Getting early tomatoes is a kind of a game for most gardeners; we start our seeds inside in winter, surround young plants with plastic or water walls, warm the soil with black plastic mulch, even build hoophouses over the plants. And that first sun-ripened tomato, after months of pale imitations, makes all the trouble worthwhile.
But there’s something to be said for planting tomatoes later, too. Tomatoes really are heat-loving plants that are happiest when planted into warm soil when the weather is settled. They grow rapidly in the right conditions and often catch up with the tomatoes we coddled through the cold spells of spring. That’s why we like to do a late planting of tomatoes (and peppers and eggplants).
Starting the seeds is the same as at any other time of year. We moisten the planting mix with warm water before we fill the container, then gently push the seeds into the mix about an inch apart. We cover with a thin layer of dry mix, then spray it until it is thoroughly moistened. We cover the container with plastic and put it on a heat mat.
With the heat and moisture, tomato seeds germinate in about five days. It’s imperative to get the tray into the light as soon as the seeds germinate; otherwise, the seedlings will be tall and weak. An overhead grow light is best, if it can be placed just a few inches above the emerging seedlings. A windowsill in full sun will work, too, but requires more attention to prevent the soil from drying out.
Once the seedlings have a couple sets of true leaves, it’s time to transplant them into a larger container. This is where our practices diverge from winter seed starting. With the early plantings, we use larger pots to accommodate the bigger transplants we expect to have inside until we can plant outside. With a late planting, we use smaller pots -- 72-cell trays, for example, because we know we will be planting them soon. As the plants settle their roots into the new pots, we gradually expose them to the sunshine and breeze outside. Plants grown outside in pots will definitely be stockier than those grown inside.
When the plants are 4 to 6 inches tall, if summer weather has arrived, we plant them in the garden. In our experience, the biggest threat to small tomato plants are cutworms. They wrap themselves around the thin stems and cut the plants off at the soil line. To prevent that, we place a nail right beside the stem of each plant. We keep the young plants well-watered for the first few weeks to encourage the roots to grow deeper and wider.
We consider our late planting of tomatoes a kind of insurance against problems to the early planting -- a late frost, disease, animals, or any of the other problems that can befall a plant in the garden. And though we like to have the first tomatoes in the neighborhood, as true tomato lovers, we also like to have the last tomatoes.