It is best to start tomato plants indoors

February 14, 2018

We love to shorten words, often to point that the original word is lost. Fax is short for facsimile; cellphones are so called because originally they were linked to towers on a cellular grid, and if you are crazy about something, you are a fan, the shortened form of fanatic.

Many of us are fans of tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), the most popular vegetable in American gardens. A dear old friend, affectionately known as Aunt Edna or Aunt Eddie (but never Aunt Ed - masculine, she said) was a fan of tomatoes. She once implored me to give her real, juicy homegrown red tomatoes. So it is fitting that among the heirloom old tomatoes introduced this year is the Aunt Edna Tomato from Victory Seed Company (

One Edna (McNeil) Chadwell from Corbin, Ky., grew this firm, tasty tomato for years, saving the seeds and carefully storing them in her sugar bowl. The Aunt Edna tomato is a vigorous, high-yielding plant with red, smooth-skinned fruits that are round or somewhat flattened globe-shaped, each weighing a good half-pound.

The trouble with heirlooms isn't growing them; it is finding them, or rather finding plants. So, if you want to grow something unusual such as Aunt Edna tomatoes, you will probably have grow them from seed. It is best to start tomato plants indoors four to six weeks before the last spring frost. Wait until the weather has stabilized and the ground has warmed up before transplanting them outdoors. You can start tomatoes in trays or flats, or individual peat pots, which you can plant right into the garden. Peat pots are formed from compressed peat moss and have the advantage that since you never take the plant out of the pot, it doesn't go through transplant shock.

Sow tomato seeds one-quarter-inch deep. Tomato seeds germinate in about a week or 10 days. For best results, keep the pots in a warm place away from drafts. Once your plants have grown a second set of leaves, you can feed them with a weak solution of water-based fertilizer once a week. It is better to use too little fertilizer than too much, because fertilizer can burn the roots and kill the plants.

Transplant tomato seedlings outdoors in a sunny spot as soon as the soil has warmed, and after all danger of frost has passed. Since your plants are tender from living indoors, you will have to harden them off. Do this by gradually exposing the plants to outdoor temperatures and direct sunlight. Take them out to a sheltered porch or under a tree for a few hours each day, bringing them back in at night, gradually increasing the amount of time they are outdoors. Choose a spot in the garden that gets full sun. Soil pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline your soil is. Most vegetables do best in neutral to slightly acidic soil, with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0

Most tomato varieties will need some sort of support, such as a trellis or cage, to keep the vines off the ground. This also allows air to circulate around the plants and discourages diseases. After planting, be sure to tamp down the soil around each plant to prevent air pockets. Water regularly, but don't keep the ground soggy or the roots will rot. To prevent many diseases such as early blight, never plant tomatoes in a spot that previously grew tomatoes or any of their relatives such as potatoes and peppers. Also, be sure to set out a deep mulch of straw or grass clippings to hold down weeds.

Whether you grow Aunt Edna tomatoes from seed, or any other heirloom, you will have something rich in spirit, wonderful, and the talk of the town. Much like our own Aunt Edna herself.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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