Nothing signals the start of the spring gardening season more than the act of starting your tomatoes, the ritual of growing tomatoes from seed.
There is something comforting about gardening. Not the tangible tasks, digging in the soil or the repetitive patterns of planting or weeding. Feeling the warm sun hit your back. The gentle (or not so gentle) aches you get from shoveling all day long. These are comforting and grounding in their own way.
No, I’m talking about an unseen comfort.
It comes from understanding and experiencing the rhythms of the garden. It’s the unseen beacon of hope. Knowing that regardless of how bad your winter is, that spring will once again come. It’s starting seeds while there is still frost outside, in complete faith that the earth will continue to spin, bringing us back into the light. It’s anticipating the same tasks done, year after year.
Growing tomatoes from seed is a dance, where your partner is the earth, the soil, the light, the warmth. As you promenade across the dance floor, you spin closer to the end, the final bow or curtsey, leaving you with jewels that hang off vines and baskets loaded with ripe, bright fruit.
If you are new to growing tomatoes from seed, your dance might be choppy, missing steps, leading to tumbles. But you pick yourself up and you try again. With each season, you fall into the rhythm. You still can’t fully understand the moves of the living forces you share this dance with, nature is unpredictable, but you can guess, you can anticipate.
First, you start with seed catalogs.
As the calendar ends and you turn a new page to the new year, you carefully watch the postbox, eagerly awaiting the arrival of your invitation. You open it up, settling down with a cup of tea, becoming enamored with the glossy pictures and the descriptions. While rain falls on the roof or you see more snow pile up on the drive, tomatoes provide a glimmer of hope and color to otherwise gray days.
As you consider what varieties you want to grow, you have the internal battle of your mind, knowing that you really only have space for 5 plants, but you try to convince yourself you can fit in a few more (which, coincidentally, this same battle happens later in the season when you’re actually planting).
You place your order for your tomato seeds. Sometimes the logical brain wins. Sometimes, it’s the dreamer’s brain. You can always tell which one wins by examining seed collections. How many extra seeds are there, hidden in the seed stash?
Next, you plant your tomato seeds.
The last anticipated frost is determined, marked with a note on the calendar square. You count back, 8 weeks, making a star on the date. That is the date to start growing your tomatoes from seed.
You dig your equipment out of the shed. You need your heating mat, a grow light, your containers. The first time, if you’re like me, you may have tried to grow your tomato seeds in a sunny windowsill. But, as you quickly learned, our homes don’t have enough light. You were left with sad, leggy plants who struggled. As you tossed them into the compost, you vowed to do better next time.
And you did. You provide them with the conditions they need to thrive. By filling your containers with seed starting mix, not garden soil, you prevent any pathogens or molds or other stuff that will cause your seedlings to keel over and die. Gently placing a seed in each cell, you barely push it under the soil, brushing the soil back over the seed. You cover it not too deep, just a 1/4″ thick blanket, to keep it hidden and protected until it’s time to wake.
The heating mat is turned on, a plastic layer nestled under your seedling trays, which gently brings the soil temperature to 70 degrees. You water the soil and ask your tomatoes to please wake up.
Waiting and Watching
The next step in growing tomatoes from seed is full of anticipation. It’s waiting. Watching. Carefully checking for signs of sprouting and growth. You look for the tiny bump of soil, being pushed up by a seedling stretching underneath.
Once you see the green emerge, the slender stem of your tomato plant, you turn on your grow light. For 12 hours, your home is now filled with the full spectrum light from your fluorescent grow bulbs. Turning off the lights at night, you allow the plants to rest, recuperate, recharge for another day of growing.
You keep an eye on the soil, making sure it doesn’t dry out. You watch with awe as the cotyledon, the seed leaves, unfold, pushing the shell of the seed aside. Over a matter of days, new leaves appear, true, tiny tomatoes seeds.
After a few weeks, you take your dance outside. But, just temporarily. The tomato babies have outgrown their seedling containers. You know it’s the time when you can spot tiny roots, poking from the holes at the bottom of the cells. These fine white threads are starting to circle the container, urging to stretch out, pacing the constructed dance floor of a container. You need to give them more space to stretch and move.
In 4″ containers, you sprinkle the bottom with a handful of potting soil. You gently remove the baby from the smaller space and nestle it in the container. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny hairs growing on the stem. These are the start of roots, eager to set foot in the soil. You bury the seedling deep into its new home.
Then, back into the house and under the light. It’s not yet spring. The days must be longer. The nights must be warmer. It’s not yet ready for the long stretch. You continue the steps of the dance.
For almost 4 weeks, the tomatoes have grown, transforming into miniature versions of their adult selves. The tiny root hairs have grown strong, stretching out into the container, giving a strong base. The leaves are lush and green, deeply forked and glistening under the grow light. About a week around that famous last anticipated frost date, you guide your plants outdoors.
It’s almost time to let them loose for their own dance. Soon, they no longer need a partner. You set them in a sheltered sunny spot, perhaps the deck, perhaps out in the garden. But only for a few hours. Too much of a good thing can shock the poor things. You bring them back inside. The next day, it’s a little bit longer. And so on, until finally, about a week later, they have their first sleepover in the garden.
They sit in their pots, all night long, in the spot they will be planted. They hang out here, for a few days, but as your partner, you make sure they are still carefully watered. Dancing tomatoes can get dry. You check the weather. Any sudden cold front requires a cover, or a retreat back inside.
The Final Planting
The last anticipated frost date has passed. Your tomatoes are ready to sink their roots into their final growing spot. You dig deep holes, carefully removing the plant from its pot, and once again, plant deep, covering the stem which will transform into roots. You gently pack the soil around the plant.
The ritual of growing tomatoes from seed has come to an end. This phase of the dance has ended.
And now, you once again wait. You watch. You anticipate the next beat of the rhythm.