Troubleshooting: Tomato Seedlings

One of my readers, Ray, is trying valiantly to grow carefully chosen tomatoes from seed. But he’s getting frustrated:

My plants were looking a little yellow so I figured they needed sun, but maybe I left them out too long. Some look basically dead…leaves are like blanched or something. How long does it take usually to get them used to the sun? Is it like an hour a day then two hours then 3 and so on or less/more? I feel frustrated because I put a lot of effort into selecting my seeds and getting the seed soil and everything else. I have my last bit of seeds in damp soil inside medium pots…I am pretty sure they are germinating…at this point are they better just planted outside you think??

Ray, tomatoes are something that I bought as plants for YEARS. If you’re new to gardening, I hate to see you frustrated trying to start tomatoes from seed. Do you have a local source for heirloom tomato plants? They’re more expensive, but way less frustrating!

As far as seeds go, I’ve found that you really need to keep the seedlings at a consistent temperature with consistent moisture (maintain moisture similar to a wrung out sponge). Once they’ve reached 3-4″ in height, start letting them spend some time outside. Too much hot sun at once can be killer, as can cold nights. I used to put mine out under an awning for the first couple of days for bright, but not direct, sunlight.

I wouldn’t move just-started seedlings, but if you have any seeds left, you might try direct sowing once the weather really warms up  (use a TP tube to plant in to keep bugs off). I’ve found that plants that start from seed in the garden in their own time (think: compost pile) end up fruiting at roughly the same time as those that I’ve nurtured from seed in inclement weather. Mother Nature really does know what she’s doing.

Try not to get too frustrated. Growing tomatoes from seed – even if you’re struggling with it – is such a learning experience!

These links might prove helpful:

Photo: Flickr user  Ian’s Shutter Habit

Anyone have more tips or words of encouragement for Ray?

This article has 5 comments

  1. I’m trying tomatoes and other things from seed this year, for the first time, and so far … I’m pretty discouraged too. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  2. Thanks for posting. I have some Heirloom tomatoes that I started from seed and they aren’t looking exactly 100%.

  3. This is my first year starting from seed, and tomatoes have been frustrating for me too! I started my seeds too early, so I’ve moved my plants from the seed starter to small pots. A few leaves look yellow, and some of them have withered, but so far they seem to be tough little guys. I keep them in my big bay window, which gets direct sun for a few hours a day. But the room stays cool (like everywhere in Boston spring time). Thanks for posting this question and your tips. 

  4. I love that image of the seedling. Did you take it?

  5. We ALWAYS grow tomatoes from seed! The fact is that tomatoes are very climate- adapted. They want to be planted in the rain and mature their fruits as the weather dries out. We plant the seeds in compost-filled yogurt cups ( the big ones), so that they are good size when transplanted.   We plant the seedlings in compost-filled big holes, about the size of a bucket. They produce enormously with nothing else!
    When we try to force tomatoes at any other time of the year, they just pout and die…

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