Getting Started: Let’s plant some seeds!

If you’re back, I hope this means you’ve got your seeds and your dirt and are ready to get started! If not, there’s still a bit of time but ideally you want to get those seeds germinating by the end of April. My plants got held up a bit last year due to a cold June, so I will share some tricks for prolonging the growing season and speeding up ripening later in the summer.

First, I better mention that this is not a comprehensive guide, and I’ve yet to encounter the one true “expert” on tomato growing. I’ve been to classes by high profile local gardeners and horticulturists and have heard opposite advice on all sorts of things. I won’t tell you anything that might risk killing your plants, but it’s very possible that someone else you know may have strong feelings about my advice. However what I think is so wonderful about growing plants, and especially our highly resilient tomatoes, is you can experiment and figure out what works for your situation, your yard, your preferred varieties and still end up with a decently good outcome. Maybe not The Best outcome, but you’ll still have fun and get to make salsa at the end. Tomatoes are very hard to completely screw up.

So! You’ve got seeds, and dirt, and containers. Read carefully, because the following steps are highly complicated:

  1. Put dirt in container
  2. If dirt is dry, make it be wet
  3. Poke tomato seed into dirt

If you stop reading now, you’ll probably be fine. If you want some more details, here is the elaboration of each step.

  1. Put dirt in container. What kind of dirt do you have? Is it a “potting mix” or “seed starting mix”? If so, that means it has some fertilizer in it which will be helpful for your seedlings. If it’s just regular ol’ dirt that you dug out of your yard… honestly, that’s fine too. You may want to consider adding a fertilizer spike at some point, but it’s not do-or-die necessary. The U of S has a good post about this on their Facebook page for more information.
  2. If dirt is dry, make it be wet. If your dirt has been sitting all winter and it’s totally dry, it’ll probably be quite hydrophobic. You know when you water a plant and the water seems to just run right through out the bottom without wetting the soil? That means the soil is not retaining the water, i.e. hydrophobic. If the dirt you are using is peat-based, it’s definitely going to be hydrophobic right now. When peat totally dries out, it takes a lot of water (ideally a good rain) to get it back on the hydrophilic (retaining water) side. You will need to soak it until it starts retaining water, otherwise your seed will never get wet enough to germinate. The way I did it this year was run my pots with dirt in them under the tap on a gentle spray until it filled to the brim, let the excess water run into the sink, and repeated this about 5 times until I could tell that the soil was wet throughout. If it appears your soil has become completely waterlogged, you may want to wait a day or so before putting in your seed so it doesn’t rot before it can germinate. The good news is that once peat is properly retaining water, it takes a lot of neglect for it to completely dry out so if you forget to water it for a day you should likely be okay.
  3. Poke tomato seed into dirt. If your soil is now adequately wet, place one or two seeds on top, and poke it down a bit (a half inch or so) with a chopstick, skewer, stick, etc. Then just make sure the upper layer of soil where the seed is stays wet (but not waterlogged) and your seeds should germinate in about 6-10 days. 

Try to keep your planted seeds in a warmer area where the soil can stay consistently above 20 C. Because it’s still very cold overnight in Saskatoon (whyyyyyy), I’ve been keeping my seedlings in a sunny window during the day and moving them to a space heated bathroom at night. I also wrapped the pot in aluminum foil to try and hold in more heat and catch drips so I don’t make a mess on my windowsill.

I like to plant two seeds together at a time, as sort of an insurance policy in case one doesn’t germinate, and then I just lop off the weaker one after they’ve got a couple weeks’ of growth.

If it’s been two weeks and your (tomato – different plants have variable germination times) seeds still haven’t germinated, something probably went wrong. It is unlikely your seeds were too old – tomato seeds can germinate after decades of dormancy if they’ve been stored in the right conditions (cold and dry). It is more likely that the soil was too wet or too dry. The only times I’ve ever personally killed tomato seedlings is by accidentally overwatering, and in both cases the soil was completely waterlogged, which I didn’t notice until it was too late. (I also once lost some while on vacation by telling my house sitter to only water them every 2-3 days, and they dried out.) So just aim to keep your soil in a happy medium of “damp/wet” and you should be fine.

If you have your seeds and dirt but don’t have a sunny area and will need to get a grow lamp, you’ve got time. The seeds don’t need light to germinate, but once they’ve poked above surface they will require it. I’ll talk about my ridiculous bathtub tomato grow-op from last summer in an upcoming post next week!

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