ITG seed start tomato

Consider starting your own seeds this year so you can be one of the first to enjoy a fresh homegrown tomato.

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Consider the unique, unmatched taste of the first homegrown tomato of the year. That is truly something that money cannot buy and also something I often think about this time of year as I start the seeds that will hopefully yield many pounds of fresh, ripe fruits later in the season.

There are many advantages to starting your own seeds each year, but gardeners often have quite a few questions, especially if they are new to the process. I encourage anyone that is interested to dive in, as this form of indoor cultivation can be a motivating activity when snow is afoot and few outdoor gardening activities are available.

Advantages to starting your own seeds include the ability to set the timing of the plant and not being limited to the few varieties offered by retail outlets.

One of the main questions I get is whether last year’s leftover seed is usable this year. What a shame it would be to take all of the time to plant seeds that wind up with poor germination due to lost viability. Most places will tell you that it is best to just buy new seeds, especially if you are really counting on planting outside by a certain date, and I think that is the best advice.

However, I am a big recycler and just cannot stand to waste things, so I’ve often planted older seeds with varying success. Although storage conditions are a big factor (if not the biggest), some seeds simply will not perform well after being stored for more than one year.

Seeds such as lettuce, spinach, beans, carrot, peas, peppers and most herbs really need to be used the year of purchase. Whereas seeds from beets, radish, turnip, cucumber, eggplant, pumpkins and other squash, watermelon, and tomato have a longer shelf life, performing better than others after the second year of storage. In addition to my list above, many seed companies have seed-viability charts on their websites.

Another common question concerns the timing of seed starting. To figure this out, begin by counting back from our local frost-free date. Seed packets often relay the timing in reference to frost-free dates, with language such “start indoors 4-6 weeks before.” For most of central Illinois, the frost-free date is between April 15 and May 1.

Next, you need to consider the relative cold-hardiness of each crop. In some cases, such as spinach, kale or broccoli, plants are quite cold hardy and can be set outside prior to the first frost-free date. My favorites, however, such as tomatoes and peppers, have little cold hardiness and must wait until well after the risk of frost. For tomatoes in particular, nighttime temperatures need to stay above 45 degrees F, which typically doesn’t occur until mid- or late May.

Some of the decision on when to start seeds also lies in determining the size of plant desirable by our frost-free date. A good friend of mine has the goal of having one of the first fresh tomatoes in the area each year. I am sure he has already started seeds in his greenhouse. After re-potting to larger pots several times in the coming months, he will have 2-foot-tall plants that are nearly flowering by May 1 and will yield ripe tomatoes by early June.

For those of us that are not overachievers and don’t have a greenhouse, grow lights are typically the cheapest, easiest way to start seeds. I usually plan to have plants that are just big enough to move outside at the appropriate time. By doing this, I have limited the time needed to nurse them along indoors while using my limited growing space efficiently.

Over the years, I have had some of the best luck starting tomatoes and peppers. In addition, there is a huge number of varieties available in seed that you will never find at the garden center as seedlings. If you are interested in staring some of your own this year, there is still time. Mid-March is just the right time to start seeds that will be ready for the outdoors around mid-May. So take the next month to do some research and get some seeds growing. Nothing increases the invaluable worth of a homegrown tomato more than starting them from scratch.

Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at