Monday, February 7, 2011

Avoid these 6 Mistakes when Starting Tomato Seeds

Germination and development are critical phases for tomato seedlings. If you know what seed starting mistakes to avoid, you have an excellent chance to grow strong, healthy tomato plants to set out in your garden.

Mistake #1: Wrong planting medium
Fungi and bacteria in non-sterile soil can lead to damping off. When seeds dampen off, they don’t germinate. When sprouted seedlings contract damping off, they thin at the soil line, flop over, and die. Do everything possible to prevent damping off organisms from infecting your tomato seed starting flats. Avoid using garden soil to start seedlings because it is packed with bacteria and fungi. Potting soil is not the best option for starting seeds, either, because it is heavy and too high in fertilizer. Sterile potting mix, either purchased or home made from peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite, is a better choice for planting tomato seeds.

Mistake #2: Overwatering
Soggy potting mix can lead to seed rot, which can mean no germination. No sprouting = no tomato seedlings = no plants. Keep your potting mix evenly moist.

Mistake #3: Cold or drafty room
Maintain your room temperature between 70-80° F. Sustained cool temperatures can mean slow germination and slow growth. But be careful that the area is not too hot either, which can lead to leggy plants.

Mistake #4: Poor light
Sometimes tomato seeds will germinate and grow well for a couple of weeks. But when they are a couple of inches tall, they may bend toward the light and look stringy. Avoid scraggly plants by providing adequate light. Make sure plants are in a sunny window with 12-16 hours of light a day or place them 1-3 inches beneath grow lights.

Mistake #5: No transplanting
The purpose of transplanting seedlings is to stimulate root development. Plants started in smaller containers (cell packs, peat pots, or seed trays) and then moved to 4-6 inch pots develop stronger root systems than plants which are not transplanted at all. When transplanting, it’s wise to submerge the exposed stem deeper into the soil, thereby supporting the plant, preventing legginess, and stimulating root growth along the buried stem. Seedlings that are not transplanted fail to develop as strong root systems. Transplant seedlings when plants have two full sets of leaves.

Mistake #6: Inappropriate tomato varieties
Even when you start and grow healthy plants to set out in the garden, if you choose varieties that are inappropriate for your zone or for your gardening conditions, you may not harvest a quality crop. For instance, if you live in a cool, wet climate and start tomato varieties that do best in hot, dry areas, your crop may not produce high numbers or quality fruit. Or you may plan to grow container tomatoes, which require dwarf or tumbling varieties to do best. But the large garden varieties you started indoors won’t flourish in containers. Take time before you plant seeds to choose tomato varieties that are best for your situation. Then by carefully monitoring your tomato seedling crop, you can ensure a healthy, productive outcome this tomato season.

About the Author
Kathy Widenhouse is a contributing writer for Mike the Gardener Enterprises and owner of Tomato Dirt (, a leading source for information on growing tomatoes and using them.

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