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Is it crazy to start tomato plants (from seeds) now?

  • c

I just moved to an apartment with an area with so much sun and warmth it feels like a greenhouse. I'd love to take advantage of this and grow container herbs and ... tomatoes? I've poked around online and know there are some tomato varieties that do alright in containers, but have read a lot less about whether starting seedlings in the autumn / winter, without grow lights is just a recipe for disaster. Any thoughts? (Also, if you think it'll work, any recommendations for which varieties to plant? I've been looking around on the Park Seed website... so many choices!)

Thanks, Garden 'Hounds!

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  1. My instinctual answer would be to wait a few months... until the days are a bit longer.

    That being said, it would be helpful if you indicated your location/horticultural zone. The answer will be different depending on whether you're in Phoenix or in Winnipeg.

    1. you said without grow lights? fuggedaboudit.
      also, tomato plants get quite large!

      1 Reply
      1. re: alkapal

        I think jakhtar is on the right track. I've been reading a winter sowing website and it seems like the rule of thumb is to wait until after the winter solstice when the days start getting longer again. Of course, if you had grow lights you could trick the plants like they do in greenhouses preparing for early spring flower shows. Some plants are very day length sensitive.

      2. Ah, thanks for the advice. I'm in NYC (so I think that's Zone 5 or 6?). The topmost room in the house has a ceiling that is almost all glass and gets basically 100% of all sunlight you'd have in an open field, outdoors. It's naturally very warm -- around 75 to 80 F in the daytime without additional heat. It never gets below 71 at night.

        Are tomatoes very daylight sensitive, dfrostnh?

        4 Replies
        1. re: cimui

          They are pretty daylight sensitive, and really need more hours of sunlight than many other plants. My instinct is to say no way, no how. But with conditions you describe, why not give it a go?? The worst that happens is that you have to chuck them if they don't work. The best case scenario is that you might be eating fresh tomatoes in March.

          1. re: happybellynh

            thanks, happybelly. i am going to try growing them after the winter solstice. have my seeds, pots and soil all lined up to go. i can't wait!

            1. re: cimui

              As far as varities are concerned, It depends on what your taste in tomtoes is. So long as its short and determinate/to semi determinate (so that it will reach a given height and then devote its energy to tomato production rather than to further vine delopment. If you are into heirlooms (and far enough into them that you do not look askance at tomatoes that are funny colors when ripe) I've had good luck with a variety called Lime Green Salad in pots. I was bred by the same person who created the somewhat better known Green Zebra ,and the taste is pretty similar, plus the plants stay pretty managable in size.

          2. You might want to try to find the pots that allow you to grow maters as a hanging plant, with the pot up and the plant down. I've seen them and they work where there is no soil. Do a comparison with them and conventional pots and see which works better.

            1. I use containers for my plants, I have done container planting for over 13 years and it is amazing what can be grown inside (with the right light) throughout the year. Without lights I would suggest waiting a few more months until the days are longer.

              I would also suggest Burpee or Seeds of Change, both have some really good container seeds and they are the only two I have used and was happy with 100% of the time.

              Be well,

              1. One of the things that I have found with tomatoes is that if you can give them loads of room for root developement you can have fruit faster in the season and stronger longer.

                Start the seeds, as the plant grows and has gotten to a stem length of 6 inchs, repot them and snip the leaves until all you have left is the terminal bud at the tip. cover all the stem until it looks like all that is showing is about an inch of top. the Old wax 2 quart jugs of juice or milk work to help bury the stem. Tomatoes can form roots anywhere along the stem, if they were left to lay down outside or covered they would root.

                When the plant in your qt milk jug is 6 to 8 inches tall, Lay it in a trench in the ground or in a long planter pot, being careful to get as much of the roots and stem under earth. Snipping the leaves until you only have a few small ones and the terminal bud sticking up out of the soil. Outside, put a bit of paper bag around the stem to ward off cutworms. Inside you might still do that to get a straighter plant.

                Cover the thrench with mulch, even inside in your pot, it'll help keep moisture in the soil. I have never had any problems with this method. I first saw it on an old Victory Garden episode about 20 years ago or so. The first fruit set is usually about 6 inches off the group. Outside in Arkansas, my plants can get 10 feet tall before frost.

                With the light levels and temps you say you have, I don't think you should have any problems growing them even in the winter months. I have been gardening for over 35 years, I started when I was 11.

                For inside there are several bushing types, I have used them outside in Edible Landscaping.


                3 Replies
                1. re: ceojr1963

                  hey charles, good tips on the 'maters!

                  there is a "garbage can" method popular around these parts: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6124...

                  btw, how is that wild turkey honey flavor?

                  1. re: alkapal

                    It is better than wild turkey without it. There are a few knockoffs out there now, which aren't as good. It is best chilled or over ice, but ice melts to fast in the glass, so best to chill it.

                    Thanks for asking.

                    1. re: ceojr1963

                      mmm, i'm thinking that wild turkey honey flavor might be good to reduce with some sugar to make a sauce for butter pecan ice cream!

                      or to make a glaze for chicken or pork ribs.

                2. Call your university extension service office. They'll not only give you the appropriate date for your area, I'm sure they can send you some helpful brochures as well. Also, before you spend a lot of money on fertilizers, etc., make sure you have your soil tested as well. They can help you wth that too.

                  Last year was a very difficult one in the tristate region for growing tomatoes. We, here in CT, like many commercial growers here and in NY state lost all of our tomatoes to tomato late blight due to the long wet spring - early summer. Also bear in mind that it is a very long time until those plants are going to go into the ground -- not until it's consistently warm, about memorial day. I'd suggest that you wait until early March lest your plants become overly spindly.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: junescook

                    This is the first year I will be starting tomatoes from seed. Last year I bought some seedlings from a local grower and they did great! So, I got the itch to start from seed this year. But after reading this thread I will hold off from starting the seeds. I can't wait though.

                    I bought Brandywines, Early girl, and Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes.
                    According to the package I should start the brandywines earlier since they take longer to mature, but I was thinking of starting everything at the same time ( for ease ) and so that everything doesn't mature all at the same time, but in stages.

                    Does that make sense?

                    1. re: mflipp

                      Early girl is meh. I'm trying Sophie's Choice as a sub this year for it. Try Sungold if you like Sweet 100. Brandywine is always worth growing.

                  2. Its only crazy if you think picking Tomatoes that much earlier is crazy.

                    As for which ones to grow.... I am biased towards Heirlooms. Black, Purple, Sausage {paste tomato shaped like Anehiem pepper}, pink... and all of them UGLY. Awesome Flavor. Those red things at the grocery store are NOT proper tomatoes. If you prefer flavorless grocery store style tomatoes... stick with Hybrids. Just my .02

                    1. I'm in the NYC area also, and last year started seeds (saved from the previous year's tomatoes) in mid-March. No grow lights, just a sunny living room. I ended up with 80+ robust tomato plants, way more than I could handle. I gave many away and grew about 15 to maturity on my balcony, in pots. They did great. I've never tried to grow tomatoes entirely indoors, but I guess it's possible.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Boswell

                        Yes, you can grow Tomatoes indoors. "Plastic tomatoes" aren't the only kind you can grow hydroponically, using the very same equipment and whatnot from the hydroponic store.

                        Just don't try to explain to the proprietor of the Hydro store that your actually growing Tomato's .

                        1. re: Rojellio

                          LOL, Rojellio! You're so right! I found a hydroponics store in town and wandered in- the young kid working the place was definitely hinky-acting, and it took me a while to figure out why. They do have pretty cool systems in hydroponics any more, no matter what you're growing. ;-)

                      2. Growing indoors in cold winter areas requires extra light via shop lights or other flood type lamps, very close to the foliage, or the plants will stretch to the light creating leggy, weak growth. Better to grow quick harvesting greens or herbs in winter time. Leave tomatoes and heatlovers to later in the spring.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: toodie jane

                          When I read your original post, my knee jerk response was "not unless you have overhead sunlight". Mostly, window light is not enough, but I have seen people grow successfully with windows that have top glass and are south facing. If you have a completely glass ceiling, I would absolutely go for it. Worst case senario, you waste a couple bucks in materials. Do you have the space to eventually put them in a pretty big container? Like at least a couple gallons? If they do well, they're going to get pretty big before summer. I don't think variety matters hugely, but you might try something determinate or with compact folliage, since I assume you're not going to want to have a 5+ gallon bucket in your house :-) I'd recommend getting a fan-- when you keep air blowing on the plants, the stems grow stronger to protect against the wind, and the plant holds itself up better.