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Getting a head start on tomatoes with seeds.

The ideal tomato plant to set out in your garden is dark green and stocky, has about six pairs of leaves, and isn't root-bound. But the seedlings you buy don't always meet these criteria.

There is an alternative. If you are choosy about the condition of your plants or if you want to try a tomato variety not sold at your nursery, you can grow your own plants from seeds you sow in containers, in a coldframe or greenhouse or indoors.

Seeds are widely available by mail order and at nurseries and garden supply centers. Among the novelties you might wish to grow from seed are a hollow tomato (for stuffing), white or yellow tomatoes (low acid content), or any number of drawf or compact varieties for pots, hanging baskets, or small gardens.

Sow the seeds about six to eight weeks before planting-out time in your region: in January for the desert, February for mild-winter areas. Watch the temperature

For best results, germinate the seeds in a coldframe or greenhouse at a soil temperature of 70 deg. to 85 deg. After transplanting, gradually acclimate plants to lower temperatures, comparable to what they'll experience later on when planted outdoors. If your coldframe has a heating cable, you can lower its thermostat after germination and cool the soil around the seedlings to about 60 degrees. To check temperature without such a control, stick a thermometer into the soil and take a reading once a day for three days.

You can also start tomatoes in the house--provided night temperatures are cool and there's lots of daylight. The soil isn't necessarily soil

The growing medium should be both fast-draining and moisture-retaining. You can use commercial potting mix or a blend of 1/2sand and 1/2 peat moss. One grower uses pure leaf-and-manure compost. Another, who swears by 1/3 sphagnum and 2/3 garden soil, claims that the organisms in unsterilized soil naturally "weed out" weaker seedlings. Containers to use

Start seeds in flats, cell-packs, or 2-inch pots. Transplant seedlings into 4-inch pots so that root systems can develop vigorously. Or use expandable peat pellets--convenient, though more expensive (about 16 cents each). Seeding, watering, fertilizing

Sow seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep. (Stored in a moistureproof container in the freezer, leftover seed can be used for up to three years after the date shown on the packet.) Press soil over seeds, then water in gently. Cover containers with newspaper or enclose in a plastic bag; remove when seedlings push through soil surface.

About four days after germination, thin seedlings to 1 inch apart in flats or one plant per cell in cell-packs or 2-inch pots. Water only enough to keep the root zone consistently moist.

Plants start taking up nutrients at germination, though their tiny roots burn easily. Mix a half-dose of a complete dry fertilizer into the planting medium before seeding (this will suffice until plants go into the garden) or feed, starting at germination, with a low-analysis liquid fertilizer according to label directions. Light can be natural or not

After germination, it's ideal for seedlings to have full sun all day long--low light makes them spindly. If you don't have a sunny window or if weather is cloudy, use fluorescent lights positioned 1 foot away from seedlings grown indoors. How and when to transplant

When flat-sown seedlings reach the first true-leaf stage (each has one pair of pointed leaves in addition to the original pair of seedling leaves), plant in cell-packs or 2-inch pots. You can loosen soil around roots with little setback.

But when transplanting larger seedlings to 4-inch pots, be sure they are fully rooted (you should see a few root tips when you slip the plant out of an inverted container) and take care to distub roots as little as possible.

To prevent plants from becoming root-bound (with roots that get densely packed in the shape of the container) while waiting for inclement weather to pass, some growers transplant again--this time from 4-inch pots to 1-gallon containers.

When your container-sown plants have developed several pairs of true leaves, it's time to harden them off before transplanting to the garden. For two weeks, leave the coldframe open or place plants outdoors at night (unless frost threatens).

At this point your tomato plants should be ready to flourish in the garden. For ways to improve your harvest, see the Sunset Western Garden Book.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Jan 1, 1984
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