Direct seeding tomato plants

summertime2006February 6, 2010

I live a little North of Pittsburgh and we can have frost here in mid May so most people start their seeds off indoors or buy transplants at a nursery.

I like to grow my own plants from seed so I start them off under shop lights in my basement. I have no option of using a window sill.

No matter how hard I try the transplants I grow under the shop lights are not very hardy. And even though I try to harden them off they still look shocked and pale for a week of two when I put them outside....and some die.

Last year I do not know what happened if it was the tomato blight or just mildew or mold but I had a lot of my tomato transplants die that I grew under shop lights.

Since I grow tomatoes every year and I have too many animals around here that spread the seed from them I get tomato plants that come up on their own every year.

I usually find some in the flower bed or growing by my sidewalk. I usually take them and plant them somewhere where they will have a shot of doing well.

But what I noticed about these tomatoes that come up on their own is that they are so much healthier than my shop light grown transplants.

After last years problem of having so many of my transplants die I just planted a few seeds of each variety directly in the soil and then as they got a little bigger I moved them to where I wanted them.

Doing it this way the plants looked so much healthier and had no transplant shock or death but I started way too late.

For this year I was thinking of trying to direct seed some tomatoes in an area right against the house so it would be sort of protected and plant them earlier in the year. Then as they get big move them to the places that I want them.

The ones I grew last year this way worked out fine. The only problem is since I started them so late they produced fruit so much later.

I just wanted to see if anyone in the cooler climates direct seeded tomatoes and if it worked out ok for them?


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Why don't you check out the Winter Sowing forum?

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 3:55AM
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I agree- try Winter Sowing. It works and there's no hardening off required. I'm near Cleveland and I love starting all my veggies and flowers this way. (Don't hold Cleveland against me.... Pittsburgh.)

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 9:53AM
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There are specific reasons why your seed grown transplants do poorly, but there is no reason this has to be the case. Something about your method is off. PM me and I will give you a simple set of instructions for a method you might try before giving up on starting in pots.

That said, I urge you to check out the wintersown website and forum to get the direct-sow down-low.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 5:33PM
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Here is one thing I learned a long time ago about lights.

Keep in mind that I do not grow under lights or anything like that, although I did experiment with it once.

Light 'power' is measured in a thing called lumens. A light bulb might put off X numbers of lumens, and by comparison the sun will be about a billion times more lumens. The plants absorb this 'lumen' energy...hence a light bulb of any type will be much more difficult to produce a good plant unless you invest A LOT of money.

Secondly, you need special lights. Not just some old shop light or something. The light from the sun has all the spectrums of light from one end to the other...

A normal light bulb has only a small spectrum of light that it emits. Plants need ALL the spectrum in order to do well.

As you can imagine, re inventing sunlight is no easy, nor cheap, task.

If you are using good soil, make sure you are using (or invest in) a good set of full spectrum growing lights. Its not a permanent fix for growing but it can get you over that 'hump' until you put your plants outside.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 5:56PM
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I grow tomatoes just fine with shop lights. I got one bulb of cool white, and one of full-spectrum (these cost like $2.) I keep these lights 2" from the tops of the seedlings. Most people recommend chains with S-hooks so the height can be adjusted easily.

If the stems are spindly, you can also set up a fan to blow gently on the plants for a few hours each day- this strengthens their stems.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 6:58PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Yup, sorry to disagree alamo5000 but thousands of us grow plants just fine using nothing more special than shop lights and plain old fluorescent bulbs and have for many years. It works when done correctly by keeping the lights within 1-3" of the tops of the plants and on for 16 hours a day.

Personally, I grow hundreds of transplants for sale and personal use each year, all with plain old shop lights although I do put new bulbs in them each year.

summertime2006 - good advice on checking out the Winter Sowing forum here as much of what you describe is the underlying philosophy of Winter Sowing - and it works! ;) Good luck with your plants.


    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 7:12PM
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Agree with Dave and Max. Lights have to be within 2" of plant tops at all times. They will work.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 7:34PM
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You can WS tom plants in zone 6 and have great success. However, we don't direct sow. Instead we sow them into vented containers and set them outside during Winter and they will germination naturally at their own time. The seedlings intitially are smaller when they are transplanted but they have fabulous root systems and are climate hardy. It's an amazing process.

Please do visit the Winter Sowing forum and talk about your desire to germinate tom seeds--you'll get a lot of responses. If you like, I will give you the seeds to try, please visit this tomato forum's trade page and look for the post called "Your Choice Tomato SASE".



Here is a link that might be useful: Winter Sowing Forum

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 8:22PM
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I would agree with Alamo that a good amount of the right kind of light is necessary. However, it doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. One could add a 2x4 light and upgrade bulbs relatively cheaply.

Also, I agree you can't replace sunlight. But plants don't actually need all of the spectrum of sunlight, which covers a lot. Green light would be a good example. Plants don't really need it and don't use it much because they reflect it. Sun is good because it is bright, has a ton of lumen output, and plants have evolved to tolerate the light they don't need.

But people can and routinely do grow fine transplants using standard shoplights and usually the combo red/blue spec bulbs which the plants seem to like.

Likewise I would also shoot for a good mix for seed starting.

And so many other variables.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 8:27PM
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dickiefickle(5B Dousman,Wi.)

Plants grow toward the light ,farther away it is the more they reach making them long and flimsy .So keep close to the light. Put a fan on and your plant and the stem will thicken and not get spindly.You don't have to have fancy lights either.Don't over water.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 10:45PM
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No need for lights. No need for babying tomato plants. Sounds like Winter Sowing is the way to go to suit your needs. I have some seeds under 27.5 inches of snow as I type this and the temp is 12F....and 6 months from now I'll be picking fruit from sturdy strong plants these seeds are destined to become...

    Bookmark   February 7, 2010 at 6:25AM
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If you have a small space against a south facing outside wall to start tomatoes in a seed bed, then you have room to build a small coldframe. Just get some concrete blocks or salvaged lumber and assemble a little rectangular box about 24 inches tall and with dimensions that will fit an old window frame or salvaged storm window or glass storm door as a lid.

Tilt the frame toward the south, you know, build in on a slope away from the house foundation so the lid allows more exposure to sunlight for the sprouts. This also will facilitate drainage away from the house foundation when you water the plants and keep the interior of the box from getting soggy or saturated.

Mulch up around the outside of the frame with bark landscape mulch or straw to insulate it during March and April, then not so critical in late April or early May. Just a bit of insurance, you know, to keep the little plants cozy at night. You can also drape an old blanket over he frame at night or on cold, cloudy days or in case of a late spring snow.

Actually, you should plan on propping the lid open on many a sunny March or April day because a coldframe like this will heat up more than you think and your tomato babies might get heat stroke. No joke. Just remember to lower the lid in the late afternoon to keep them snug at night.

If you notice the plants in the front of the box are lagging behind the plants toward the rear of the box, that's natural. The ones in the back are getting more sunlight. Just rotate plant position occasionally.

You may want to employ a thermometer since you really don't want your plants growing in temps over 75*F because they will grow TOO fast, get leggy and outgrow your coldframe. And temps like 55 - 65*F will retard (good thing) their growth and make stockier, healthier plants.

Yes, you are correct. There is no substitute for natural sunlight and more natural, outside open or sheltered outside locations to start tomato plants.


    Bookmark   February 7, 2010 at 1:44PM
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I start my seeds inside on shelves beside my furnace, and use shop lights to get things going. Clear plastic covers over my trays contain the heat and moisture to help with germination. The covers come off a week to 10 days after planting.

When the seedlings are 2 to 2.5 inches tall the trays go out to my greenhouse which is heated with a small electric heater.

A greenhouse is a pretty fancy dealie and represents a good sized investment. Before I had my greenhouse I had a cold frame much as described above but then later went to a table top greenhouse. Imagine a table where the top of it
is actually a 2x4 frame with plywood on the top and bottom of the frame. Between the top and bottom it was insulated with foam board.

I was able to purchase a plastic gizmo that had provisions for ventilation, and this sat on the table top. Inside was
a thermometer and a small electric heater. This company
no longer offers the product as I found out when looking for parts and it might be easier anyway to improvise one
using whatever storm sash and plastic sheet material might be available.

There are only a couple advantages to such a set up compared to a cold frame: one is portability. You can place it wherever the sun shines good in the spring then move it into or behind the garage to get it out of the way the rest of the year. The second is working up off the ground at a comfortable level. But you must have a way to open it up easily for ventilation on sunny days or the plants will cook!

Just another idea for you.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 9:28AM
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