Monday, February 25, 2013

Now is the time to Start Tomato, Pepper Seeds...Indoors

Every summer, I make the same promise to myself: "Next year, fewer tomato and pepper plants!" And every winter in late January, I try to start small. But somehow, things managed to get out of control...But not this year.

I used to say that late January and early February were the ideal times here in Northern California for starting tomato seeds indoors. Ha! On that schedule, there would be a veritable jungle of scrawny, too-tall tomato plants in the greenhouse come late April (BTW, "official" outdoor tomato planting date in Sacramento: April 28).

I have successfully resisted the urge to start 17 different tomato seed varieties, until this week. Seeds in the pots on Feb. 28 ... plants plopped in the ground on Apr. 28. Eight weeks is plenty of time for tomato plants to develop before they are set out.

Right now, the only seeds waiting to pop up in the greenhouse are the 19 pepper varieties, which were just planted last Saturday, Feb. 23. Peppers are a bit slower to develop, so they get a head start. And because peppers like warmer soil temperatures than tomatoes, I'll resist sticking them in the ground until early May.

But while I'm at it this week in the greenhouse, I'll rip open a few more seed packets, such as more cool season leaf crops and summer annual flowers and herbs, especially basil. Those leaf crops (lettuce, spinach, chard) can be transplanted outdoors after about three weeks worth of growth indoors (take a few days to gradually introduce them to the outdoors, perhaps bringing them and their containers back in at night).

Those tomato and pepper plants, along with the summer flowers and herbs you start from seed? Keep them protected, indoors, until mid-April. Then, gradually acclimate them to the outdoors as well. Patience will pay off.

And yet the nurseries have been getting requests from over-eager gardeners for tomato plants for their outdoor gardens...since January. It's the Solanum Siren call of sunny, warmer than usual, winter weekends here. People want their homegrown!  

The main problem with outdoor planting of tomato and pepper plants this time of year? Soil temperature. Those summer vegetables do not start actively growing until soil temps reach the mid-60's, and don't really take off with food production until soil temperatures are above 70. Right now? Soil temperatures are hovering below 50 degrees here in the Sacramento area.

Another good reason to delay outdoor planting of those young vegetables until late April-early May: the wind. March is a very windy month in the Central Valley, with northerly winds hitting 20-30 miles per hour, for several days. Oh,  and the occasional thunderstorm...with hail.

What you need to start your seeds:
• A sunny, indoor window or greenhouse.
• Small pots or flats with good drainage. Clean thoroughly.
• An easy draining, pathogen-free soil mix, preferably soilless.
• No greenhouse? Use good quality light fixtures.
• Air movement.
• Small amounts of fertilizer.
Propagation heating mat (optional for tomatoes; nearly mandatory for peppers).

If you are starting your seeds indoors, you would benefit from an extra lighting system, such as fluorescent bulbs hung a few inches above the plants. If the light source is too far away, the plants will get leggy.

I like to use 3"- 4" azalea pots for starting seeds of tomatoes and peppers. I will plant three or four seeds per pot. When they come up and put on two sets of leaves (about three weeks after germination), I'll transplant them to their own pot.

(NOTE: this is how a small number of plants becomes wayyyyy too many, in a hurry!).
Those old six packs and partitioned flats are ideal for starting green, leafy crops. Thin out the seedlings so that there is only one remaining in each cell.

The real key to seed starting success? The soil. More exactly, the soilless mix. Using soil from your garden to start seeds is filled with threats to seed survival: competition from weed seeds, soil-borne diseases, and too heavy a soil. Damping off, a common malady of new seedlings, is due to cool, wet, heavy soil, a perfect environment for pathogens, especially pythium.

Using a soilless mix to start seeds helps avoid introduction of those pathogens. You can purchase bags of "Seed Starting Mix" at your favorite nursery. 

Or, make your own. The recipe I use:

4 parts well aged compost
2 parts peat moss or coir (be sure to thoroughly moisten the peat moss first)
1 part perlite (aids drainage)

If you are worried that the mix you are using is too heavy, you can help your seeds get off to a good start with bottom heat, via a propagation heating mat. These are especially useful for germinating pepper seeds, which need higher temperatures to germinate.

Put the seed starting mix in each pot or flat, and then thoroughly soak it. Although it isn't necessary for starting seeds, you can add a diluted liquid fertilizer at this time. I tend to use fish emulsion, approximately a ratio of 5-1-1 (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) and a sea kelp product, which promotes root production. Generally, there is no need to fertilize until the seed has produced two sets of true leaves. 

"True Leaves" look like the finished product. The first two leaves that emerge from a seed are usually oval shaped cotyledons, which are embryonic leaves.

The seeds are planted just below the soil surface in each pot, no more than a half inch deep.

Once the seeds are up and growing, introduce some air movement into the room, such as a house fan. This helps the new plants avoid diseases. And, air movement can help strengthen tomato stems, according to Debbie Flower, professor of horticulture at American River College, where they use fans in their greenhouses, for up to 16 hours a day.

Coming in March: those containers of tomato and pepper starts will easily become many more containers of tomato and pepper plants, after separating out the three or four starts per container.

Yep, despite a later start ... it will be another year of too much. 


  1. I have the same problem of starting way too many plants and limiting my varieties of tomatoes, how can you when all the descriptions sound so good. I am experimenting this year with starting seeds in the foam trays with the spongy inserts, I got mine from Gurney's when they had a 50% off sale. So far the lettuce I experimented with had great roots and transplanted really well and is growing great. Just planted a whole tray of tomatoes and one of half peppers and basil last week.

    I have to tell you that I talk about your radio show at work constantly and am often heard to say, "Farmer Fred says..." I always hear good things from your show and since we are in similar zones (I live in Shingletown and work in Redding) your advice always is applicable here! I always plant around Mother's Day since I am about 10 degrees cooler than Redding most days. I think I stopped at 19 varieties of tomatoes this year...not sure where they will go, but they always seem to find a home. My best crops last year grew in a flower bed amongst the flowers.

  2. Thank you for listening to the radio shows! I'll be in your area (sort of your area) on Sat. Apr. 27 at Mendon's Nursery in Paradise, 1-3 pm to talk about vegetable gardening.

  3. I enjoy all your tips and reminders along with your broadcasts and podcasts here in Bakersfield, CA. The Internet is swell.

  4. Say, I just went to play your most recent broadcast and found it to be the real estate hour. Disappointment.

  5. Maybelline, I just found out they fixed it. Sometimes, the Internet is not so swell.

  6. Fred, because I am still "sans greenhouse," I will eventually face a problem that your greenhouse solves and that is the hardening off procedure. But, I got a very good tip from a gardener back east. He made the argument that it's very hard for people who are not home all the time to get the hardening off process right. He's right. There aren't enough hours in the day. So, he puts his plants outside immediately, but then covers his seed starting rack with 4 ml clear plastic cloth sheeting that you would find in the paint department at any big box store. He says it's thick enough to block those harmful UV rays that result in burned leaves and shocked plants, and the best part is you don't have to move the plants in and out. Put them outside, cover them, lift cover to water, and in a week the plants are acclimated. It's something I'll try this year.

    1. That would be an experiment, Bill. Don't try it with ALL your starts.

  7. What a great article. Thank you.

  8. Great article. I thought I was the only one who planted too many tomatoes every year. "Bloody Butcher" was a winner last year. Great flavor and even earlier than "Early Girl". Trying a fairly new, super high lycopene hybrid this year, "Indigo Rose" (indeterminate, 80 days. I'd be interested to hear what other people in the area have tried and had success with.

  9. I always end up with 100 packs of seed on my desk by January. Come April they are all put back on the seed racks. Every Garden Center operator I know goes through the same thing. Every one of us always thinks we will have plenty of time to plant seeds. But we forget about April, May and June.....
    Greg Draiss
    The Real Dirt on Gardening

  10. My husband and I are transforming our yard into an edible garden and have fallen prey to the too many varieties too soon issue. Our indoor nursery is covered with seedling, some of which are getting a bit leggy.

    Ah well, we will do better next year.

    Thanks for the helpful article.