Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Time to start your tomato seedlings

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"Gardeners, start your tomatoes!" Vroom, vroom.

Okay, that refrain may not spur as much exhilaration as a similar call for car racers to start their engines, but it should prompt gardeners to start sowing their tomato seeds this coming week. "Hmmm, a little late" you say. Hardly. Numerous studies have shown that tomato seedlings which are 6 to 8 weeks old are best for transplanting to the garden. Seedlings of that age suffer less transplant shock, grow more rapidly, and subsequently produce fruit earlier than might occur with older seedlings.

At temperatures in the 70 to 80 F degree range, tomato seeds germinate in 4 to 10 days, depending upon the variety and the age of the seeds. Therefore, 6 to 8 weeks after that puts us into the first week of June, hopefully past any danger of frosT, but also at a time when night temperatures are in a range favorable to tomato growth, i.e. 55 degrees F or higher.

On a related note, when starting tomatoes or any plant indoors, make sure the seed-starting medium and containers are sterile. Always use soil-less mixes for seed starting since they are less likely to contain disease-causing organisms than do soil-based mixes. Containers can be sterilized by washing in a 10 percent bleach solution (1 part bleach and 9 parts water). Alternatively, wash containers in soapy water and afterward spray the containers with a 50:50 vinegar to water solution. Also, as mentioned in this column a few weeks ago, scatter a light layer of milled sphagnum moss over the top of the media after seeding as extra precaution against diseases which may attack tomato seedlings.

Starting tomato seeds may not be very thrilling, but compared to reverberations of race cars, I prefer the tranquility of seed sowing, as well as these other gardening tasks:

- Use wood ash gleaned from the wood stove as a soil additive. Wood ash contains important plant nutrients including calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. The amount of nutrients varies depending upon the species of wood, but applying about a half to one gallon of wood ash per 10 square feet of garden area will supply much of the nutrient needs of flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs, herbaceous perennials, annuals, and vegetables. Because of the calcium content, do not use wood ash around rhododendrons, azaleas, and other acid-loving plants.

- Apply dormant oil to woody ornamental plants and fruit trees that have a history of infestation by mites, aphids or scale insects. Horticultural oils work by covering the insect or its eggs with a fine film and suffocating them. These oils are very safe for humans, wildlife and the environment.

- Apply a fast-release, high nitrogen fertilizer to bulb beds just as bulb shoots come up. A granular fertilizer with an analysis such as 10-6-4, or a water soluble fertilizer may be used. This fertilizer will boost the bulbs ability to restore the food used in the flowering process and, therefore, guarantee repeat bloom next year.

- Dig up and transplant any shrubs and small trees which need to be moved. This is best done while the plants are still dormant.

- Sow seeds of hardy annuals outdoors now. Cornflower, bachelor's buttons, larkspur, sweet peas, sweet alyssum, pinks, and snapdragons will survive temperatures of 25 degrees F and lower.

- Use a weed trimmer or scythe to mow down winter rye or other winter crops in the vegetable garden. When soils have dried enough to be tilled, turn under the remnants of these cover crops. Wait about two weeks before sowing seeds of any vegetable crops where rye was grown since rye can suppress the germination of many vegetables, especially carrots.

- Extend the life of Easter flowering plants by placing these potted plants in a sunny but cool location, away from drafts and heat sources. Keep the soil evenly moist.


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