When to start tomatoes indoors

lady_alicia Zone 5/6 PA(5)January 10, 2011

I go to the garden center every year and see the tomato plants that are about two feet tall, some even three feet tall, with blossoms on them. So when would you start tomato plants indoors so that they would be two to three feet tall for planting outdoors after Memorial Day, which is what they recommend for my zone? The ones I grew last year were only about a foot tall, if that, when they went outside. I just can't remember when I started them.

Any suggetsions?

Thank you.


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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

hi al ...

4 weeks prior to last frost would be my guess ... and in my neck of z5 .. that be the beginning of may ...

but i will defer to anyone who has actually done it ...

they are heavy sun plants.. and unless you have a greenhouse.. all i can foresee are very tall leggy plants in the house ...

all that said.. should be pretty easy ... so if you have a wad of seed.. try two .. at monthly intervals .. and keep notes for next year.. experimenting is always the best rout ...

good luck


    Bookmark   January 11, 2011 at 8:00AM
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lady_alicia Zone 5/6 PA(5)

I wish I would have written down when I did start them last year. I did for most of the other things, but not my tomatoes and peppers. My logbook will be much more organzied this year.

I have everything under grow lights, so they did pretty well. That's why I was hoping to try for larger plants this year.

So what part of Zone 5 are you in that you can plant early May? I'm in PA on the west side (towards Pittsburgh). I hardened them off in a pseudo greenhouse, but I was afraid to plant them outside until Memorial Day, which is what all of my garden centers recommend here.

Until my husband can build me a greenhouse, this is how I harden my plants off for now (it gets pretty full):

What can I say? It works! :))

Thanks for all of your help, Ken.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2011 at 11:30AM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

Start tomato seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before planting-out date. I am actually zone 6, and while the last frost date is more towards the end of May, I consider it safe to plant out after May 15 or so, WEATHER DEPENDING, and if the soil is warm enough. That said, use the last frost-free date in your area as your guide and go from there, personal experience will tell you how to play it.

So, for me, tomatoes are usually started indoors on a light cart somewhere around mid-April. :0)

    Bookmark   January 11, 2011 at 3:15PM
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There is a lot of good info on the back of seed packs. Read it!

    Bookmark   January 11, 2011 at 7:48PM
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lady_alicia Zone 5/6 PA(5)

Gee, Tommy. That wasn't helpful at all. If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all. Most people on here are extremely helpful. You're not one of them.

First of all, I asked because I don't want 1-foot tall plants again this year. And I THOUGHT if I asked the members on here what their experience was in starting them indoors and when to do that so that I could achieve a height of perhaps 2- to 3-foot tall plants.

Second, I bought my seeds in bulk and there are no planting instructions on the back of the "seedpack." Not that that would help anyway because I'm asking for something more specific.

Please, if you can't offer anthing helpful, don't respond to questions. That was uncalled for and I didn't appreciate it one bit. All you did was irritate me!

    Bookmark   January 11, 2011 at 8:31PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I'm not sure why you want to plant tomato plants that are 2 feet tall. I promise you that your seedlings won't reach that size in 4 to 6 weeks, however. Even artificial lighting isn't enough to produce big, stocky plants in that period of time. A greenhouse, with real sunlight coming in from all directions will do it, though. I like your shower curtain idea, by the way. That IS a shower curtain, right?

The GOOD thing is that your eight to ten inch seedlings will begin to grow rapidly once planted in the ground. So much so that there really isn't any benefit to growing them to a bigger size inside. The younger and smaller plants end up in production just as soon or sooner than the big guys. The typical potting medium just doesn't hack it, either, especially for long periods of time.

I'd guess that you'd need 8 weeks. MAYbe 6. The seeds should be started in heated potting mix, but in a cold room. Once germinated and showing leaves, the heat source for the soil can be turned off and the plants grown in temperatures between 45 and 55. That will insure that they grow to be stocky, sturdy plants rather than leggy from too much warmth. I'd keep the grow lights on for very long periods of time, too. Duration of light won't make up for the lack of quality (in terms of wave length), but it will help.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 4:36AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

Our regular monthly meeting of the Mens Garden Club last night we discussed the planting time of our tomato plants. We grow up to 2000 tomato plants every year to sell as a fund raiser. Last year with no heat in our greenhouse the plants were two feet tall at the sale day, TOO tall in our opinion. Sure we were able to sell them all, but they would have been better plants at one foot tall. This year, the second with no heat, we are planting March 2nd into cells and potting up into four inch pots March 30, with our sale about April 20th. Our goal is better plants, not taller plants. Al

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 9:24AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

hey al .. ignore the idiots ... life is too short to be irritated by them...

you said: So what part of Zone 5 are you in that you can plant early May?

i said to start them about 4 weeks prior to last frost ... i see my sentence was rather vague .. lol ...

but let me clarify further ... they need to be about 4 to 6 weeks old when they go out .... so to that you should add how long they take to germinate .... and i dont have that info off hand .... as noted.. its on the pack.. lol ...

i am in adrian MI ... just south of ann arbor ... and out here in the country.. last frost date is reliably the last week of may ... and since the 'rent anniversary is 5/25 .... i can say that we have used that date as our plant out date for the 40 years i have been paying attention ....

mx is in metro Detroit .. and z6 [ i have a theory about retained heat by cement causing the increased zone] .. i really question her comment that she is frost free around 5/1 ... take that with a grain of salt .. as i can see her out there building little TP's on a cold-forecasted night .. she is totally a full contact gardener ... petal to the metal ... she will get away with a few things that some of us who are not as full contact ..... only you will define were you are in that spectrum ....

in my world.. i plant them out ... when i dont have to worry about them ... otherwise i leave them in the closed garage at night .. last year all the neighbors were bemoaning a late poor crop of tom's .... and we decided a late cold spell retarded proper flowering and fruit set .... after a very warm .. hot april ... may was back to march temps .... tom's are all about soil warmth.. and last year.. it was out of phase ...

but in the case of tomatoes ... they are VERY.. VERY susceptible to frost ... so i would hesitate ... after investing all that effort to grow them... to not be sticking them out too early ...

good luck


    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 9:29AM
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lady_alicia Zone 5/6 PA(5)

Rhizo - Then I guess I'll have to wait until my small greenhouse is built someday to have those tall tomato plants. :) I thought with the grow lights I could grow some that tall. I just like to have a couple that tall so that I get some tomatoes earlier. My brother-in-law calls it cheating, but I figure if I can get some tomatoes early, why not. I will experiment with a few seeds and see what happens with the 8 weeks, like you mentioned.

You're probably right about the growth rate. I seem to recall my plants growing very fast once placed in the ground.

Yes, that's two shower curtains put together with brass fasteners (so they wouldn't rust). I attached the two curtains together so that the two fronts would meet together so I could twistie-tie them together for easy access. I bought the heavier clear liners, not the thinner ones. Cost me $10. I submitted the idea and photo to Garden Gate magazine, but they mustn't have thought it was that innovative. They never published it. LOL That's okay, though. It works for me. I just like to share ideas with others. Then I use my baker's rack in the summer for displaying potted plants.

Calistoga - Thank you for the information. Perhaps I can try a few using your method. Good luck with the fundraiser. That's a great thing to sell!
Hi Ken. I agree, life is too short. And I enjoy talking to others that share the same passion because most gardeners are so pleasant.

I also am very hesitant on planting outdoors too soon for fear I'll be out there covering them constantly and forget one night and then they're gone. So I opt to plant when it's safe, which can still be questionable with Mother Nature being so unpredictable at times.
In closing, I thank all of you for being so helpful and appreciate the time it took for you to answer my question.

Have a great planting and growing season!

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 12:18PM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

Where in my original post did I say the frost-free date in my area was May 1? Read it again - I said near the END OF MAY.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 2:57PM
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lady_alicia Zone 5/6 PA(5)

I bet he misread the "May, I" as being May 1. I got what you were saying. Sometimes we zip through posts and miss some of it. :) I'm guilty of that.

I'll have to report back here once I sow them and give an update on how they're growing! Thanks for your advice on everything, mxk.

Lots of helpful info from everyone....


    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 3:30PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

bingo al ..

and mx.. i was complimenting you.. if you feel slighted ... full contact to me.. is the highest compliment..


    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 6:49PM
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donnabaskets(Zone 8a, Central MS)

Alicia, this year I am going to try a new strategy with tomatoes (for me). Last year, I was so anxious to get my plants in the ground that I planted about a week before our last frost date. There was no frost forecast, but it was still too cool. The early tomatoes I set in the ground with mini greenhouses made of cages, etc. sat there and refused to grow, until a month later, I pulled them out and replanted. I am convinced that the soil was simply too cold for them.

However, my friends who planted their tomatoes at the same time in POTS were picking fruit several weeks earlier than those grown in the ground.

So, this year, I am going to start a couple of plants in black pots out on my deck as soon as it "appears" that the weather is settling (50 to 55 degree lows at night). If there's a late frost, I can bring them inside, etc. And, with less soil, better drained soil, and that heat absorbing black plastic, there's a better chance of the soil being warm enough.

My point to all this is, tomatoes, regardless of their size, will not cooperate in cold soil. It is easy to check your soil temperature. Get an oven thermometer that has a probe. Take the temp several days in a row and find an average. You want the soil temp to be at least 60 degrees.

And BTW, I have read that large plants often perform less well than small plants over the entire season. I cannot speak from experience to this.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 11:32AM
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Large plants in small pots are at a disadvantage and often don't develop healthy root systems, although they can look very appealing. Smaller seedlings will catch up quickly once planted out without suffering checks in growth from being rootbound. 6 weeks is plenty of time if you are looking for seedlings to put in the ground. I sell hundreds of tomato plants every year and for that purpose I sow over the course of a couple of weeks at the end of February into early March in the greenhouse to sell from about April 15 until early May. I am zone 7a.
For those really big ready to bear plants that you are looking for, you really can't develop a quality plant in a 4 or 6 inch pot and count on good performance in the garden.
For my own use each year I start seeds for half a dozen plants in late January in the greenhouse and pot them on until they are in at least 10 gallon containers. I usually harvest my first fruits in late April or early May. You can use any variety, but I find determinate types respond very well to being grown this way. If we have extended periods of cloudiness I supplement the light in the greenhouse for these plants until they outgrow the range of my lighting fixtures.
If you have a very sunny place to keep one in a big pot you might be able to pull it off, but you will spend a lot of time pulling it in and out of the house, which becomes quite a chore when they get big and fruit begins to set. If it is in the house you may also need to shake or vibrate the plant or otherwise assist the plant in pollination so that fruit will set.
Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 14, 2011 at 7:17AM
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