Getting Started: Seeds or Seedlings?

So you have decided to grow tomatoes! Congratulations on your excellent decision. This is Step One in making your socially distant summer a little bit better, especially when it looks like this outside today:

The question of the day is: should you start your own seeds, or should you just buy seedlings from a greenhouse in May or June?

Personally I do not have a great natural setup in my house for starting seeds from scratch (i.e. a cat who likes to knock containers of dirt on the floor and then eat the plants), so I usually do a mix of greenhouse-purchased hybrid* seedlings, and get a horticulturist friend to start heirloom* seedlings at her work greenhouse for me. This year though, the friend’s work greenhouse is off the table due to COVID-19. I have changed my strategy a bit; I’m still planning to purchase some seedlings from the nurseries, but am also growing a few of my heirlooms on a semi-cat-proof kitchen windowsill and a few more at my sister’s cat-free house.

If you don’t really care about the varieties you grow, I would normally say do not bother starting your own seeds. They are not hard to grow if you’ve got a sunny spot or a grow lamp, but they do require daily attention, which can be an issue if you’ve got a trip planned etc. However, this year is different! This year I think we should all start at least a couple seeds.

There is something very magical about starting a fruiting plant from a seed, moreso I feel than say, a carrot or leafy green. When it’s August and you’re looking at your little four foot “tree” dripping with ripe tomatoes, it’s truly awesome, in the literal sense of the word, to think about how that plant started from a tiny seed in your kitchen window. You can’t quite replicate that feeling if you didn’t start the seed yourself, which is why you should do it this year, when we need that little extra bit of joy and wonder in our isolated lives. Even if you want to buy most of your plants from the nursery, I challenge you to nurture just one from a baby seed!

If you’re going all-in on seeds, my favourite place to buy them in Saskatoon is Early’s. In my opinion they’ve got the best selection, and they package seeds under their own label, so you’re doubly supporting a local business. You can also get dirt, starter pots, and grow lamps there if you need them. Due to the pandemic-related shipping delays most online shops are experiencing, I would not recommend ordering seeds from out-of-province right now because they could take a bit longer than you want to get here. If you have a favourite local garden store, check if they have an online shop or just call them to see what they’ve got for seeds. If you’re overwhelmed by the available varieties, I recommend Celebrity and/or Juliet, both of which I grew for the first time last year and loved, and both are AAS winners which is pretty much a guarantee that they’re near perfect plants. (I have also heard great things about Mamma Mia and Super Fantastic, and recommend Black Cherry or Sun Sugar if you want more colourful varieties, but for the love of dirt please do not grow Early Girl unless you legitimately enjoy mealy and tasteless McDonald’s-style tomatoes.)

If you just need one or two seeds, go on Saskatoon Kijiji and find me (just search for tomato seeds) – I’ll give you a couple of surprise heirloom varieties for free, and I also have a few small nursery pots I can share if you need. Do not try to plant the seeds from a tomato you bought at the grocery store, as they are likely hybrids and will not set fruit. I’ll explain this more in another post (including my own frustrating experience with an unwittingly saved hybrid Brandywine seed last summer), but for now – just don’t do it. Get seeds that are specifically prepared for planting.

*What are these heirlooms and hybrids I keep talking about? I’ll let you know in the next post. Just go get some seeds, dirt, and containers, and meet me back here in a day or two.

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Also, a PSA – The University of Saskatchewan has posted its spring gardening class schedule. All classes are online this year and only 20 bucks! Lyndon is a hilarious, passionate, and extremely knowledgeable instructor and I learned a ton in his tomato class a couple years ago. It looks like he is doing one later this week on tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, so I would recommend signing up if you can!

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