My "determined to learn" project this year is How to Grow Tomatoes. I have not had any luck with tomatoes - poor yields (if any), plants that turn up their toes too soon, deer harvesting them before I can.... but my neighbor raises loads of lovely red fruit so reliably he even sells them commercially, so I know it can be done.
I joined a Yahoo tomato-growing group and have been reading the archives and listening to advice. One important bit of advice is to listen to growers who are in a climate zone very similar to mine, because tomatos are finicky fruit. One reason there are lots of varieties is that there are lots of variables. The experts tell me that because of our hot, dry summers, we actually have a short growing season where tomatoes are concerned. Thus, they say to look for early varieties that ripen more quickly and heat-resistant cultivars.
One very helpful person advised that I should save my own seed from those that do succeed: he says that after a few years, I will have seed specifically adapted to my location and conditions - a land race version of the type. That sounds pretty exciting. It means I need to select open pollinated types instead of hybrids, as hybrids do not generally reproduce true to form (not quite a mule, but not predictable either).
So, while I did choose a couple of hybrids, mostly I have heirlooms and varieties developed by Texas seedsmen that are proven to stand up well to our fast-rising heat. I will do another post on the varieties after they get going. I have bought from several sources (Baker Creek, Park, Burpee and Wilhite): a great source for Texas is Wilhite Seed, in Poolville. This old company has good seed for our crazy climates, including Porter tomatoes (Porter was a seedsman in Stephenville TX and his tomatoes are still legendary), their own specialty watermelons, and you cannot beat their prices - even very low shipping too.
Several people have mentioned they use a weak tea to soak or start their seeds, especially old seed. This method was described by a man named Byron. They make the tea by taking a used teabag and steeping it for a few minutes in a teacup of boiling water, which they add to cool water to make a quart. "Weak tea" is a good word for it, as you can see above. I bet no one ever saw PG Tips as "blond" as that!
I used the tea to lightly dampen the paper towels I am starting with.....
On advice of friends, as well as Tomatomania, I am using damp paper towels (you could use coffee filters) to start my seeds. Once they sprout (probably in just a few days), they can be transfered into medium by using tweezers to grasp them by the cotoledons (never the stem) and move them into the little sprouting pots. I've always had a time getting seedlings past the first two leaves in soil, partly because they can take forever to germinate. The friend who told me first about this method said it is much faster than soil-based starting.
So I lightly dampened a folded paper towel (these are those "half size" towels), laid out six individual seeds of one variety, folded the top over and placed it in a zip lock baggie labeled with the name of the variety.
I then added a bit more weak tea so that the whole towel is damp. I left the top of the baggie "ajar" without sealing it ---- not sure there, and I need to find out whether to seal them or not.
I laid all the baggies out on aluminum foil to reflect the light and heat, under a T8 florescent shop light with two daylight bulbs in it, about 4 inches above them. I think this part will need to be played with to get just right for the temps and conditiions here in my house.
There is the shop light hanging, with a shade made of heavy duty tin foil draped over it to reflect the light and keep the heat in. The shade is not needed today, but I will need to use it when the weather gets cold again - especially at night when I don't keep these rooms as warm.
Yes, I did put this little grow station right smack on the bar between the kitchen and living room. It is close to the wood stove, and that space is not required right now for anything else. Our sunny, South-facing laundry room would be the perfect place for seedlings, but I don't keep it heated so it would be too cold if it gets down in the 30s or below. I'll move the established seedlings back there as part of their hardening off process later on.
I surely hope this works! It would be so nice to not have to go buy plants! :-)
UPDATE 3/11/14: Part three is here - click to read! :-)