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starting tomato seeds early-best types for a 'too early' start

Hello & a VERY Happy Holidays to all!

I will be growing out tomatoes this year, and I need a little advice. I am experienced gardener, and I start tomatoes inside early. Generally, I start them 2-3 weeks earlier than the recommended early start.

This year, I'd like to start even earlier! I would like to start a few more than a month earlier than the recommended "early start indoors", which I believe is 6-8 weeks.

Are there any types that are more forgiving of this treatment? I find peppers and eggplants can handle much earlier starts than recommended, and I am hoping I can do it with some tomatoes.

Part of the reason that I'd like to do this is because I will be growing tomatoes out for seed. I have a charitable organization I started last February that sends food seed to those in need. Anyway, I am going to be doing seed grow-outs. I figured I could get more seed by separationg the start of flowering on them by starting one type WAY early, another quite early, another early and so forth. I know tomatoes do not cross as readily as some veggie species, but my neighbor has 2 beehives within 50 feet of my garden, and out total acreage is .61 of an acre. I also know some of the heirloom varieties have a protruding part that makes crossing easier. So, I figure if I add TIME as an element of isolation, I would do more toward keeping the strains true.

Another reason is that the smell of tomato plants means summer, and an early sniff will inspire.

I have a superb full-South facing window and a good light set up.

OK, so, does anybody know of any "forgiving for being in the house too long" tomatoes? I suppose starting with some dwarf ones might be good.

I am not as experienced a tomato gardeneras I am a gardener in general. There are so many individual types to get to know.

ANY info would be greatly appreciated.



Comments (21)

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I honestly don't know that any variety is best or ideal for starting way too early. Most all will have the same end results and/or problems - how much so will depend entirly on what your growing set up is.

    But if it were me, I stick with some of the dwarf or bush varieties because their natural shorter growth pattern might help keep them from going lanky and leggy as fast as indeterminate varieties will.


  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    The last two years I started my toms on or around Dec 22nd.

    The traditional safe day is May 15. So... 5 months before first safe day, 3 months before first reccomended seed start time.

    > Part of the reason that I'd like to do this is because I
    > will be growing tomatoes out for seed. I have a charitable
    > organization I started last February that sends food seed
    > to those in need.

    Then that should be the criteria for the tomato plants you choose to start too early.

    But if you want something to keep you occupied
    and don't want too much work, small determintate
    are a great recomend. Totem is a good one.
    It had the first tomato last year for me
    on Feb 24th
    here it is on March 8th, last year

    And first ripe one too on May 15th ish

    Indterminates get big fast. keep 'em cool, and give them lots of root space.
    I keep stacking milk cartons inside one another and
    bury the stems as it get higher. They end up pre-trenched that way.
    here is a whispy indeterminate on march 8th

    Here's the mob.

    here is my light set up

    It's a lot of work if you have more than just a few plants.
    Light needs are pretty extreme by the end. You will be
    spending some money on lighting.

    If you give your plants root space, I don't think you will
    suffer the problems people describe happen to plants started to early. I haven't had them last two years.

    One thing though, you can't defeat out side weather.
    I had a few ripe one late may, early june.
    Then a couple cold blasts and heat waves hit and
    it was back to square one. I did OK, but not great.

    If green fruit provide viable seed, I would have done
    pretty dang good.

    Had the cold/heat blasts not hit, I would have drowned in tomato sauce. My parents, less affected by the heat cold
    almost did on only 4 plants. They gave bag after bag bag away. Then they gave bags to me to give away.

    Assuming indeterminates, plants grown like I grown them get
    BIG by end of summer. Plan accordingly.

    7, 10'-15' most common, 18 feet. One was about 25'(maxifort).
    6' is the norm for around here.

    > Another reason is that the smell of tomato plants means
    > summer, and an early sniff will inspire.

    Indeed. I get to smell that smell all the way 'til spring.
    And if nothing else, its fun and keeps you out of trouble.

    Save some room for starts at a more reasonable start date
    and you can't lose.

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    Comments (11)
    I'm in MN too. And it is probably not too early for you. I am always chomping at the bit to get going right after Christmas. I have learned though that depending on what I am starting, it is possible to start too early :) For perennials and some annuals that take a long time (i.e. geraniums, petunias) I've started them in January. For shorter season things like veggies, I usually try to wait until later in Febuary at least. I started my tomato seeds in January one year and they were almost 4 feet tall before I could get them planted out. They did wonderfully, but they were a little unruly to deal with in the house/greenhouse. One thing to keep in mind is to remember how much light space you have. You don't want to be using all your lighted space for germination trays. Then when you go to repot the seedlings into their own pots you will run out of lighted space for them (speaking from experience here! :)
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    When you say mild winter and transplanting early (March or April) is this just for areas with mild climates where they typically receive no snow (FL, AL, GA, etc.) The reason I ask is because I live in the northern part of the country and live in the northern part of my state. The whole not being able to plant in the ground cause of it being frozen, doesn't apply to me, because I use container gardening. The other things is what about transplanting early with areas where the main growing season arrives later in the year (end of May). This is in comparison to southern areas, such as GA, FL, etc. If I do stuff earlier, it would be hardy things that love cold weather and germinate and grow well in cold weather (spinach, lettuce, etc.) I'm not saying they would be direct sown, rather transplants. I might direct sow them earlier, depending on the weather.
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    Comments (23)
    Ah, the joys/perils of being a new tomato grower. I live in zone 7 and I planted my first plant on January 15th. The last average frost date here is April 15th, so my plant date is around May 1st. yes, I knew this would be a big plant, but it was a husky Cherry that I planned on putting in a 5 gallon bucket or eartbox and could be moved in on these colder days. Now I started some other plants around Feb 15th and they are getting kind of crowded. I have been trying to let them get a little sun recently to because my lighting area is not big enough for what I started. As soon as I place them outside, it gets too windy. I am taking about 20-25 mph winds on seedlings. Or it is too cold in the morning when I leave to place them outside. So my mistakes this year is 1) Starting too early 2) Planting too many for my lighted area Last year, I really was fubar. I bought all of my plants at walmarts or nurseries. Some of my earliest plants were not staked or caged! Talk about clueless. So imagine big bushes laying sprawled all over the place. When I started staking, I didnÂt prune. So part of the bush was upright, the rest bent or broke. I also planted the things a foot or two apart. Yet, I still got a somewhat decent harvest. It certainly is a learning experience.
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  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Depends on where you plan to grow them. Tomatos will not grow in cold ground, they just sit there and wait for it to warm up. So if you use black plastic or some other method of warming the ground it will help some. But this will only give you a few weeks at best, ground cools at night. Depending on how many plants you want a hoop greenhouse can be constructed rather inexpensively for a few plants that can extend your season by a month or more if you add some heat to keep night temps above 45 or 50 degrees. transplanting plants in flower or with fruit will stress them causing loss of flowers or fruit in many cases or just halt plant production while it re-establishes a root system. The best system I have found for doing this is growing them in large nursery pots then burying the entire pot and part of the stem when you plant them out. Tomatos will grow new roots from the buried stem and out the drain holes. The deeper the better.

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    rb55 makes an excellent point in that if you set plants out in cold soil, they will tend to sulk and you might not get that much benefit from planting early. This really isn't a concern where I live, but it may be for you (?) Warming up the soil by laying down plastic beforehand, working/turning the soil, or planting in containers can help with this.

    Types that would be suitable? Hard to say. Most cherry types can take rough treatment or less than optimal growing conditions fairly well and can even set fruit when others wouldn't, but on the other hand, they tend to grow rather fast. Or maybe dwarf or bush types like Dave suggested, as they have a tendency to stay compact under lights, etc. much longer than other types would.

    I don't want to discourage you from experimenting - but - here's what I really think. :-) If you are already starting 2-3 weeks early, I just don't think you would want to go any earlier than you already are, unless it's just a few early starts that you are maybe willing to protect, put in containers, etc. Then start some more later, when you usually do.

    Timely seedstarting and planting is super important where I live, and I have found it is plenty "good enough" to start my seeds 1/7 for a target plantout date of 3/7 - subject to forecast, and I also stagger my planting a bit to mitigate the risk, and have backups, etc.

    I should mention that my seedlings are grown on the 'cold' side, and only stay under lights until I'm ready for the potting up stage (2nd set of true leaves or so). Then out they go after a day or two of rest - outdoors during the day, and sometimes in the garage at night when absolutely necessary. This makes for stocky plants with excellent root development. Cold favors root growth, warmth favors top growth.

    I have started seeds as early as mid Dec before, but honestly, I haven't found much benefit to doing so. More work than it is worth, potting up to larger than 4" pots vs. the rather small potential benefit. I grow a lot of plants, so potting them *all* up isn't really practical either. Your situation may be different of course. Now, I do still occasionally start a few early for container planting, only what I am willing to protect, etc. The rest get started around 1/7. Stagger your seedstarting a bit and see how it works out for you. :)

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    If you enjoy pushing the envelope go ahead and try the early planting ideas suggested.

    If gettting true seed is the main goal, you should bag your blossems....whether you start early or not. It is a better way to be almost entirely sure that your varieties are true. There may well be other plants in the area that the neighbor's bees also visit. If you bag blossems, then you may want to start the varieties needing a longer growing season so you can be reasonably sure to get ripe fruits well before frost.

    ....Seems like I heard there was some place marketing a tomato scent. Somehow, I don't think any tomato scent out of a bottle would provide much inspiration for me :)

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Here are a couple things you might try....

    1. Use wall of waters. It should help you plant outside early.
    2. Use black plastic mulch to warm up the ground.

    I agree with most of the other posters. I tried some too early last year because I had too many starts and they didn't do any better than the ones that I planted outside later. If anything, they were slightly later than the ones that went in the ground at a reasonable time. I only put some outside early because I had way too many starts and wanted to experiment. One thing that I did learn is that plants that died all the way to the ground because of frost came back and produced.

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I start mine inside4.5 months before they go out side.
    But they go outside at normal, "safe" time.

    the time and effort spent in 4.5 months makes the
    putting out early too much of a risk.

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I too have seen some of the leggy disasters that come from starting seeds early, but the challenge is finding ways to overcome that. This year I started in Nov and will keep some plants inside, maybe thru the summer. As mentioned above, light is the key. I always wondered how the Green House's got those thick stemmed, bushy plants, where my seedlings were lanky and spindly. I believe the difference is the artificial light supplement that the green houses use. If you do not mind walking around touching your plants every day, try supercropping to add even more bulk and thick stems to your plants. Blue light spectrum of Metal Halide is far better to control stretch then the more common HPS (orange colored)lights that push the plants flowering mode. HID light set-ups can be expensive, but mine were literally throw-aways from a factory changing over to T5 florescent. There are some small 150w HID lights that are as inexpensive as $20. The key is understanding the challenge and then adjusting your environment to meet it. Of course I am a little bit of a whacko when it comes to "that will never work" Good luck.

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Oh, Yayee! This is a thread after me own heart...thank you all for chiming in on it.

    I have seedlings in the windowed corner of an 8X10 sunporch. The 16 oz drink cups fill the windowsills, one shelf, and half a drop-leaf table under supplemental lighting in the form of a couple of florescent light sticks hanging from a rolling clothes rack. I have potted Red Robins and Totems on the kitchen table and the living room hutch, and Tumbling Toms on assorted stools and plant stands scootched up to the windows.

    I chickened out on leaving ANY of them outside to deal with temperatures below 40, even sheltered in closed rubbermaid containers, so it's daily in-an-out pot-walking for me. I train a pair of supplemental CFC lights, one red spectrum, one blue spectrum, on the blooming Butcher and Stupice on chilly, cloudy days like today when they can't go out to play.

    I also have one Red House Free Standing that was started at the same time. With its unique growth habit, I wanted to see if it could be grown as a houseplant during the winter. It's lovely at 20." And then there's the unknown nightshade that I thought was a Northern Exposure...if it is, it is the most potato-leaved plant ever.

    The wave of first Red Robins were planted in October, and one of them now has minuscule buds on it. I am almost certain that this is the plant that got an accidentally severe root pruning in the potting-up process. If I had known, I would have pruned all the gift Robins at that time.

    The currently smaller sunporch seedlings (but next bigger in terms of final size) are the dwarf early determinate Siberian, Silvery Fir Tree, Sophie's Choice and a few more Glaciers, Robins, and Totems. By planting at about the 50% level in 16 Oz drink cups I can add soil around their stems as they grow. Keeping seedlings cool was the single most helpful tip I've ever picked up here. And it's much easier on my heating bill!

    Elkunkito, thanks for the stacking milk carton idea! The Black varieties in a square foil tray are at their first leaf stage and ready for transplant. With the milk cartons I won't have to worry about keep up with that Cherry until she's in her final home.

    The first week in January is my target date for having seeded 99% of the varieties I'll be growing in the spring season. I'll start potting up to the final containers on March 1 and will continue until they are all done. Final frost comes here at the end of March, but the nights will be cool for another month. I'm thinking your buried nursery container idea, rb55, could help counteract that. If I used black pots, I could cover or paint them, or mulch up their exposed sides later.

    Keeping seedlings cool was the single most helpful tip I've ever picked up here. And it's much easier on my heating bill!

    And I can't thank you enough, all of you who were willing to trade with this newbie. You have enabled me to have much fun, fun, fun all winter long while sampling a wide range of tomato varieties, in my self-directed crash course on heirlooms. I hope I do your babies proud.


  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Curses on this limited forum software! Imagine the repetition in that last one cleaned up by an edit if you will.

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Not exactly sure which are the best kind to start, except to pick early fruiting types that are determinate.
    I started a few weeks early last year and it was a hassle. I didn't really have the success I wanted, but then again I'm not really experienced. As others mentioned you need to have good light and the right temps. One of my mistakes was planting in the ground too early while the ground was still cool and planting in a spot that didn't receive full sun in the early Spring. My plants just sat there for about a month and by the time they started flowering temps were heading to the 90's. I had 17 plants but only a couple produced significant fruit.

    I'm not going to start early this year, but with what I've learned this past year, much of which has been repeated in this thread, I think I'll get some fairly early fruit. I'll especially keep Suze's tips in mind since we have a similar growing season. Particularly, I'll plant in raised beds covered with black plastic, in a spot that receives full sun and I'll move my plants outside during the day as soon as I can.

    The Fall season was good to me and I'm hoping this will be a breakthrough Spring. I'll start my first seeds in a week or two!!

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I am quite thrilled to read these great responses! I live in Zone 7, but our Winter is still long. The zones just refer to the extremes in temperature, not how long it lasts. I have noticed volunteer tomatoes come out earlier than I would choose to plant out. So, I can watch for that as a sign.

    I do not have any trouble with legginess of my tomato seedlings. I have a picture window that faces full-South, and shelves there (for seedling starting in Winter) outfitted with shop-lights. I read somewhere that it is important to use fresh bulbs (fluorescent tubes) as the light diminishes over time. I do not get new ones every year, but if one seems to put out less (judging by the plants), I use that on my alpine strawberry seedlings or something else that doesn't mind.

    I want to start even earlier because I'd like to keep tomato strains true when I grow them out. I plan to grow out severl this year, and if one flowers first for a week, then they are in the clear, and I can mark those fruits, and then not really worry about the rest. I guess what I mean is that an early & staggered start will allow me to focus on each plant as it comes into bloom, selecting from that, and moving on to the next one. I do have some limitations (medically), so it would be easier to focus on them staggered rather then so many at one time. It may not work out the way I hope, but I figure it is a good experiment for this year.

    By choosing good varieties for this (my un-familiarity with varieties hurts my experiment here) I can better insure success.

    The funny thing is that I don't really eat tomatoes--except in spaghetti sauce. BUT, everyone else loves them, and I find there is a group involved with tomatoes that have a zeal for the plant like no other vegetable/fruit. A great deal of home-breeding is going on, and I find it the most fascinating thing. Tomatoes provide a great opportunity to study genetics at home, and to look very intensely at varietal development in plants. I guess I am hooked for a reason not common to most, but I am hooked.

    So, I will try my experiment this year, and see how it works for me. I am thankful at the varieties/categories I see mentioned. When mentioning "use determinate or dwarf" plants, how can I find out which is which? I have consulted some websites, but is there a thorough tomato base out there?

    Keep the posts coming!
    Happy Holidays,

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    Your non-profit sounds like a very worthy cause. If you anticipate that most of those you will be sending seeds to are urban gardeners, you may want to concentrate on the smaller determinates anyway, because they are better suited to container growing.

    ContainerTed who posts here has a great spreadsheet that gives information on 400 varieties: determinate or indeterminate, days to maturity, growth height, etc. He's celebrating his birthday tonight, but if you find his member page and email him, I'm sure he will send you a copy.

    Everybody has their personal favorites, but the names that are often mentioned include Sophie's Choice, Mountain Princess, New Big Dwarf, Siberian, Silvery Fir Tree, Sub-Arctic Plenty. Scroll down the page at the site linked below and you will see pictures of many, many more dwarf or small determinate tomatoes.


    Here is a link that might be useful: Pictures of Small Tomato Plants

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I gotta tell ya, you guys are just GREAT!

    Thanks for this info!

    Thanks for the urban thinking. I will be separating my Care Packages by North/South, Suburban/Urban/Rural, and family size/organization. I am glad you reminded me. Thanks also for the site, and the idea to e-mail ContainerTed. I will do so.

    I am trying to get a wide variety of tomatoes in order to cover these different situations in stock for my charitable organization (Need 4 Seed). If anyone would like to swap tomato seeds, maybe I have something you don't and vice-verse.

    I do not know if there is a special tomato trading forum, or if it is OK to do it here, or if I should stick to the regular seed-trading forum.

    Merry Christmas,

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Just tried to look up container Ted, but nothing came up from the search (no matches). I cut and pasted his name as you had it. Any ideas?

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Robin, there are separate Seed exchange forums on GW that match every type of plant forum. I just learned this myself. All these years, and who knew?

    Start at the master forums list, go to Exchanges, and then, I believe, there is a choice for "other exchanges" that will unroll the entire list. I'm a new heirloom grower, so I don't have as much to trade as many people here, but I will be looking for your seed offer over there. Maybe some of my "store-boughten" seeds might work for you.

    See the link below for Ted's info.

    Happy holidays!


    Here is a link that might be useful: Ted's Spreadsheet Thread

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Robin, I just tried following my own instructions and they stink. The link to the seed exchange for this forum is below.


    Here is a link that might be useful: Tomato Seed Exchange

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    outdoors during the day, and sometimes in the garage at night when absolutely necessary
    What overnight, low temperature forcase would necessitate a
    move to the garage?


  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    I probably started my seeds way too early last year. It was my first time growing from seeds and I simply didn't know any better. As my seedlings got a little leggy, I found a deeper container and replanted them. In the end they ended up in 20 oz recycled styrofoam cups with the roots sitting on the bottom and the tops just above the top. I gave away many of the plants and everyone told me they outgrew the store bought plants. As I was hardening them off, I am positive that the styrofoam helped with extreme temperature changes. Again I didn't know any better and I would move my plants outside anytime the temps were above 45 and move them back inside before I went to bed at 3pm (I work midnights). Also one friend has problems with cutworms and he simply peeled off about half the bottom of the cups before planting to keep the cutworms at bay. I have already started collecting used styrofoam cups in various sizes since it worked so well for me.


  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    marbles, There are some good tips posted, but one thing I never noticed from scanning the followups was more info on your question.
    The one forgiving seedling I can hold back on a sunny windowsill is a canning, (paste type) named 'Hard Rock' - from Totally Tomatoes. Also the one thing I like about Reimers Seeds is the easy searches; i.e. alphabetical, earliness, color, etc. When I hear someone wants to push spring I always think of Oregon Spring, that might be the variety you're looking for.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Reimers Seeds

  • 15 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    That company may be good for searches BUT it is NOT good to deal with.

    I ordered seed that did not germinate and they refused to replace same.

    Poor attitude.

    Posting their link fosters poor seed and problems.

    Some good seed companies:

    Tomato Growers Supply
    Sand Hill
    Victory Seed
    Johnny's Seed
    Heirloom Seed