Starting Tomato Plants From Seed With Help From Mother Nature



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.

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