Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tomatoes & Peppers from Seed vs. Store-Bought

Huge Soldaki's from 2012
Every year, we go through the same thing: Should we plant seeds for our Tomatoes and Peppers, or just wait around for the plants to start showing up at the Nurseries & Big Box Stores?

The decision, most often, depends upon our schedules, the weather, and whether we've done a good job at saving and/or sourcing seeds.  I've written in detail about that last year, but I wanted to point out that saving seeds is really easy once you've found varieties that you like.

In 2012, we had been given a Polish heirloom, Soldaki, from a friend, and we planted just one of them in a new area of the garden that had not previously been planted with tomatoes.  Well, that plant produced some of the largest tomatoes we've ever grown, and in abundance all the way until the first frost - and we picked dozens of green ones that were at all stages of development that lasted a full month after that frost!

Our schedule this year has been hectic, to say the least.  So earlier in the winter, we had decided that 2013 might just be a year we leaned on the Nurseries for our supply of tomatoes.  But, as we got to thinking about the Soldaki's in particular, we just couldn't bear the thought of missing out an all that salsa, marinara, and pico that we enjoyed all last summer - and even the frozen stuff we have in the freezer to enjoy today!

So, the process of saving seeds is easy.  While there's lots on the Internet showing you the "proper" ways, we've simply taken the gooey insides of the tomato that include the seeds, and put them onto a wax paper or a paper towel sitting on a paper plate.  After a few weeks, we bundle that up in a plastic bag, and put them in a cool dark place till spring.  They come off the wax paper more easily, but even with a little paper towel residue, they should germinate just fine.

This is, by the way, how to obtain heirloom seeds that you can't seem to find anywhere local or online.  We've all been to Farmer's Markets and Nurseries that have varieties that seem unobtainable elsewhere.  Well, just buy one plant, and save some seeds from the fruits - and voila, you've got those heirlooms in abundance to plant, harvest, and even share with others.

For seed starting, we recommend using Jiffy Self-Watering Heated Greenhouse.  It sounds fancy, but it's just 70 pellets in a plastic tray, with a clear-plastic top that keeps the moisture inside to cycle back and keep the peat moist for germination.  A heater pad goes underneath to keep the temperature optimal, and sprout those seeds quicker than they would on a drafty window sill.

We also use an indoor gardening light to keep the light on the seedlings regulated.  We use an LED light from Sunshine Systems (called a UFO) that gives the seedlings a mix of red and blue light, while only using 90 watts to output about the equivalent of 400 watts of light from other types of indoor growing lights.  Once they have several pairs of leaves, we start to harden them off with a stronger Metal Halide indoor light.

Generally, you can start seeds indoors about 5-8 weeks before you want to plant outdoors.  The stronger they are when they see the real sun and wind, the more likely they are to survive.  I can't emphasize enough that you need to put them out for small amounts of time each day (maybe 30 minutes the first day, graduating up to a few hours) until they seem strong enough to withstand spring breezes.

Also, Wallowaters are extremely helpful when planting outdoors, as they give tomatoes much warmer temperatures to vegetate.  You want a big healthy plant with lots of vine branches before it starts flowering to maximize your harvest.

Well, hoping that everyone puts on their gardening hats and gets their seedlings started, or starts looking for their seeds for a bountiful 2013!

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