Tomato Seedlings – An Owner’s Manual

Tomato SeedlingsI am not exaggerating when I tell you I have 200 tomato seedlings in my kitchen right now. A combination of using gardening as a coping mechanism and a sense of empathy that makes it difficult to even insult a video game character, let alone kill a tomato seedling has left me in this situation. I have no one to blame but myself, but I think that I have acquired a few tips to help others with their tomato seedlings.

  1. Gee, non seed starting soil does JUST FINE – I used plain old potting soil this year for seed starting. I was certain that I was doing the equivalent of not breast feeding my children and that I would be destroying my germination rate. But, golly, gosh, darn, all the seeds germinated (and non-breast fed children continue to thrive). Plain old regular soil works just fine and I have nice healthy seedlings now (looking for good homes).
  2. You don’t have to talk to your tomato seedlings, but they do like to be petted — Ok, so your tomato seedlings won’t be replacing your cat or dog any day soon, but “petting” your seedlings will result in a stronger plant. Petting or “tickling”, as the tomatophiles call it, mimics the wind and triggers a thigmotropism response. (Can you say thigmotropism? Good for you, because I can’t.). Thigmotropism is a plant’s response to its environment. In the case of tomatoes, wind means that it can get blown over, and the tomato plant grows thicker to compensate. Pretty clever plants. (BTW, if petting creeps you out, a fan on low will also accomplish this.)
  3. Tomato seedlings are pretty hardy — I planted 3-4 seeds per pot. I am now in the process of dividing these into their own pots. I noticed this in past years as well when dividing or repotting. Tomato seedlings are pretty damn hardy. They can take a fair amount of man-handling, unlike some lettuces I have known lately.
  4. Tomato seedlings sun-scald easilyHardening off is a tedious process. But a very necessary one for tomato seedlings. Those babies can get sun burn faster than you can imagine. I am thinking that there is a market for a 30SPF sunscreen for plants to shorten hardening off time.
  5. Fluorescent lights work well — All my seedlings were grown under fluorescent bulbs. Like, bought at the grocery store, screws into a normal light socket, light bulb. No timers, no windows. 24 hour light from the fluorescent bulbs. They were very happy.
  6. Tomato seeds are viable for a good 3-4 years — I planted some tomato seeds I had from way, way back and the germination rate was as good as the new seeds I bought this year. I store my extra seeds in the veggie drawer in the fridge. Seems to work well.

I have more tomatoes than I know what to do with, but I am thinking that is because tomato seedlings seem to be pretty incompetence friendly (really I am that bad at starting seeds normally. Ask me how many pepper plants I have right now. Not an impressive number when you consider I planted about as many as the tomatoes.)

I mean let’s face it, if a tomato falls in the garden, at least a few seeds will grow the next year without your help. Just imagine how many would grow with your help. And the good news is that it is not too late to start some seeds. You might be surprised how easy it is.

27 thoughts on “Tomato Seedlings – An Owner’s Manual
  1. I have a little tiny fan now for my plants. I turn it on occasionally for about an hour. And yes I can say thigmotropism, I just have trouble spelling it ;>

    I’ve also noticed that tomatoes sun scald easily. My cold hardy plants (like lettuce and cabbage) never get sunburned, but my tomatoes and basil I have to be very careful with. BTW they sell that SPF 30 for plants right now. It is called shade cloth.

    And you keep your lights on for 24 hours? Don’t they need their beauty sleep?


  2. Thanks for this! I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s got way too many seedlings.
    What are you going to do with the extra plants? Give them away?


  3. katie kleber on

    I can’t seem to get tomato plants to grow past the seedling stage…usually due to some white moldy stuff, but this year, no mold, just no seedlings…I guess that I will have to break down and go and get some from the local grower (independent, small family garden store). Sigh. Good luck with so many tomatos! And thanks for the petting suggestions…I wonder if we can get the cats to do the petting? (smile)

    Thanks for your blog…I live in eastern NC now, but grew up in Columbus, OH and I don’t really miss the winters that we even had there. I have enjoyed the warmer NC winters so far…we only had 1 really significant snow (more than 1″) this year and school/college closed for 2+ days. I love it! (guilty pleasure). Be well-all and good luck with the tomatos and peppers.



    vyoufinder Reply:

    Sounds like Tomato Mosaic Virus from overwatering to me.


  4. Tomato seedling went well for me this year too. On the other hand, peppers and eggplants were much more difficult. I have some, but I lost more that what I ended up with. ARGH. When you figure out the secret to peppers, will you pass it along?

    Thanks for yet another helpful and entertaining post.


  5. I’m having the same problem! I have WAYYYY too many. I’m hoping to give some away to friends to spark the gardening thumb. I’m also hoping to pot some up with care instructions to take in to the local food shelter, hopefully the people that come in will get excited about growing a bit of their own fresh food, and who doesn’t love tomatoes!


  6. Heather on

    With Peppers the hotter the better for seed starting. I use a heating pad or keep the trays on my furnace and it works well. I was a bit too busy this year and let the seed planting stage go by but last year I had 200 tomato and 200 mini pepper plants. I’m still confused about eggplants myself I get them to germinate and then they fall over. Who knows maybe they need the heat too?


  7. Nicole on

    I too had way too many tomato seedlings….thankfully I did….over half have now wilted strangely….i only have 7-10 surviving poorly-and they all started and were progressing strongly! I have 9 sweet bell seedling kicking butt tho–they just need to get stockier! i wish i could come take some seedlings off your hands! I am a balcony gardener, and i am currently obsessed with finding someone in Indianapolis that i can get peonies from! The tomatoes need company!


  8. kristin on

    So far so good! The seedlings you gave me are still alive and I have remembered to take them in and out each day to “harden them off”. Kind of like having a puppy, but without the worry of having them chew on things! Thanks again for the little baby tomato plants! I can’t wait until they start growing delicious tomatoes!

    Happy Birthday Hanna!


  9. Enid on

    I too have more than I know what to do with. It all started with some cherry tomatoes I bought and somehow got pushed to the back of the fridge where they froze and shriveled (like prunes). I decided to give them to my 6 hens, but on a whim I told my husband to squeeze the inards off of them on the newly made veggie bed (where I had planted 6 potatoes that shriveled and started sprouting-see a trend here?). Now I have tomatoes EVERYWHERE and maybe one pepper plant in the mess. Let’s see how we all do with our “attack of the killer tomatoes”


  10. Holly on

    If you had a birthday, which, based on an above comment you did–Happy Belated Birthday!

    And if you want to celebrate by working out some kind of trade for tomato plants (I have 3 cats, a bunch of DVDs, and plenty of gratitude), just holler. I should be able to hear you in Old Brooklyn. I put up my grow rack this year And. Then. Did. Nothing. :(


  11. The only caveat to #1 that I would add is that you need to know what kind of soil you’re using. I used my dad’s compost last year, and it worked great, but this year’s batch caused me nothing but grief. Turned out, this year’s batch of compost had a lot more clay, which meant it wasn’t taking up water the way the seeds needed.

    That being said, you’re right on about the fact that regular old potting soil works just fine :)


  12. Jack on

    I could take some of the seedlings off your hands. I live in highland heights, work in Univ Circle, and drive through Cleveland Heights every day. Let me know.


  13. Thanks for the advice. I’ve been wondering if I’d be able to divide my tomatoes (I now have two per pot) and if I should be using a growing medium with more fertilizer. It seems though that based on your information they’d be hardier than I thought.

    If you are anyone you know is having a yard sale you could sell the extra plants there. Or donate them to a sale some institution is holding to raise money. Some people I know divide perennials and start hundreds of plants and sell them to benefit their local library.


  14. Great post. I’m inspired. I’ve never started tomatoes before and was so excited this year, but then life got in the way. I THINK I still have time. I want to try some black cherry and zebra. Thanks for all the great information and the laugh!


  15. greg webber on

    Here in CAlifornia I have just moved all my tomato seedlings out of my kitchen and into a covered area. I start my seeds in jiffy peat pellets and when two plants come out, I have to kill one. (pulling plants in those things usually hurts both) I got some very rare seeds from

    rareseeds .com

    and I put only one seed per pellet for some which resulted in spotty germination. Never the less I have a good few bags of store bought soil to transplant all those seeds too.
    good potting soil or organic compost does wonders.


  16. greg webber on

    what tomato and pepper varieties did you (or anybody) plant?

    I planted five tomatoes:
    Paul Robeson, like a big black brandywine
    Orange Fleshed Purple Smudge, like it sounds… med. size
    Bonny’s Best, Est. 1908 by bonny seeds as a comercial var.
    Pineapple, good enough to serve for breakfast at our Inn
    Mountian Princess, From Virginia mountians good cold rest.

    And four Peppers
    Two random Chayanne from my collected seeds
    Purple Chayanne, (For my own chili powder and flavored oil)
    Jimmy Nardiello, from Italian-American immigrants (pickler)
    Ashe County, Hardy and prolific eater/pickler/preserver


  17. sarah on

    And I thought I had a problem with 25 tomato seedling cups (about 45 seedlings)! I wintersowed mine (which isn’t that big of a deal here in S Texas–only snow for a few hours), and my biggest are at 4″ or so. They grew almost a half inch when we had that torrential downpour last weekend and they were practically swimming in their holder!
    Good luck with the baby toms–especially with finding someone to take them off your hands!


  18. Melanie on

    I started some celebrity tomatoes…the seed was from 1988. All germinated. I also started some really old eggplant seed and had great luck with them too. I store my seed in a large Tupperware container in the frig.


  19. Don’t feel bad, The tomato bug bit me too… I have over 700 seedlings of 13 different varieties. I plan to plant them all, and figure out what to do with all the tomatoes later. I also have 100 pepper plants, which seem to like warm temps, and just enough water to keep the soil moist.


  20. After reading all the comments, I don’t feel bad about my marginal pepper sucess, or the fact that I have about 100 tomato seedlings with no idea what to do with them. Glad to hear about the hardening off, I was just about to start doing that and would not have been careful enough about the sunburn. I’m struggling with eggplants too…guess I need some research to see what I’m doing wrong.


  21. Oh, my! I LOVE the tomato seedling straight-talk! I’m going to go pet green babies right now!


  22. Julie on

    Are there any tomatoes that work better in the topsy turvy type planter~where you grow the tomato plant upside down?


  23. I’m just glad someone else feels terrible about thinning the herd too. Even after I’ve planted ten times the amount I can care for of my own seedlings, I get guilt trips looking at the greenhouse sale rack…


  24. How can I transport tomato seedlings in my suitcase? I have some seedlings that I would like to bring home with me and I will need to put them in my suitcase as I am traveling by airplane


  25. I scalded my Tomato plants with a harsh hardening. I’m going out of town this weekend so I put then in full sun on day 3. Some of the leaves look yellow and crispy. what do you think the chances are that they’ll make a full recovery?


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