Adventures of a First-Time Seed Starter, Part Two

 The popular 'Italian Heirloom' tomato was my pick for my first indoor seed-starting adventure.

The popular 'Italian Heirloom' tomato was my pick for my first indoor seed-starting adventure.

Armed with expert tips, rich soil, myriad containers, and, most importantly, a colorful packet of  ‘Italian Heirloom’ tomato seeds,  I was ready to embark on my seed-starting adventure.

Or was I?

After arriving home from the “Start with a Seed” workshop at Heritage Farm early last March, I scanned the back of my seed packet. “Start seeds about six weeks before average last frost date,” it read. I wasn't sure what the average last frost date for Decorah was so I consulted the handy online Farmer’s Almanac. I entered my zip code, and seconds later I had my answer—the average last frost date in Decorah was May 4, meaning mid-March was the ideal time to start those tiny seeds indoors.

But did I wait?

Despite my better judgement, I did not. I was excited, practically itching to test my green thumb. Two days later, on March 6, I tore open the packet of ‘Italian Heirloom’ seeds and followed the instructions on the packet to a tee. I sowed the seeds ¼”-inch deep in moistened seed-starting mix I doled carefully into plastic trays I had purchased at a local garden shop. Next I set those trays on a heat mat and stretched a sheet of plastic wrap over the top of the cells to keep in the humidity, which, I had learned, would aid in germination. And then I waited for those seeds to sprout, adding water when the soil felt dry.

The packet promised germination in seven to 14 days, and, yes, I was definitely counting. Come the morning of day seven there were a couple little sprouts, and later in the day a few more. Cell by cell, those seedlings emerged, and cell by cell I peeled off the plastic wrap. Then it was time to switch from bottom to top heat. I set heat lights directly over (and super-close) to my seedlings, and then I watched them continue to grow...and grow…and grow. My “babies” were sprouting, and I could not be more excited.

Yet because the packet said to place two or three seeds in each cell, I had—and, because the germination rate was close to 100 percent, I soon had more tomato seedlings in each cell than was healthy for them. (They would soon be competing with one another for nutrients.) As hard as it was to cut out some of the seedlings I had nurtured, I pulled out my scissors and carefully thinned them out so that there was just one plant left per cell.  

 Given proper soil, adequate warmth, and enough water, the 'italian Heirloom' Seedlings emerged in force.  

Given proper soil, adequate warmth, and enough water, the 'italian Heirloom' Seedlings emerged in force.  

Those plants grew quickly, and soon I “potted up” my remaining seedlings to larger containers, being sure to keep the heat lights on them. About this time I also “adopted” a few other tomato plants from Seed Savers Exchange that needed good homes. Without thinking, however, I mixed in the containers of my newly acquired seedlings with my home-started ones and soon had no idea which variety was which.

Not only that, but I had to keep my bountiful supply of tomato seedlings indoors longer than I should have because I started them earlier than recommended. They kept growing inside, as I waited until the temperatures outdoors warmed up enough to harden them off (or gradually introduce them to wind, direct sunlight, cool nights, and other elements). Eventually I was able to transplant the seedlings I had started indoors into compost-enriched soil outdoors.

 Dozens of Tomatoes decorated my kitchen counter in early October. 

Dozens of Tomatoes decorated my kitchen counter in early October. 

Thankfully, just as those plants thrived inside, they continued to grow outside. As the weeks passed, they grew up and over their cages and stakes and started producing fruits—so many fruits, in fact, I began both serving tomatoes to my family at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and giving them away to any unsuspecting visitor. However, I never did figure out which tomatoes I was harvesting. Was I picking an ‘Italian Heirloom’? Perhaps. Or was I picking one of the other varieties I had adopted from Seed Savers Exchange? That was equally likely. Either way, they tasted great.

The bottom line? I did a lot right, and I made a few mistakes. But I learned a lot, had tons of fun, consumed many delicious and nutritious tomatoes, and ended the season looking forward to starting even more seeds this coming spring.

Join us for our next Start with a Seed workshop on Saturday, March 3 at Seed Savers Exchange!