How to Start Tomatoes from Seed

I think the best part of summer is harvesting the first tomato.

Cherokee purple is an heirloom tomato that is easy to grow and one of my favorites!
Heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato

Anticipation builds as the tomatoes go from green to pink to full-blown red.  It’s a game of patience as we wait for just the right moment to pluck it from the vine and take a bite.
Then, as the warm tomato juice dribbles down our chin, we get this overwhelming feeling that all is right in the world.  The heat, humidity, and bugs are suddenly forgotten as we savor the distinct flavor of a vine-ripened, fresh from the garden tomato.  To say it’s a special moment in the garden is really an understatement.
To achieve this nirvana though, you must first start with a tomato plant.  Soon, the box stores and nurseries will be bombarded with several varieties to choose from.  But, if you want to grow your own and try different varieties (and there are hundreds), starting tomatoes from seed is super easy and very rewarding.
The seeds from the small Mexico Midget tomato can be saved from year to year.
I am excited this year to be a part of a trial for a couple of new dwarf tomato plants. This is a project for Craig LeHoullier -also known as the NC Tomatoman.  He is also the author of Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales .  Mr. Le Houllier has been growing and researching tomatoes for almost four decades.  The dwarf tomato idea came from customers that kept asking for tomatoes that were smaller in height and could be grown in containers on their decks and patios.  He found it very hard to find a good open pollinated dwarf variety and, with the help of an Australian gardener friend, they embarked on the journey to change this.  Needless to say, I am very excited to be apart of this project and the seeds he gave me are hopefully on their way to becoming a new, well-loved variety.
For those that would rather watch a video, the quick how-to can be found here.  Otherwise, continue scrolling for more detailed instruction.
To start tomatoes from seed, you first need some containers, potting soil, and lights or a sunny window. Since I have an enormous amount of plants I start each year and several containers of flowers here and there, I buy this growing mix by the a bale from our feed store. It's important to start seeds off right with a good growing mix.
To this I add extra vermiculite and perlite to help with drainage.  I don’t have specific amounts to tell you since I don’t mix the whole bale at one time.
It's important to start seeds and transplants off with a good growing mix. these additives help with drainage and moisture retention.
Most smaller bags of potting or seed starting mix from box stores will be already mixed and ready to go.   The key is to use a good mix from the start.  Don’t skimp here!  Stay away from the fifty pound bags for $.99.  Those deals bring you nothing but heartache and no plants.  I speak from experience.
When I’m ready to plant,  I mix everything together in an old wheelbarrow.  For smaller amounts, a bucket works just fine.  I add water slowly to the mix until everything is slightly moist.
It's important to start seeds and transplants off with a good growing mix.
As far as containers go, I use plastic, nursery pots that I purchased and can be reused.  Yogurt containers, plastic or styrofoam cups, and newspaper pots will work as long as there are a one or two small holes for drainage.  I’ve seen where people use egg shells or egg cartons but, in my opinion, these are really too shallow and tend to dry out very quickly.  Seeds need to be kept moist in order to germinate.
Fill your containers about 3/4 full of moist potting mix and  place one or two seeds in each container.  For these four-inch pots, I sprinkled several seeds.  I do this at the beginning of seed starting season to save time and space.  Sometimes, seeds don’t sprout and I haven’t wasted a lot of space under the lights for nothing.  Then, later, when they sprout and get bigger, I will transplant to different containers.  If you are growing for yourself, just one or two seeds per container is good.
Top off the container with a light layer of mix and gently water.
It's important to start seeds and transplants off with a good growing mix. Don't forget to label!
I place all of my pots in a tray so I can water from the bottom.  I also use a heat mat to speed up germination.  These mats can be ordered from garden supply companies and recently I saw one at our local Lowes.  I’ve also heard of people using old heating pads or electric blankets but personally I have not tried those.
Good lighting is a must for seed starting.
The next consideration is light.  I have a little greenhouse now but, before then, I used my dining room table with grow lights.  A south, sunny window or room that gets lots of sun will work too but, to get seeds off to the right start, they really need about 14-16 hours of light.
And probably one of the most important factor to remember if you save seed is labeling.  If you remember nothing else, remember this:  all tomato seeds look alike.
All tomato seeds look alike. Be sure and label those containers.
And, if you forget that, remember this:  all tomato plants look alike.
All tomato plamts look alike. Be sure and label those containers.
And if you forget that, remember this: label, label, LABEL.  I make up my labels ahead of time and put them in the container immediately after I plant them.  I also make labels for the garden when I plant there as well.  For the most part, the actual tomato will tell me what they are, but some varieties look very similar.  Being a seed saver and seed seller, remembering what you plant is kind of important.
“Did you remember to label those for me?”

Many tomatoes are hybrids.  To create a hybrid, plant breeders cross-pollinate two tomato varieties to create a new tomato.   Hybrid tomatoes have  great flavor too but will not grow true to seed.  So if you find a great tasting tomato that’s a hybrid,  be advised that those seeds need to be bought each year.
Some of my personal preferences are the open pollinated varieties such as Cherokee Purple (my favorite for sandwiches), Mexico Midget (my favorite for salads and eating straight from the garden), Beefsteak (my husbands favorite for a sandwich), and Amish Paste which is a good canning tomato.
What is your favorite tomato?

11 thoughts on “How to Start Tomatoes from Seed”

  1. I think that Amish Paste happens to be one of my favorites because we can most of our tomatoes, but I have not grown it enough to compare it to others. Some of our best productions was with the Roma tomato, but the weather was excellent for them every year we grew it. Amish Paste got the years with less favorable weather, and no Roma to compare them to (during the same year). We have always used Roma for salads, cooking, fresh eating and really everything, so I have no favorite slicing tomato. We usually have one or two other varieties of big tomatoes out there, but I find that they are not necessarily any better. Beefsteak is great, but really no better here than others. I happen to like it only because it is so familiar. I grow cherry tomatoes, but do not eat them, so I would not know what my favorite is. I could not remember the names of the Italian tomatoes. Okay, so I really like Green Zebra for eating fresh.

      • Ha! I did not want to admit that because it is one of those trendy varieties, and I so dislike trends and fads. I still do not know if it is for fresh eating or for cooking. I just ate them.

      • It’s a fun green. You might give the Cherokee Green a try as well. It has a good flavor and is pretty to grow. (Pretty is important, isn’t it?)

    • San Marzano? That’s the paste tomato I typically grow. You should try the Cherokee Purple–I think Brenda would agree.

      • I am not familiar with San Marzano. We grew it only once, and made the mistake of putting it back where tomatoes had been the previous year. We thought they might not notice. To make matters worse, it was a bad year for tomatoes. The fruit we got was quite good, but the performance of the plants was not what it should have been. I suppose we should try it again. It is a name that keeps coming up. I actually did not like Cherokee Purple so much. The flavor was too rich and rather sweet. I sort of disliked the color as well. It did not look like something that would taste good. We grew it only once as well. Most people really liked it.

    • You’re the first person I’ve heard say they do not like the Cherokee Purple. It’s absolutely the best for our southern BLT sandwiches, but to each his own. The San Marzano is a really nice paste tomato. It’s great for sauces, ketchup, etc. I know it is the preferred tomato among my Italian friends.

      • Yes, no one here believes that I do not like it as much as the others either. I do not completely dislike it. I just prefer other. If it were all that was available, I would learn to like it real quick.

  2. Wish my home got enough light to grow anything from seed. As it is, I would need to set up a mini-planting area and, frankly, my garden isn’t large enough to justify the expense. I’ll just continue to plant vicariously when I come here and others’ pages. 🙂

  3. Except for the Cherokee Purple which is my all-time favorite, choosing a favorite tomato is next to impossible. I only grow one hybrid–Orange Perfection–simply because they seed was sent to me as a trial. Otherwise, all of mine are heirlooms. Over the years I’ve tried probably close to a hundred varieties—maybe more, including one year that topped out at 33 different ones. I love experimenting with different ones — colors, shapes, tastes. I do have 3 grow lights — I use shelving in our garage. I think you have to be cautious with heating…I fried a tray of mine one year when the tile underneath the grow light absorbed too much of the heat:( Farming is tough:) I keep hinting that I really need a greenhouse—Hubs isn’t convinced. I can’t complain too much though as he had 4 gorgeous raised beds built for me last year. I love this time of the year with seed starting, etc. Know you do as well. Thanks for sharing your seeds with me. I’ll be glad to return the favor, especially with tomato seeds. Just let me know if you’re interested.

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