Category Archives: seed starting

Repotting tomato plants

packedplantsA big part of raising vegetables from seed is upsizing the pots they live in until they make it out to the garden. For most vegetables the process is straight-forward: carefully pop the plants out of their outgrown container into a slightly larger one, add dirt and water. You don’t want to go too much bigger with the new container because the plants will spend all their time growing roots to fill all that dirt and not growing the actual plant. Most plants will only need to be repotted once before going outdoors. But tomato plants (and sometimes peppers) may take several transplants before they reach the garden. Especially if your growing season is short: You want the biggest plants possible going into the ground on your last frost date.

To get seedlings out of their container:

  • Make sure the soil is wet so it doesn’t stick to the plastic container.
  • Do not pull on the plant, because it will just break!
  • Squeeze the sides of the cell or plastic container to loosen the soil and tip the plant out into your hand. Even if you have a six pack of cells, you should be able to get just one cell out at a time. I cup my fingers in the “receiving” hand so I can catch the soil on my fingertips while the plant is protected by the cupped part of my palm.
  • If the plant is short, you’ll need to put some potting soil in the bottom of the new container to raise it up. Then fill with more soil around the sides.
This plant will end up having soil almost up to it's leaves.

This plant will end up having soil almost up to it’s leaves.

As with all plants, the bigger and stronger the root system, the healthier the plant. Tomato plants have the unique ability to grow roots out of their stems. You could actually break a branch off a mature tomato plant and root it in water or soil! The trick to getting a great root system going on a tomato transplant is to bury the plant up to it’s leaves in soil. Extra roots will grow along the stem. More roots mean more water and nutrition being consumed by the plant, so faster growth. I do this every time I move them to a larger container, and even when I plant them in the garden. They will have a nice tall stem again within a week.

Another thing I learned is that because of this rooting ability, tomatoes don’t seem to mind having their roots disturbed when transplanting. With other plants you have to be extremely careful to not injure the roots and with some vegetables you need to plant the seeds directly into your garden soil because they won’t tolerate transplanting at all. Not tomatoes!

The same plant a week later!

The same plant a week later!

You know how when you’re starting off seeds, it’s recommended that you put 2-3 seeds in each plant cell, since not all seeds will germinate? Then sometimes all the seeds germinate and you’re supposed to pinch off the smaller ones and keep the healthiest plant (if you pull out the smaller ones you will disturb the roots of your chosen surviving plant). Well, a couple of years ago I started separating the baby tomato plants that grew together in the cells, rather than pinching some back. All of the tomatoes transplanted this way survived and flourished! So now I end up with 2 – 3 times as many plants as I expected. I give away and donate whatever I can’t fit into the garden. Need some tomato plants?

When should you plant garden seeds?

Just the beginning…

A week ago I started my seeds indoors for this summer’s garden. Normally the “last frost date” in this area is around May 17, although some sources day as late as June 1—nearly three weeks later than Denver, which is only about 20 miles away! But our elevation is higher and we’re in a more open area than Denver proper, which has it’s own microcosm. I’m aiming for a May 3 or 4 plant date, two weeks earlier than advised, but my hoop frames with row covers will protect the garden from late-season snow and frost.

Wondering what your last frost date it? A great online source for that information is the Farmer’s Almanac web site. All you need to do is enter your town or zip code into the search box and the site will not only give you a last frost date, but also a list of vegetables, when to start your seeds and when to set the plants out—all based on your frost date. Each vegetable on the list is a link to more in-depth information on how to grow that specific veggie. What a great resource! They even have an amazing on-line garden planner that you can use for free for 30 days. 
Seed start planning!

Taking plant dates even a little farther, I put together an Excel chart listing only the vegetables I plan to grow. For plants that didn’t appear on the Farmer’s chart, I either used the recommendations on my seed packages, the charts that come in Park’s Seeds catalogs or looked for an on-line source such as Heirloom Seeds. Some seeds will be sown directly into the garden, on my plant date, so those went to the bottom of my chart. I then sorted the list by seed start date. I’m putting the Excel chart up here for download if you’re interested. You can then personalize the chart for your particular plants and planting schedule. If you don’t have Excel, here’s a PDF version that you can edit by hand. You’ll see a column labeled Actual. I decided to keep track on actual germination time, which can vary depending on temperature of the room in which you’re starting your seeds.

I have sunshine on
a cloudy day!

This year I moved my seed starting operation to a small upstairs bedroom with a south-facing window. It’s very easy to keep that room warm—much warmer than the rest of the house. I bought a second LED grow light to double my coverage, and added a humidifier for moisture and a little more heat, especially for those overcast or snowy days. I was very surprised to see that the first plants to germinate, chamomile and cabbage, came up within three days of planting. Their germination time is supposed to be roughly 7-14 days! In fact, everything I planted last week, with the exception of peppers (bell and Anaheim) and celery, are up and growing. I think I’ll photograph their progress every Sunday and update this post with the photos.

If you’re growing your garden from seed this year, you’d better get to work now! Here is a more detailed post on starting plants from seeds from March of last year.

Starting a Garden from Seeds

Farmer Deb (on left), maybe age 8?

My first experience with germinating seeds was when I was about 5. A neighbor had cleaned out their attic and tossed everything out on their curb for trash pickup. The local rug rats (myself included) thought we’d died and gone to heaven. We went through the entire pile and found loads of treasures. One that I found was an unused kid’s plant growing science experiment kit. It had little clear plastic pots, vermiculite and some radish seeds. When I planted the seeds and they sprouted, I was fascinated with the entire process. Imagine having nothing more than dry dirt and some brown specks and water turn into living, green plants! For years after that I tried to make terrariums in an old 5 gallon fish tank with garden soil and some seeds I’d swiped from our canary’s food dish. When we no longer had Tweety Bird, I would go through our spice cabinet looking for seeds to grow. Actually, I still do that!

Proof that I have a green thumb!

I survive the majority of winter by planning my next garden. Usually after Christmas the seed catalogs start coming in the mail and I’m like a little kid, decades ago, with a new Sears Catalog, closely examining the “enhanced” photos of glorious healthy vegetables at their peak. After a couple of weeks I come to my senses and order only a few packets of things that I know will grow in my garden. Colorado has a very short growing season and so I focus on vegetables that have the shortest growth times from planting to harvest — less than 60 days. I look for the most disease-resistant varieties I can find, without going down that GMO road. Some seeds I don’t even need to buy. If I buy a particularly nice organic winter squash, I’ll save some of the seeds for the garden. I’ve also done this with peppers and tomatoes in the past, but ran into problems with wilt. Most of the time the vegetables I buy in the grocery store have been grown in different areas in the U.S., or otherwise, and may not have resistance to certain organisms found in Colorado. Or maybe they were grown in greenhouses in more sterile conditions. Last year my gorgeous Black Krim tomato plants grown from a Whole Foods tomato purchase succumbed to Fusarium Wilt, just as the tomatoes were growing. It was seriously disappointing. On the other hand, I’ve had really good luck with seeds I saved from a package of Cherub tomatoes. Those little tomatoes are delicious and the plants are incredibly prolific.

My personal priorities for buying seeds and nursery plants are:

1. Vegetables that I use the most get top priority. Once in a while I’ll try something on a whim, like last year’s stevia plant. It did well, I dried the whole thing at the end of the summer, and it’s still sitting in my pantry with the tea. But I know that all year long I use tomatoes in many, many soups and sauces. We love fresh green beans and they are easy to grow and can be prolific. Summer squash is versatile and I use it often. There are a lot more varieties available by seed than in the grocery. I use a lot of Anaheim Chilis for green chili (we char them on the gas grill) and a favorite soup recipe. We love broccoli and use it a lot: steamed, raw, in other dishes. I use broccoli leaves like chard or collards, steamed or sauteed. There are actually a lot more edible veggie plant parts than we are lead to believe! I also grow herbs that I use a lot: basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay, lemon balm. What I have left over in early fall can be dried or preserved in other ways. I have to say I’ve become fond of keeping just one celery plant in the garden. I don’t use celery all that much, usually a couple of stalks here and there in a recipe and have had store bought celery go bad. A living celery plant all summer is very handy, I just go out and rip off what I need and rest continues to grow. And the flavor of home grown celery, like a lot of other produce, is amazing.

2. Plants that have a short growing period vie for first priority. With tomatoes and peppers, I start the seeds indoors at the end of February. Other plants are started based on their harvest times, some seeds even get planted directly into the soil. Still working on the timing of those, but they tend to be carrots, lettuce, arugula. I need to pay more attention to Mom Nature and note which plants resulting from reseeding (seeds dropped from the parent plant the previous summer) start up. I’ve had arugula, carrots, tobacco, some flowers, oregano and dill do this. Tomatoes reseed, but too late to produce fruit. They haven’t caught on yet.

3. Plants that are hardy, again very important! Another major consideration. I typically don’t grow things that I know won’t grow here. I also choose resistance to as many diseases as possible without going GMO.

4. Vegetables, fruits and herbs that can be preserved. Whether by freezing (broccoli, summer squash, various peppers and basil in a pesto sauce); canning and/or pickling such as tomatoes, apples, pickled cukes and okra, green beans, grapes; dehydrating such as tomatoes, herbs, garlic; culturing such as cabbage for sauerkraut, carrots, leafy greens, radishes, kohlrabi; or “root cellaring” like green tomatoes, root vegetables and winter squash. Why should you only reap the benefits of an organic garden during the short summer season?

Starting from seeds vs. buying seedlings – some FAQs
Why buy seeds vs. seedlings? My first thoughts are: more variety, monetary savings and the pleasure of growing something yourself. I’ve been starting my own plants for decades, but when early summer hail storms destroy everything I’ve worked towards, I end up replacing my home-grown plants with store-bought ones. On the up side, buying store-bought usually means getting what is hardy for where you live. But, there’s also the lack of variety involved with buying store plants. Yet, if a hail storm has destroyed my garden I’d rather go boring than go nothing at all. If cost is an issue, consider that an entire package of seeds costs less (usually) than buying one commercial seedling.

What’s involved with growing from seed? Growing plants from seed is interesting, rewarding and fairly easy. My favorite incubator is one of those plastic trays with a clear plastic lid, 6-cell trays fit inside. It just takes some seed starter mix (make sure you use this, it’s fine and sterile and a happy medium for seeds), some seeds and water. Starter mix should be mixed with water until spongy. Fill the tray cells with the starter, use a pencil to poke some holes in the dirt, toss in 2-3 seeds and cover with a teensy bit of soil. General rule of thumb is bury the seed with soil 2x the size of the seed. Make sure you mark your trays with a Sharpie or tags so you know what you planted. I put my trays on top of the fridge since the temperature is fairly warm and consistent. Seeds do not need light until they sprout through the soil. Some seeds sprout quickly — tomatoes can take just 3-4 days, peppers can take a week or two, carrots take forever. If you’re in a hurry, a heating pad under the tray helps. Check the seeds every day for growth and water needs. The ones that have sprouted need to be removed from the incubator so they can get some light and air circulation. As they outgrow their little cells, you’ll need to transfer them to bigger containers and start introducing your actual garden soil into the mix. Make sure they don’t dry out, and add some plant food here and there.

Indoor green beans.

Do you need a grow light? In the past I was able to successfully grow seedlings on window sills, in our sunroom or under fluorescent lights. Last winter I bought myself a full spectrum LED grid light — the choice of marijuana growers here in Colorado.  I kept track of the growth of the seedlings throughout the winter and was BLOWN AWAY by the results. The plants grew super healthy and stocky in an amazingly short period of time. The plants flowered and I actually had little green beans while the plants were in 4″ planters. I am using that same light this year with tomato and pepper seedlings and am again amazed. I have the light on 12 hours a day, on a timer, and my tomatoes and peppers are growing at record rates with NO LEGGINESS at all. Plants that don’t get enough light tend to grow tall and spindly (leggy), searching for the light.

In the pot: grow light collards;
on the counter, sunny window grown.

These plants are deep green, stocky and very happy. Next winter I’m going to experiment with keeping tomato plants alive and producing throughout the winter with my LED light.

Why not collect your own seeds from store-bought produce? As mentioned before, saving seeds from store-bought veggies don’t always work out, as some of those plants are just not meant to be grown in my (or your) climate and may succumb to diseases they are not resistant to. There’s also that question of how long it takes for the produce to grow from planting time.

Why deal with those little 6 cell packs? Why not just go for a bigger pot to start off? One year, not long ago, I thought, “why not just put those tomato seeds in a big pot and save myself some work?” Well, the little plants spent all of their energy growing roots to fill all that dirt, and never put any thought into growing their above-ground parts. So, there is a real reason to start small and graduate the planter size. At least in our colder climates where growing season is an issue.

Do I need to use seed starter and potting soil for my plants? In the beginning, yes. But to avoid transplant shock when you finally add your plants to the garden, you should have your seedlings in 100% of your garden soil by then. Otherwise you’ll slow down the growth (harvest time) of your veggies.

What else do I need to do? The first thing that comes to my mind is don’t forget to “harden off” your seedlings. That means to the weather, the sun and to wind. I’m thinking Colorado again. Seedlings, especially those who have not had a grow light, will be a little spindly. If you put them out in the garden without hardening off, they will be shocked by the night time temps, burned by our relentless sunshine and beat to a pulp by our wind. If your plants are spindly, you need to add a fan to their daily routine. The fan will blow on them and cause them to thicken their stems. To introduce your plants to sun and night temps, you’ll have to put them outside for for increasing amounts of time so they get used to nature. You can use this info for all of your seedlings. Kind of makes you wonder how plants have survived without human intervention, doesn’t it? Well, the fact is that we, in modern times, grow plants in our climates that otherwise would not have a chance of surviving.


In Colorado, unless you have a greenhouse, gardening is still a crap shoot. There are hail storms. Bunnies. Late freezes and snow. Early freezes and snow. Diseases. Unseasonable weather. Technical difficulties. In the 30 years that I’ve lived here, even under the worst circumstances, gardens eventually take care of themselves and produce some degree of satisfaction and sustenance. Growing my plants from seed is very satisfying and really not difficult. And when Mom Nature has other ideas, there’s always Whole Foods. So, happy gardening and never give up!