Tomatoes. They’re very popular and can also be one of the more spendy vegetable starts to purchase. So… Can you save money by starting them from seed? Well, I’d say it’s likely!
As soon as the tomato starts roll in, the nursery storefront gets hoppin’! Tomatoes (especially those heirloom varieties right now) are one of the hot items to grow — they typically do very well in the garden or in a pot on the patio. You can put them in the ground and cage them in the the traditional way, or you could put them in hanging baskets for cascading varieties or in large pots for bushing varieties and grow them hedge-like. However you choose to plant them, they’ll probably do fine since They like sun and heat and are somewhat drought resistant. Honestly, many even seem to produce better if neglected a little bit in the later season.
People love filling their outdoor spaces with tomatoes. Me too! On a recent weekend I visited my local nursery for no more than 10 minutes during which time I saw at least 20 flats of tomatoes get rung up at the register. At current rates, I’ve seen tomato starts run anywhere from $1.50 to $5 for a plant in a 3.5 inch pot– if a flat holds 18 pots, I figure that’s anywhere between $27-$90 per flat that these folks were shelling out.
So is it worth it to start your own tomato seeds? Maybe… Depends on what you have laying around and how you calculate savings.
First lets do some cost estimation. Here’s roughly what I need to start tomato seeds:
There we have approximately $28 to get started. So you can see, if you only want 18 plants (or fewer) and you can find them for a great deal, you might want to skip starting them from seed. If you want more than 18, know you can’t find them at a good price, or find sharing plants with people has great value, then maybe it would be worth starting your own!
I recently started a tray with 18 different varieties. I did not buy any seeds this year but I did buy a bag of peat and two bags of potting soil. For that $18, I am getting over a hundred tomato plants! I only have room for 30-ish in my garden and on my patio, but I’m also saving my friends money by giving them the spares. I love it!
So how do you go about starting tomatoes?
First: Start early. If you have a heated greenhouse or a nice sunny south facing window (in the northern US and similar latitudes) sill inside your house, you can start them in trays as early as February. If you have an unheated greenhouse, you can start in mid March. Tomatoes like to be warm during the day, and I’ve found they tolerate cool nights pretty well until they are working on their second or third set of true leaves. After that they start looking a little ragged if exposed to chilly nights. Start your seeds in a mix of 50/50 potting soil and peat. That does well for me.
Second: replant seedlings into 3.5″ pots once they have their first set of true leaves. For this round of potting, use slightly more potting soil than peat.
Third: plant them in the ground or in their permanent outside pots no earlier than June (again, northern US, Pacific NW, so this will vary per location–I’d say equivalent in your area would be whenever night time low temps are 60 degrees F or above). I have found that they really don’t do much better when planted outside earlier than June and can actually stay smaller if they get shocked by some lingering cold weather.
Fourth: Fertilize them with your favorite vegetable fertilizer as soon as you transplant them into the garden or final pots and once per week thereafter until fruit starts setting on.
Good luck with your tomato planting and I hope your crop shapes up nicely!