Starting and transplanting tomatoes can be a time and labor consuming task, but with the right method its fun too. In this method we start with a 10 by 20 plastic flat with drainage holes in the bottom. These starting flats will fit in a regular 10 by 20 daisy flat, or a web flat, named for the web design. It is important that these containers are cleaned to remove any disease organisms, pests or seeds. We wash them with a bit of dish soap and disinfect them in a 9 to one water and Clorox mixture.

In a separate container we wet the starting medium, in this case Pro-Mix bx. This is a sterile medium that is well suited for starting tomato but it must be wetted before it is used for ease of handling. The dry Pro-Mix is poured into a pail or wheelbarrow and water is added and mixed in until the medium is damp enough to hold into a ball in hand but not so wet that water can be rung out.

We put about a inch and a half of starting medium into the flats and level it with a 8 inch plastic putty knife. We then use the knife to make rows the long way in the flats by pressing the blade into the medium to a depth of no more than 1/2 inch. There is room for 6 or 7 rows across, depending on how close we make them.

Now we plant the seeds. Tomato seeds are fairly small, but not too small that we can not use our fingers to drop them one at a time into the trench made with the putty knife. Another way to plant them is to pour a quantity of seeds into a “V” of paper made from folding any kind of paper in half. Then the seeds can be tapped out one at a time using the end of a pencil. We plant the tomato seeds no closer than 1/2 inch and usually closer to 3/4’s of an inch apart.

When we finish with any particular variety we mark the rows right away, with a tag so that we can keep them separate. If the flat is all one variety it is easy but if we have 2 or 3 in a flat it becomes necessary to mark them because they all will look more or less the same when they start growing. I can still hear my father cursing a nursery where he thought he was getting big boy tomatoes and ended up with some kind of yellow cherry which are nice tomatoes but a poor replacement for the big boy.

We back fill the trenches by pinching the soil in from the sides of the little trenches and we give them a very light sprinkle of water from the small watering can. Now we cover them with clear cling wrap and put them where they will be warm, in our case on the front of the benches that are heated from below. We keep an eye on them during the day when strong sun can raise the temperature of the clear wrap covered soil to more than 100 degrees F. If it looks like they are getting too hot we uncover them.

Every day we raise the edge of the wrap to see if anything is starting and to make sure they are just damp. As soon as the seedlings begin to appear above the soil we remove the wrap and make sure the flats are in direct sun. We want the seedling tomatoes to grow strong. We are also careful with water. If the soil is too damp molds and fungus can appear and this can cause the plants to “damp off”. Damping off is a term that describes the condition where seedlings rot at the soil level from fungus or molds. By starting with clean flats and fresh Pro-Mix we greatly reduce the likely hood of this occurring, in-fact we have never had the problem with tomatoes.

The emerging tomato seedlings will have one set of narrow and sharply pointed leaves as they begin to grow. Within a week or so the plants will develop a second set of true leaves and this is when we need to be on our toes. We want to transplant them in the 6 packs in which they will be sold and if they get too big the roots get tangled and it is harder to work with them.

We use a 6/8 tray which have 8 – 6 packs for a total of 48 cells in a 10 by 20 inch flat. These also fit in the daisy flats. We put an empty sheet of 6 packs into a daisy tray and fill the cells with damp Pro-Mix that is leveled off by hand to loosely fill each cell. Then we begin to take the seedlings from the starting flat and plant them individually into the 6 packs. The seedlings are fairly delicate so they must be handled with great care so as not to crush the stems. Some people advocate handling them by the leaves but we have always handled them by the stem being really careful not to squeeze them.

We start by making holes in the soil that fills the 6 packs using a finger all the way to the bottom of the flat. The seedlings are then put roots and everything right to the bottom of the hole. We firm the medium up to support the stem and add a bit extra if it looks like the cell is not full. We pack them firm but not tight. We give them a few days to stabilize and then begin to give them a balanced fertilizer once a week until they are sold.

After a short period of about 2 to 2 1/2 weeks we pinch the tops off to encourage branching. This does not hurt the plants and helps to keep them from getting leggy. We keep them pinched back until they are ready to finish up and go out into the world.

As soon as we can we begin to move them out of the greenhouse and into the sun and wind. At first we give them only an hour or so in the morning or after noon but in a week or 2 they can be left out all the time, unless a frost is imminent. Then we have to decide whether to leave them out and cover them with old sheets or bring them back into the greenhouse which by this time of the year is busting with plants. If the temperatures are forecasted to be in the mid 30s we generally leave them out but any lower they go into the greenhouse. Tomatoes will freeze easily and a freak frost can ruin the whole crop.

Every year we start something different and this year is no exception. We usually have an early determinate variety like early girl or Oregon spring. These tomatoes will grow in a tight bush and stop growing when they are a few fee high, unlike a indeterminate variety like super sweet 100 which will grow 6 to 8 feet high on a trellis. This year we have started a tomato variety called “tumbling tom” which is bred for baskets. Phyllis has tried to grow super sweet 100 in baskets with less than satisfactory results. The super sweets do not want to hang down with out breaking, they are better for climbing. So we thought we would give the tumbling toms a try. There will be a post on them as soon as we see how they were.

For now everything is growing and we have a forecast of at least a week of sunny or partly sunny weather that will give the new tomato starts a great boost.

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