Growing Tomatoes

Described below is a reliable and economical method for growing tomatoes in areas with a short growing season.  No greenhouse required!  We have been gardening in the mountains of central Pennsylvania for 11 years and found that the rainy summers, late frosts and cool nights to be quite a challenge.  Our process for starting tomatoes has been continuously improved over the years and we are very happy with the results.

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Early Treat Tomato at Everfield

If you are looking for tomato variety performance data for our highland Pennsylvania climate, check out our variety pages. >

Indoor Seed Starting

We've tested store bought seed starting mix, peat pots, peat pellets, and different styles of seed starting trays with varying levels of success.  Below is our tried and true, economical system for growing tomatoes from seed:

Materials

  • Mix your own seed starting soil or use Ready made seed starting soil mix.  Don't use regular potting soil (its not sterile).  It must specifically say its for seed starting.  We mix our own since it is more economical.
  • Clean flats, 1" x1" opening size x 2.5" deep cell size.
  • Plant tray (w/o holes) to hold the flats
  • Clear tray lid.  Use the tallest available.
  • Plastic plant labels.  Don't use Popsicle sticks since the wood grows mold.
  • Dibble stick or a pencil.
  • Watering can or turkey baster.
  • Heat source (see details below)
  • Light source (see details below)

Optional:

  • Seed dispenser
  • Temperature monitor/thermostat

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Light Sources

Bright window:  East facing is good.  South facing is best.  If you don't have any good windows, you'll still have success using grow lights.

Plant grow lights:  Even with a good window, winter daylight is too short.  We supplement natural light with grow lights. 

Grow Light Hours

  • Before seeds are up: 24 hr/day.   We've found that it helps the seedlings if they get light as soon as they emerge.
  • When Seedlings have germinated:  10 - 16 hours per day.  They need a period of darkness each day.

Lights need to be at the correct distance from the plants.  Too close and the center plants get all the light.  Too far and the light is too weak.  Adjust so that the cone of light reaches the edge of your flat.  A rule of thumb for fluorescent tube lights is 6 - 8 inches from the plants.

Seed Starting Soil Recipe

  • 1 part perlite The one we use has fertilizer added which seems to help.
  • 1 part vermiculite. We use fine texture for seed starting.
  • Large mixing tub or bowl for combining ingredients.

  • ~1 part warm water.

Mix the first 3 ingredients until uniform.  Add some water, to make the soil damp.  Mix thoroughly.  Squeeze a handful of the mix.  It should clump together, fall apart easily and definitely not drip.  This mix contains about the minimum amount of vermiculite needed to prevent the peat from crusting.  You can add more vermiculite if you wish.  You can even start seeds in 100% vermiculite.  But its expensive.  This mix works great and is very economical.

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Planting Tomato Seeds Step-By-Step

  1. Start your seeds 6-8 weeks prior to last frost.
  2. Mark the plant labels with the variety names you are planting.
  3. Prepare the Seed Starting soil mix or use commercial seed starting mix.  Our recipe is above.
  4. Fill the cells in the flats to the top.  Don't firm.
  5. Bump the bottom of the tray against the work table to eliminate any voids in the soil.  Add more soil to cells that settle.
  6. Poke 2-3 holes 1/4" deep in each cell with a dibble stick or the sharpened end of a pencil.
  7. Drop a seed in each hole.
  8. Tap the soil surface with your finger to cover the seed.
  9. Insert labels at the edge of the cells.
  10. Place the flats in the trays.
  11. Put the lid on the trays and move to your heat source (75-80 F).  Warmth is critical for rapid germination.  The longer germination takes the more likely the seed will die.

Heat Sources

For really good germination and rapid growth you need to keep the soil between 75 and 80 degrees F.  You can use..

Heat Mats:  Great way to get the quick germination you need.  Soil temperature should be around 80 degree F.  The setup can be tricky since some manufacturers instructions are inadequate.  Click on our Using Heat Mats page for details.

Radient Heat Source (Best) such as wood, pellet, or coal stove.  Turns the room into the perfect seed starter.  Feels like a summers day.  Soil is warm.  Leaves and stems dry quickly to combat damping off and other diseases.

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An alternative to the traditional bank of fluorescent grow lights is to use individual grow light bulbs in conventional fixtures.  This one hangs from a chain so the distance from the plants can be adjusted.  This bulb is not bright enough to meet the entire light requirements of these seedlings.  However, this is a bright window and we have found it sufficient to fill in for when the sun goes down.

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Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

Materials

  • Potting soil in a bin or tray.  If you are going to do a lot of transplanting and want to save some money, you can make your own soil (see recipe below).
  • Watering can, pitcher, or turkey baster and a bucket of water.
  • Permanent Ink Marker.
  • Dibble bar or pencil.
  • Grow lights: 10-16 hours/day.  Provide artificial lighting as needed.
  • Trays, storage totes, or egg crates (Optional) Use for holding and moving lots of plants.  See the tote page for the +/- of the different options.
  • Seedling pots about 6" tall:  We have used 20 oz. styrofoam cups  with a few holes punched in the bottom.  These make great seedling holders allowing for deep, long root formation.  They don't grow mold like peat pots and keep soil temperature stable.

Please Reduce/Reuse/Recycle:  See http://search.earth911.com/ for a #6 polystyrene drop off near you.  This year we would like to find a container that is "greener" than the styrofoam cup.  We'll let you know how it goes.

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Transplant Soil Recipe

  • 3 parts sphagnum peat moss
  • 3 parts commercial potting mix.
  • 1/2 part Pearlite
  • 1/2 part Vermiculite
  • ~1 parts warm water
  • Large tray or bin for mixing.

Mix the first 4 ingredients until uniform.  Add some water to make the soil damp.  Mix thoroughly.  Peat moss is extremely dry so work the water in well until the mix is uniformly damp.  Squeeze a handful of the mix.  It should clump together, fall apart easily and definitely not drip.  Some commercial soil mixes are provided slightly damp so the amount of water you need to add will vary.

Hardening Off

Hardening Off

Growing tomatoes indoors creates weak plants that can't handle full sun for long periods.  Hardening off is the process of getting them toughened up. 

  1. Expose to full sun for about 1 hr/day and breezes as long as possible.  Avoid wind.
  2. Increase exposure slowly.

Bleached leaves (whitish fading) or broken stems means the sun or wind is being increased too fast.

The transparent tote lets in light, but protects the plants from wind.  While they are small, you can put on the lids to stop excessive sunlight, wind, rain or chilly nights. Once they get too big for the lids, keep them under a porch roof or other cover during rainy days.

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Your tomato seedlings will grow out of their flats well before they can be moved to the garden.  Growing tomatoes don't mind transplanting and will not shock if its done right.  We move seedlings into individual cups and keep them in totes or boxes.  The totes provide portability and protection.  As spring temps and sunshine arrive, we move the plants outside. 

For the pros and cons of different tote options see the tote page.

Transplanting Step-By-Step

Transplant when seedlings are about 5-7 inches and sturdy enough for handling.  Soil should be just slightly damp.  Wet soil is too heavy and will break the delicate roots.  Plants should not be stressed.  If they are a bit wilted from lack of water, water them, allow them to recover and then transplant.

  1. Prepare seedling soil mix in a large bin or tray (see recipe below).  You can also use commercial potting soil but pour it into a bin so you aren't struggling to get it out of the bag.  You need to be able to move quickly and easily
  2. Mark the cup with the variety being transplanted
  3. Fill the cup to within an inch of the top with transplanting soil (see recipe at left below).
  4. Make a hole: Push the dibble bar or pencil down into the soil at least 3".  Swirl it around to clear out a cone shaped hole.  The damp soil will cling to the sides.
  5. Cut out a cell from the flat or a group of cells if they are the same variety.
  6. Remove seedlings: Tip the cell(s) on its side and push on the bottom to push out the seedlings.  Gently place them on the soil.
  7. Separate the seedlings if both have germinated.  Its easy at this stage.
    If you transplant late, this may not be possible.  In this case, plant both together.  You can snip off one once they are potted.
  8. Plant:  Hold the seedling in the cup so that its roots and ~3" of stem are in the soil hole.
  9. Tap the sides of the cup with your free hand.  The soil will settle around the plant perfectly.
  10. Water once with about 1 cup of water.
  11. Place the cup in a tote.

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Watering

We use a turkey baster while the tomato plants are small because it allows us to tightly control water volume and pressure.  When they are larger we shift to a hose with a sprayer

  • Check daily
  • Feel the soil with your finger and look at the color (light=dry, dark=wet).  Check all the cups.
  • Water only cups that feel/appear dry.  Try to keep the stems and leaves dry.
  • Water gently so the soil is not moved off the roots.
  • Keeping a small amount (1") of water in the tote will steady the moisture level of the soil and lessen the need for top watering.  Too much top watering will start diseases like tomato blight and rot the stem.
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Important:  You should not bring fungicide sprayed plants into your home.  But, tomato blight control requires either spraying or keeping the leaves dry.  Therefore, we keep the leaves dry while watering and keep the seedlings out of the rain.

Everfield's tote seedlings

Another advantage of the large transplant cups:  There is little danger of stunting the plants if spring comes late.  The plants can get quite large and still be perfectly happy in their cups.  Great for areas with short growing seasons.

Garden Preparation

When the ground has thawed enough to be worked, its time to prepare the garden.

These are the methods that have worked for us.

Tilling:  For large gardens or to quickly improve a small garden.  Improves drainage, oxygenation.  Helps you incorporate organic matter.  Till 6 or more inches when the soil is slightly damp, not wet.

Mulch Gardening/Raised Beds:  For heavy clay or very rocky soil, you can add planting material over your existing ground.

  • Mulch:  Six to 12 inches of decomposed material including  compost, manure etc.  Some straw can be used but not too much as it stays wet and molds.  Mix the straw with the compost mix and then cover with more mix.  The more decomposed material the better.  Some people use newspaper in layers with the compost.  We have chickens that scratch at the mulch and rip up the newspaper so we stopped using it.
  • Purchased Soil:  Purchased top soil is a quick but expensive solution.  Be aware there is a lot of good looking but very poor quality soil being sold by the truckload.  Buy from someone you trust or have the soil tested.  We've bought great looking soil that killed everything we planted in it.
  • Containment:  To provide a neat appearance, enclose with bricks, rock etc..   Introduce some worms for best results.

Hand Digging:  Do-able if you have a small garden and good soil.  Sharpening the edge of the shovel reduces the effort.  Try and turn the soil to a depth of 6 inches.  Digging really dry or wet soil can increase the effort required.  When its dry and hard, our soil is easier to dig if we water it well and then go back and dig it the next day.

Container Gardening: Great for reducing rabbit or chicken damage, reducing weeds and having to bend over so much. 

  • Container:  Large pot or planter that will be very heavy so it doesn't fall over when the plants are loaded with fruit or vegetables.  Wider containers are more stable.
  • Soil:  50/50 mix of garden dirt and potting soil works well.  If you have good garden soil, then that is all you need.  Straight potting soil generally isn't dense enough to hold the plant or tomato stakes upright.
  • Fertilizer:  Use all purpose fertilizer or manure regularly.  Containers limit the plants access to nutrients.

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Tomato Seedling Planting

When all danger of frost is past (early June were we are), the soil is warm and the plants are hardened off, its time for planting tomatoes (seedlings, not seeds).  The steps are pretty much the same whether you are doing a raised bed, a pot or a 50' x 50' garden.

  • Spacing between plants:  2 feet
  • Spacing where you are going to walk: 3 feet
  • Hole depth:  1 foot +
  • Fertilizer:  All purpose garden, manure, liquid rapid release.

This is best done on overcast or cool days to reduce transplant shock.

Tomato Planting Step-By-Step

  1. Layout and mark where you want the plants to go.  You don't have to do straight rows.  Just follow the spacing rules.
  2. Dig holes at each mark, 1 foot deep.  If you did a mulch garden, you need to break through any newspaper layers and push the mulch aside.
  3. Move the plant(s) to the garden.
  4. Water seedlings if dry.  Don't plant them if they are wilting.  Let them recover first
  5. Remove a plant from the tote or flat.  If your seedlings are big and you used our tote method, the simplest way to untangle is to tip the tote gently on its side and lift the tote away so the seedlings slide out.  Then they are easy to maneuver and detangle.  See pic above right.
  6. Remove the plant from its cup:  Hold the plant upside down, with fingers over the soil.  Gently deform the cup all over by squeezing.  The root ball will come free and gravity will lower it into your  hand.  Avoid the temptation to pull on the stem.
  7. Place in a hole (immediately)  You should bury about half the plant.  If your site is windy, plant it at an angle as though its been partly blown over.  This really reduces breakage.
  8. Backfill the hole(immediately) burying the root ball, stem and any branches or leaves that are below soil level.  If the soil is very dry or its really windy and hot, you can wet the root ball and soak the soil as you put it in the hole.  This takes more time, of course, but will reduce transplant shock.
  9. Label:  Plants from the local nursery sometimes have tags with the plant.  You can purchase blank tags (Use non fading markers).  If you used our cup system, the cup can be used as a label.  Dig out a cup sized hole beside the plant, put the cup in it and weight it down with some dirt or a rock.
  10. Water thoroughly:  Ideally you don't want the plants to wilt.  If they are wilting, try planting them faster and water them longer.  If it is a hot sunny day, waiting until late afternoon will also help.  If you watered them in in step 8 you can skip step 10.
  11. Staking / Support:  At some point nearly all tomato varieties require support if you want them off the ground.  This doesn't have to be done immediately but some designs are difficult to install once the plant gets big.

Backfilled

Materials

  • Totes or flats with seedlings.
  • Measuring tape.
  • Hose with sprayer head.
  • Shovel
  • Trowel
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Remove the plant
Seedling in a 12 inch hole.  We don't bury the cups with the plants.
Cups become the labels
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Fertilizing

Rotted manure:  If you have access to this, it makes an amazing garden.  It doesn't burn the plants, improves the soil, releases nutrients over time and still provides the kick your plants need to be productive.

Application

  • Top dress:  Just lay down 1 - 3 inches on the surface after planting.  Easy.  Every time you water or it rains, the nutrients leach into the soil.  Reapply during the growing season if the plants start to slow down or lose their deep green color prior to cold weather.
  • Work Into Soil:  If your soil is hard, high in clay or rock you may want to do this to improve the soil.  Work in the manure during tilling or add a shovel full when back fill the planting holes.

Rapid release liquid fertilizer:  This is great for providing rapid results.  There are lots of application systems.  We like the containers that you attach to your hose and then just spray like you are watering your garden.  If you know your soil is low in nutrients, spray on the young plants and the soil immediately around them.  Use during the growing season if you think the plants are starting to slow down.  If you buy the kind you have to mix yourself, follow dilution instructions carefully so you don't burn the plants.

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