Time for Tomatoes: I Just Couldn’t Wait to Start My Seedlings

This year I started my tomatoes indoors much earlier than I usually do. Normally I start them on April 10 at 10:14 a.m. Only kidding. Most years I start them during the second week of April. That way they are well established by the time they are planted outdoors eight weeks later — but not crowding the root space provided by a standard flat.

But this year I started most on March 24, three weeks earlier. Why? Because the winter was so long and harsh I was ready to see little green things growing under lights — and was willing to take on the responsibility of nurturing them. I will have to transplant my seedlings into 3-inch pots in May to avoid root crowding.

I will pick a date for transplanting according to the Stella Natura calendar (www.stellanatura.com). This is a biodynamic planting calendar that is “supported by lunar and planetary rhythms.” For each day of the year, and every hour, the calendar designates one of five categories: good for working with or planting flowers, fruit, roots, leafs or none of those — a “blackout day.” I will choose a fruit day for my transplanting.

I’ve done just a little testing of the recommendations of the Stella Natura calendar, but enough so that I feel obliged to follow it. Probably you have had times when you planted seeds and got a bad germination rate. I have. I blamed the seeds — or my planting technique. But a few years ago I tried planting a 6-pack of lettuce on a leaf day, and then again the following day, which my biodynamic calendar indicated was a blackout day. The first lettuce germinated at close to 100 percent, the second at considerably less than 50 percent. Many of the plants that grew were stunted or died. Same soil mix, same temperatures, same watering. So now I follow the calendar — at least as far as avoiding the blackout days.

According to the calendar, “scientific studies showing that plant metabolism, growth rate and water absorption tend to peak around full moon. …The full moon enhances germination. Sow seeds 2 or 3 days before the full moon to receive its optimal drawing power.”

It’s important, when transplanting seedlings to bigger containers, to use a planting mix that is warmed indoors for a day or so. Potting mix coming right from the barn might be chilly enough to shock tender little roots. I use a 2-quart juice pitcher and measure out 10 quarts of commercial seed-starting or potting mix and 10 quarts of compost in a plastic recycling bin.

I stir in a cup of Pro-Gro or other organic fertilizer and a cup of Azomite or other rock powder, then moisten the mixture enough so that the dryness of the commercial potting mix, which contains peat moss or coir, is overcome. Then I let it sit indoors for a day or more to warm up.

Azomite is a rock powder mined in Utah that contains 70 naturally occurring minerals and trace elements harvested from a layer of volcanic ash that was later inundated with sea water. Although I do not have scientific proof of its ability to improve growth and vigor of plants, I have done some informal experiments with rock powders, and believe that they help.

If you use the same plot every year for decades, as I have, trace minerals of the soil may well be used up, so adding a wide variety of minerals makes sense to me. I add Azomite or finely ground granite powder to increase mineral diversity in my planting mix and also in my soil.

I reuse plastic pots each year, and believe it is a good practice to clean them before reusing. I wash them in the sink with soapy water, or sometimes fill the top shelf of the dishwasher to clean them. This helps to eliminate any bacterial residues that might not be good for my seedlings.

Also key to success with indoor seedlings is a good light source. I use regular fluorescent lights that I hang over my seedlings. I keep them about 6 inches above the seedlings, as light intensity diminishes exponentially with distance. My lights hang on chains, and I raise the lights as the seedlings grow. The lights are on a timer so they are on just 14 hours a day. Little plants need rest, too.

Don’t keep your seedlings too warm. Sixty-five degrees is good for daytime, but leave a window ajar at night to let temperatures drop to 55. We are trying to mimic life outdoors, after all.

Growing seedlings requires some work, but I do it every year because I love tending them. I save money doing it, and can grow plants I would never find for sale at a garden center.

Henry Homeyer can be reached at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you want a question answered by mail. His e-mail address is henry.homeyer@comcast.net. His website is www.gardening-guy.com.