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It's not Too Late to Plant Tomatoes

04/16/02 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer

(Host) Commentator Henry Homeyer says that if you haven't already started tomato seedlings, it's not too late. And even if you've never done it before, it's not too hard.

(Homeyer) Although some gardeners start their tomato seeds by town meeting day, I'm not one of them. I like to plant them indoors in April, about mid-month. This means that they'll be young and vigorous when planted in June. Planting seeds too early usually means that your plants will be pot-bound and stressed out by the time they go in the ground. By starting now, you can plant your tomatoes outdoors when soil temperatures are more to their liking, and they'll do better.

Starting seedlings really is easy, especially if you know what pitfalls to avoid. Start your seeds in all-purpose potting mix. It's sterile, holds water, and has a bit of nutrition. Seeds need to be kept moist while they're getting ready to germinate; if you let the growing medium dry out, the seeds may fail to produce. That problem is easily solved by covering your seed flats with plastic wrap or those clear plastic humidity domes sold at garden centers. As your plants get big and leafy, you'll have to check on them daily, and water before they wilt.

Proper temperature is important for your seedlings, too. Most seeds germinate quickly at about 72 degrees. However once they've started, they need a cooler place, about 62. Higher temperatures tend to accelerate growth, while cool temperatures favor stockier, stronger plants. If your house cools off at night, all the better.

A few weeks after germination you should start watering your seedlings with a dilute fertilizer, as the nutrition in the potting mix gets used up or washed away pretty quickly. I use an organic fertilizer made from processed fish. Fortunately, it doesn't interest my cats, Winnie and Malika.

Young plants need lots of light to be happy. Without enough light they reach and stretch, trying to get closer to the sun. Seedlings aren't very smart. They don't know the sun is actually hanging out in the Bahamas right now, and that stretching won't help. They try, and become weak, floppy plants. Ideally, you should have fluorescent lights that are about six inches above your plants. Use a fixture that holds two 4-foot long bulbs. This will very nicely illuminate two flats, each containing up to 72 seedlings. Hang the lights by chain in such a way that you can raise the lights as your plants get taller. Remember to turn off the lights at night, as your plants need a good night's sleep just as much as you do.

So if you haven't started your tomatoes yet, don't despair. Get started, and perhaps it'll boost your spirits during the raw, gray days of spring. Oh, and one last suggestion: play a little Mozart for your plants. It works for me!

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, thinking about spring in Cornish Flat, N.H.
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