The Only Reason You’ll Ever Need to Start Your Own Tomato Plants

The NurseryHere in USDA Zone 7, this is the week for starting tomato plants indoors. They’ll have seven weeks to grow inside before the last expected frost, enough time to get big and robust but not so much time that they’ll outgrow their 3″ pots and the space allotted for them at my south-facing windows!

Starting your own tomato plants may seem like a hassle. It does require daily watering and monitoring to make sure the plants are getting enough light. (Using an east-facing window in the morning and a south- or west-facing window in the afternoon can help. As can making a reflector from aluminum foil to place on the side of the plants away from the window.) And then, when it gets close to planting time, you have to gradually introduce the plants to outdoor conditions, by an hour more each day. That process is called “hardening off,” and it can be time-consuming.

So why bother? Why not just buy your tomato plants ready to go from your local nursery?

Well, besides the fact that growing your own is a lot cheaper (if you save your seed packets from one year to the next–in the refrigerator, for best results!), there is one very big reason that I do it. And that is the Large Red Tomato.

Large Red TomatoThe Large Red, despite its generic name, is a specific variety of tomato that dates back to pre-Civil War times. As you’ll see from the picture, it has a distinctive lobed shape. And while that’s cool, it is not its best quality. The Large Red is hands down the most delicious tomato I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve grown quite a few varieties. The fruits are not very big, usually about the size of a plum tomato, and the vines aren’t the most prolific, though they produce reasonably well. But the TASTE. These are the kinds of tomatoes it’s sacrilege to eat any way other than plain. Even the finest olive oil and basil add nothing to their intrinsic lusciousness. If I could only grow one variety of tomato, this is the variety I would choose. It’s just not summer without a basket full of Large Reds.

And you can’t buy Large Red seedlings at the nursery. You’ve got to grow them yourself. So that’s one great reason to order some seeds–Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is my favorite source for Large Reds–and plant a few this week!

Like I said, I start mine in 3″ pots, with 3-4 seeds per pot. When they’ve got some true leaves, I pinch off all but one plant in each pot, leaving the healthiest. For more details on starting seedlings at home, see my posts The First Seeds of Spring and Caring for Seedlings. If you’re interested at getting a good look at some other heirloom tomato varieties, check out Amy Goldman’s beautiful coffee-table book, The Heirloom Tomato. Happy planting!

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Here too! Just bought some new John Inness potting compost to get sowing the first veg seeds for the year.

  2. Wow, you make a good sale. I am always looking to try new varieties. I am in Zone 10 and started my tomatoes in January and will be putting them in the ground this month, so many next year I can try Large Red. Happy sowing.

    1. Oh, the wonders of Zone 10! 🙂 Out of curiosity, what’s your favorite variety?

      1. Right now my top three are Green Zebra, Green Grape, and Indigo Rose. I usually plant about 10 varieties every year, and these three are sticking. I am trying some new ones this season as well some repeats from last season (giving them another chance).

      2. Thanks! Green Zebra I know. I’m going to check the others out!

      3. Green grape is a large cherry variety. I have been growing this one for years. Indigo Rose is a beautiful purple tomato that ripens orangish. I tried it for the first time last year. They are small tomatoes that are packed with flavor. The tomatoes grow in clusters and I found the plants to be very productive. I purchased the Green Grape seeds through Seed Savers Exchange and Indigo Rose from Territorial Seed Company.

      4. Great! I appreciate the info. 🙂

  3. M. R. says:

    I would so LOVE to grow my own … but in my 5th floor balcony flat, every pest is Sydney knows where I am. I’ve tried and tried, but it makes no difference: as soon as soft green shoots emerge, so do the horrid things that chew them.

    1. Well, you know your area much better than I, but I have learned that insect pests are much less likely to bother well-fertilized plants. Robustly healthy plants are able to produce chemicals that make them less palatable to insects. So if you ever decide to give it a go again, I would recommend using good topsoil mixed with compost and some organic fertilizer–who knows? Maybe it’ll make a difference! In the meantime, I hope you have some other gardens nearby you can enjoy. 🙂

      1. M. R. says:

        Without a car to get to a garden centre and bring back that kind of material, I’m done. I readily accept your advice as to why I don’t succeed: makes sense to me.
        Sydney really isn’t the kind of city that lends itself to the support of would-be home gardeners. Many thanks for your input – much appreciated!

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