Norman A. Plate
Seeds of summer vegetables, including tomatoes and peppers, need warm soil to germinate and light to grow. The compact seed-starting system pictured here satisfies both needs.
When it was time to start tomato seeds early last spring, I used the Green Thumb Grow Light System ($90). Consisting of two 4-foot-long fluorescent lights mounted on a stand, it accommodates two flats of 2-inch cells--100 seedlings--at a time. Under the flats, I put two heating mats ($23 each) that are preset to keep the soil 15° to 20° above room temperature. I sowed seeds in pairs to ensure that I'd get at least one viable seedling per cell.
This system delivered the best results I've had with tomatoes--from seedling to harvest, I didn't lose a single plant.
To find out where to buy the Grow Light System and heating mats, contact Hydrofarm at (800) 634-9990 or www.hydrofarm.com. Free catalog.
To sow the seeds, wet the tip of a wood chopstick, touch it to two dry seeds, poke them into the potting soil, and release the seeds by twisting the chopstick as you pull it out. Most seeds germinate well if you sow them about 1/4 inch deep; cover seeds and firm soil over them. Water the seed flats and keep the soil moist. Turn on the heating mats and keep them on until transplant time.
When seedlings break the surface, turn on the lights. Hang the lights in their low position, about 7 inches above the flats; keep them on from breakfast to bedtime.
Once seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall, use scissors to nip off the weaker one in each cell.
When seedlings develop two sets of true leaves), they're ready to transplant. You can move them into 4-inch pots for a few weeks to develop sturdier stems. Or if you prefer to set them directly in the garden, first harden off plants by moving the flat outdoors to a spot where they'll get filtered sun and be protected from cold at night. After four days, plant them in the ground. Be prepared to protect them against nighttime frosts with hot caps or row covers. About two months after transplanting, the first ripe fruits will be ready to harvest.