A Gardening Question

I got an e-mail this morning with some questions about starting your own tomatoes from seed.  I thought I’d share this info, since it pertains to so many backyard gardeners. Not everyone has money or space for a greenhouse or grow lights, and it’s important to learn how to adapt using whatever materials you have on hand.

the tomato seedlings in question

Hey Caroline,

The first tomatoes I planted are already about 2 1/2 – 3″ tall and are starting to get the second set of leaves. But I have the impression that they are leggy. The stem seems very tall in my opinion. How do I recognize if they are leggy? I can send you a pic of then and could you please tell me if they are and if so, what to do with them?


These little seedlings in the picture are a bit leggy.  The tomato in the lower right hand corner of the picture is doing the signature ballerina stretch, as you can see by the long, thing, graceful but delicate looking stalk.  When the plants are older, the distance on the stalk in between each new set of leaves will be quite long on a leggy plant and very short on a plant that has received enough light.  There are several things that a gardener can do to remedy the situation:

1. Greenhouses are always ideal for starts, at least from what I’ve seen.  That way you can make use of the ambient light from the sun and you won’t have to worry as much about hardening off the plants when it comes time to plant them outdoors.  That being said, not everyone has a greenhouse, and you definitely don’t need one to grow your own seedlings.

2. Light is key: Your plants should be in the sunniest, warmest area of your house.

If you have the money or space, hang a florescent grow light over the seedlings to augment natural light.  There are a huge array of grow lights available, but a simple 24″ florescent fixture with two bulbs will work fine. If you get a light, you’ll need somewhere to hang it from, and it doesn’t need to be the ceiling.  Metal shelving like you might have in your garage or pantry is easy to hang lights from using some lightweight chains and S-hooks .  Simply hook chains onto lights, loop the chains over the shelf that it’s going to hang on, and use the S-hooks to hook the very end of the chain back onto itself below the shelf.  Most hardware stores carry rolls of rope and chain that they will custom cut for you in the store.  This method is easily adjustable as the plants grow and it’s very sturdy, but you can also use rope or a variety of other materials that you may have lying around the house.  You don’t need shelves, either.  One year, I attached eye-hooks to the bottom side of our very nice wooden dining room table, and then hung my light under the table.  The tomatoes were happy, but my boyfriend was less than thrilled.  It worked really well though!

If you don’t have access to a light, just remember that if it happens to be sunny and warm outside for a few days, but it’s safe to plant the tomatoes in the ground yet, you can always carry the tray outside for the day to give the little ones some light.

3. Point an oscillating fan at the little seedlings, even though they look so delicate. I’m talking about whatever kind of fan you might have lying around; just place it about a foot from your tray of seedlings, turn it on low and point it at the tomatoes (or any seedlings, for that matter).  They will blow all over the place and stop growing for about a week, but their delicate stalks will get stronger and healthier.

4. Take special care to plant leggy tomato starts very deeply when it comes time to put them in the ground. If your starts still look leggy when it’s time to put them outside, gently tear off the bottom leaves and plant the seedling so that most of the main stalk is below the soil, leaving only 3-4″ of the stalk above the ground.  All of the stalk that is below the soil line will sprout roots, resulting in a very strong, sturdy tomato plant.  Remember to break apart your roots when you transplant! It’s actually always a good idea to transplant tomato plants using this method, but it’s more important when the plants are lanky and have a long, thin stem.

5. Just remember, tomatoes are very resilient and you should be able to work with whatever you have when it comes time to plant them outside.

It’ll be summer before we all know it…

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