Tomatoes, peppers should be planted 6-8 weeks before they are put in the garden

By Bev Johnson

Master Gardener

Bunkey wanted to get a head start on his garden a few years ago. He planted tomato and pepper seeds on March 1. They popped up by the end of the first week and took right off. The last day of frost in Otter Tail County is May 15. By that time, his tomato plants were almost 2 feet tall, spindly and with a bad case of jaundice. He planted them in mid-May thinking he would have the first crop in the block. Actually, his plants were the last to bloom and produce and the crop was much less than the neighbors. What did he do wrong?

Tomato and peppers should be planted about 6-8 weeks before you expect to put them in the garden.  To prevent spindly, yellowish plants, they should grow in bright light. This may mean a south window or under lights. To keep them short and stocky, nip the top leaf of the plant off. This directs the plant to bush out. A short stocky plant will take off much quicker than a long lanky one even if you do bury much of the plant in the soil when you plant it.  The soil should be about 70-75 degrees for best growth. Cool soil will slow growth. So, planting the tomato in the garden if the soil is too cold… well you get the idea.

When your tomato plants have developed the second set of true leaves, transplant them into individual pots. You may need to do this again if they get too tall. If you do need to do this, bury them up to the leaves. This develops more roots as every knob on the stem is a possible root. This is why you bury them when you put them in the garden, strip a few bottom leaves off first.

How can you tell if the soil is warm enough for your tomatoes and peppers, both semi tropical plants? Simple. Drop your drawers and sit on the soil. If it is too cold to comfortably sit for 5 minutes, its too cold to plant heat loving plants. If you have close neighbors, to prevent the cops from hauling you away for indecent exposure, you may need to do this test in the dark.

If you want to start other seeds, read the back of the package. It should tell you when to plant the seedling. Go back 2 months. that is the time to start the seed. There are some exceptions. Celery, snapdragons and lissianthus are very tiny seedlings and need more time to get hardy enough to plant out. Start them now.   

If you decide to get a light to give your seedlings the best start, a shop light works very well. While you can invest in a plant light bulb, (they are purple) substituting a warm bulb, usually called a kitchen/ bath and a regular blue one gives you a purple light. Since the light should be only 2 to 3 inches above the seedlings, hang the light from chains so you can raise it as the plants grow.

If your flat or pot has had soil in it before, sterilize it by soaking it for about a half hour in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts of water. A good glug is about 1 part bleach.

The nice thing about starting your own vegetables is that you can get varieties not available in the greenhouses. Tomatoes come in yellow, purple, almost blue, striped and from cherry sized to 2 pounders. Go crazy and plant one weird one this summer.