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Tomato pin ups

March 7, 2011

For 16 summers I have tended some sort of garden.

My first garden was a stovetop-sized plot at a college rental. I peeled back a strip of sod and plopped in one melon and two cherry tomato plants I had purchased at the Boulder farmers market. The plants stretched away from the shady house, falling flat on the sunny lawn like religious seekers at the door of their temple. I harvested ten delicious cherry tomatoes before the frost came.

The following summer I graduated college and got a job working on the San Juan Forest. I’d take my lunch break in an aspen grove, fighting to stay awake amongst the nodding bluebells and twisty peavine, feeling like Dorothy in the poppy fields. Finishing my hummus and veggie sandwich, I’d fill my lunch bags with deer and elk poop, toting them back to my new garden at forest service housing.

The yields were small in those first few gardens. But I fell fast in love with the idea that a hard-shelled seed could be unlocked, transforming into bountiful, delicious food.

Chard seeds. Col says they look like tiny vertebrae.

Bountiful deliciousness, embodied in a chard plant.

Col and Rose, at 6 and almost 4, are certifiably helpful these days. And the fact that they want to be helping in the garden, which is currently as flat and monotonous as a calm sea, makes my heart backflip ten times. My friend Sue says about her 2 daughters every few months, “they’re at such a fun age right now,” which is a wonderful lens to see your children through, it’s like having Buddha editing your thoughts as they burble out. But really, 6 and 4? Does it get better than this?

For the last decade, I’ve been tucking tomato seeds under soil, starting them indoors, around the first of March. I do this because it’s economical, to get a jump on the growing season that is blinkingly short here at 6512 feet, and also because planting seeds is the most hopeful act I can think of when the land is still a thawing canvas of browns.

Tomato-seed Planting Day, 2011:

After many years of experimenting with multitudes of lusciously-named tomato pin-ups from the seed catalog, I grow just 3 varieties (2 mainstays, 1 wild card). Romas are always on the garden menu because they’re prolific, quick growers, densely flavorful, and they make excellent roasted tomato sauce. We also grow sun gold cherry tomatoes, because they’re insanely sweet, long-producing and certain small people think they’re getting away with something when they spend an afternoon plucking juicy gems right from the plant.

sun-dried sungolds in olive oil

This year our wild card is a scotia plum, seeds collected from Dan’s father’s garden thirteen years ago, three years before he died. If we can get them to germinate, I resolve to save this year’s scotia plum seeds in honor of Hal and so I can pass them down to Col and Rose someday, connecting them to the plant-loving spirit of their grandpa.

shameless teaser pic

30 tomato seeds unlocking magic inside

Some tips on starting plants from seed:

* Plant seeds in fine, light soil so the roots can push their way through.

* Keep seeds uniformly and consistently moist.

* The majority of seeds don’t need light to germinate. Keep them in the dark, where the soil surface won’t dry out quickly, then move them into the light at soon as they germinate.

* If you don’t have overhead light, turn your plants around daily (in a south-facing window) so they don’t get too leggy, and/or bring them outside for direct, overhead sun during the day.

What are your seed-starting tips (leave them in the comments). What are you starting from seed this year?

34 Comments leave one →
  1. Lillian permalink
    March 7, 2011 7:46 am

    Oh this post makes me so happy!! We just started a bunch of tomato and onion seeds last weekend along with some potted herbs that we’ll transplant later! I’m also going to attempt in the next few weeks to start some flowers and peppers, but most of the others I’m going to try to wait and just sow from seed in the ground – we’ll see:) I got too excited to wait last year and wound up starting a lot more inside that I thought I would since it was the first year I ever had a garden, so we’ll see if I do the same this year!

  2. March 7, 2011 8:20 am

    Are you familiar with Utah Phillips story of finding real life hero’s? Well, you are my real life hero. Tomato pinups & all. This little space of yours is the carrot on the stick coaxing me along and reminding me I’ll get there if I just don’t give up. Plus we’re planting tomatoes today…. so your timing is impeccable too ;)

  3. linda permalink
    March 7, 2011 9:05 am

    I tried something new this year. I put the starters in a clear plastic box with a lid. I only had to spray the soil once a day to keep it moist. All seeds sprouted within one week! I had to re-pot already because they were getting too leggy.
    I’m hoping for a bumper crop this year, which would be about 1/8 of what you usually harvest!
    Best of luck on your handed-down seeds.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 11:00 pm

      Transplanting already? Maybe you’ll have your first tomato harvest in June! I like the lid idea for sure.

  4. March 7, 2011 10:39 am

    thanks for the tips. we usually just buy the plants but I think this year we may try and grow some from seed! it’s always an adventure! : )

  5. March 7, 2011 10:46 am

    This is the first year I have started seeds indoors. My 4-yo dd was helpful, too. Her “help” is getting more useful these days, and the 8-yo, when his attitude doesn’t get in the way, is also worth asking for help. These are great ages, I agree! :)

    I have no idea if my seeds will sprout. All of them are from at least a year ago, some of them even back to 2007. They weren’t stored correctly, either, so I am curious what will emerge. I’ve put in leeks, chives, lettuce, scallions, and several flowers as well. I need to get tomatoes started, too. I need to still figure out a light setup; the idea of a sunny windowsill would be nice, if we got much sunshine, but it is so grey here most springs, the poor plants don’t do well inside.

    I put together a small raised bed this weekend; I got some free lumber off Craigslist. It won’t be enough to feed us all summer, but it is a promising start. I have another small bed that I prepared several years ago, but the weeds and grass take over so thoroughly, and our water table is so high that it is too soggy to work in still. We can plant many things already outside, so I need to get busy and get the outdoor plots ready. I look forward to following along as your garden grows!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 3:48 pm

      Wow. Great spring report on the garden. I am thinking YES, all those seeds will sprout. Seeds really are built to last, despite expiration dates on packages.

  6. March 7, 2011 11:06 am

    Your timing is great, as I spent yesterday setting up a rack with shop lights and shelves to start my seeds yesterday! By the way, I loved Principe Borghese tomato when I was gardening there. It’s a plum…sort of. Really good for drying, and a short enough season tomato that you get quite a few ripe ones. It also seemed to hold its flavor when ripening from green to red in the house. Here’s a link to Territorial’s description, but lots of seed catalogs have them.

    Col is right, they DO look like little vertebrae!

    Your 13 year old tomato seeds may just grow. I’ve found the viability to be much longer than the 3 years they typically tell you. Can’t wait to see if they germinate.

    My big tip is to not overwater your seedlings when they first come up. I had terrible problems with damping off and tried all kinds of tricks including cooking the soil in the oven first to sterilize it and watering with chamomile tea, which is supposed to be anti fungal, only to realize, finally, that I was just keeping everything too darned wet. I haven’t had a problem since.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 3:50 pm

      Good tip, re: not over watering. I too am thinking some of those 13 year old seeds will germinate, based on Dan’s father’s sheer love of gardening if nothing else.

  7. suburbansatsangs permalink
    March 7, 2011 11:06 am

    Oh, I heartily agree. Sungolds are the best. Occasionally, I even find a start at a nursery, but I used to always grow them from seed, anxiously waiting for that first sweet taste. I really enjoy your writing, and this post has inspired me after a long, dreary winter.

    Best of luck with the family heirlooms — I hope they sprout for you and keep the line going.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 3:52 pm

      “Family heirlooms,” I love it!

  8. March 7, 2011 11:07 am

    Thank goodness it’s that time again , I thought it had forgotten to get here…the children are enjoying themselves with farm life :o) and Col is doing a good job printing :o) so what if the w is like an M :o) it’s a wonderful memory it for later…:o)

  9. March 7, 2011 12:01 pm

    i suppose it’s not really coincidence, lol, but we were doing the same thing this weekend. we too started tomatoes, only cherries for our region since we don’t get wildly hot sunny days, but maintain a mild coastal climate all summer and winter… we have a long but slow growing season. :) we’re also going to try to do more leeks and onions this year, and a bunch of herbs and so on. i was reflecting on the same thing about kid ages- how it is amazing what a help my now four year old son is (he too was really into the sharpie marker), compared to the past few years of gardens which creep slightly larger each year, though none of them have been truly “large” yet. :) i liked your chronicling of your first few gardening attempts- sounds a lot like my garden journey. except i never thought of using elk poop! great idea! ;)

  10. Ami permalink
    March 7, 2011 12:54 pm

    I’m Waaaay behind on starting seeds, which is just as well, because spring here is cold, rainy, and decidedly dark. I usually don’t get my garden going until later. My BIG goal this year is to have a winter vegetable harvest, which means I need my plants to be mature by the end of October. I know I could get two harvests a year, so I will probably start some stuff soon, but….
    Anyhow, I’ve also decided to take up seed saving – so I’m curious to know where those 13 year old tomato seeds have been all this time??? How have they been stored? AND – I’m a firm believer that they’ll sprout up – if anything for the noble cause of sharing seed between grandfather and grandchild!
    My best seed starting tip is this: Use bigger pots to start the seeds, so that you don’t have to transplant the seedling when it’s small. I know that all the nurseries are successful starting seeds in those little 6 packs, but I find that mine grow so much better when I use bigger pots – but then, by the looks of your pictures, you know this already! :)

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 4:01 pm

      Excellent tip, re: the larger pots. I do end up transplanting tomatoes one more time, because it will be over 3 months before I can put them in the ground. 3 months! > “I’m a firm believer that they’ll sprout up – if anything for the noble cause of sharing seed between grandfather and grandchild!” Exactly! We’ve been storing Hal’s 13 year old tomato seeds in a small paper envelope, inside a plastic bag, inside a cloth “seed bag” (where all my seeds live) in our sun room which swings between 80 degrees and zero. Whoops.

  11. March 7, 2011 7:07 pm

    “tiny vertebrae” *sigh* That kid is a genius. I love the picture of Rose with the chicken.

  12. March 7, 2011 8:29 pm

    Love that your kids use sharpies. They are my favorite.
    and… starting from seed…that is a wonderful question.
    We are germinating a plan to pack everything up and move overseas for at least a yaer. Just a seed.. but I can feel it growing.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 10:53 pm

      May your seeds take root and flourish, Erin.

  13. March 7, 2011 9:57 pm

    Col is right on with the tiny vertebrae seeds; we’ve always thought so too.

    We like using bigger pots too, but if we’re using older seeds or seeds of questionable origin, we’ll plant 3 in each pot, then thin to the strongest (if they all germinate). Also, I like to give indoor seedlings a little breeze from a fan every so often, to give them a head-start on forming stronger stems to prepare themselves for The Great Outdoors.

    We’ve saved seed from some “Frank Church Pink” tomatoes. Supposedly, when we received our first seeds, they were down to the last 15 plants for that variety.

    Also, I LOVE trying crazy seeds from other countries. We’ve brought back hot pepper seeds from Thailand and Bhutan and more recently, my dad gave us some starts from Oaxaca, Mexico (they’re in our window now and finally flowering–we’ve had them since fall).

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 7, 2011 10:54 pm

      On the subject of breezes, Dan likes to blow on our seedlings. “Just toughening them up,” he says.

  14. March 7, 2011 10:39 pm

    We’re not planting a garden this year, though the kiddos keep asking. When I tell them we we’ll be in Romania when things are ready to eat, they tell me we can fly back to pick stuff or just let the birds and squirrels have it for a snack. A great age indeed! (And how adorable is Rose with that chicken??)

  15. Dan permalink
    March 7, 2011 10:42 pm

    Yummy, I like you!

  16. March 8, 2011 9:26 am

    Great post and timely for me. Thanks for the encouragement to be patient with my carrots. Guess what? This morning they were just starting to punch through the soil.

    I’m not starting anything from seed indoors but am starting carrots, arugula, two kinds of spinach, romaine, and another lettuce mix outdoors. This year I’ll stick to seedlings from the farm market for all my other things like tomatoes, zucchini, squash, eggplant, cantaloupe….etc. Maybe next year I’ll get brave and start some of those indoors.

  17. March 8, 2011 5:21 pm

    Good timing, we’re hoping to get our first batch of seeds started inside in the next couple of days. I’m not so sure since our house is fairly old and dark at times – any tips on lighting for the seedlings once they sprout?

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 10, 2011 3:30 pm

      Your seeds will need light. If it’s too cold and grey to bring them outside during the day, then perhaps invest in a hanging light. (try freecycle and craigslist first, or maybe someone will want to trade you an old light for some sheep cheese!)

      • March 11, 2011 11:03 am

        This is probably a silly question but does any type of light do? We just found a couple of heat lamps that we’ll take out to the barn for lambing… perhaps the extra heat would help as long as its not too hot?

        • 6512 and growing permalink*
          March 12, 2011 11:31 am

          Cait, because I am a “make do with what you’ve got” kind of person, I think yes, any overhead light should work.

  18. March 9, 2011 3:54 pm

    Oh how I long for planting season – well, not so much for my brown thumbs but just to see life and greenery around me again. We chose to move to a place with very little outdoor space this time so for once I won’t be wracked with guilt for not tending to my plants enough. I don’t think there’ll be any this year, so I will certainly be living vicariously through you (and depending heavily on the bounty of nearby farmers).

    You certainly made me salivate with that gratuitous tomato shot. Oh Rachel, how cruel!

  19. March 10, 2011 11:59 am

    We get all wacky here with the tomatoes, Rachel. Just one country over from Italy, you really can go for broke. I grow black tomatoes, those Green Zebras, pink ones, white ones, the tiniest cherry and pear ones…and each one’s flavor is so distinct! I save and dry the seeds from my favorite farmer’s market finds. Just writing about them makes me miss them.

    The only trick here is consistently giving them enough water. I’m considering investing in a timer and a simple drip system this year. Our summers can get blindingly hot–and dry.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      March 10, 2011 3:24 pm

      Love the idea of black, pink, white and green zebra tomatoes. Maybe you’ll write a tutorial this fall on drying and saving tomato seed, hint hint…

  20. Molly permalink
    March 15, 2011 12:36 pm

    Well, ok, Rachel. I am an expert seedling dryer and leggy thing grower, not so good at getting edible food from seeds I start indoors. I will give it a whirl? Again? I am testing the thought. My girl is old enough to be involved, and is more of a habitual type person than I am, so maybe she could help me remember to water and turn them, and bring them in at night. Sigh. Last year I bought virtually human height cherry tomato plants from a nice farmer’s market person and got buckets of cherry tomatoes from them. Maybe this year, that will be a backup plan.


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