The Q&A Archives: how to get strong seedling?

Question: Hi. I am a seed starting neophyte. This year I started some tomato seed in small pots inside. I kept them in a small room and got the temperature in the room up to about 78 degrees before I planted them and kept the temperature there. I used a double row of flourescent plant lights just barely over the top of the leaves as they grew. I kept them moist, watering them every night. I planted them around April 15. Our last frost date is June 15 here in Colo Springs. All of the seeds germinated, and I had some little plants. I had them in 3 inch peat pots, so they should have enough room to grow. They never did get any bigger than a few inches tall, with a small trunk that would never get big. I want to grow super seedlings like the ones I buy at Home Depot's gardening center, nice thick main stem, plenty of leaves, very healthy. Mine were anemic little things, and it does not look like they are going to make it in the garden. I transplanted them last week. Any advice on how to get those little seedling to grow and thrive?

Answer: It sounds as though you started your seeds right. My only suggestions are that you keep the lights on for 14-16 hours a day and you use a small fan to help keep the air circulating. The air movement will help the plants move slightly, which should strengthen the roots and the main stems. You didn't mention whether or not you fed your seedlings. A half-strength dilution of liquid fertilizer every 7-10 days should help beef them up. As for daily watering, it may be necessary depending upon potting soil (I use peat starting mix, too). Peat changes color when it begins to dry out where potting soils do not. I water the tray so the moisture is wicked up from the bottom rather than trying to water the top of the soil. This way the roots are sure to get adequate moisture. When you water from the top, the outside of the peat can get moist but the center can remain dry. Watering from the bottom seems to eliminate this problem. And, I pinch my plants back after the third set of leaves develops (about 3-4 weeks). This may sound mean but it results in multiple branching which makes for a sturdier plant.

Now that your plants are outdoors, feed them again(as above). If the soil is still cold, you might want to mulch around the plants to help it stay a little warmer. Tomatoes love warm air and warm soil. Next time you start tomato seedlings for transplanting outdoors, wait until July 1 to set them out - or cover the planting bed with black plastic to help it warm up a little sooner.

Best wishes with your tomato plants!

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