, super sweet cherry tomato, succumbed to frost in late October.
Protective cover for tomato seedling transplanted May 15th.
Of course, gardeners who live in geographical areas that have brief tomato growing seasons may not experience success with Granny’s seed-starting process. Still, I believe that heirloom seeds have a strong will to thrive and produce offspring. Perhaps it is worth a chance to allow a few seeds to grow without giving them the “hothouse” treatment? If you allow Mother Nature to help your seed-starting process, please let me know about your experiences.
Cindy Barlowe gardens 8 acres in North Carolina, where she grows and saves heirloom seeds, while freelance writing, covering the “seedy” side of gardening at Seed Tales. Connect with Cindy on Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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