How to Start Pepper and Tomato Plants
If you buy your pepper and tomato plants from the local garden store you have very few varieties to choose from. The various non-profit seed saver organizations, mail order seed catalogues and dedicated hobbyists on eBay offer seeds of hundreds of different kinds of peppers and tomatoes. It's easy to start your own plants and fun to discover new varieties. (This method will work for almost any kind of seed.) Here's how I do it.
First you need to get the stuff. Everything you need can be purchased at your local discount store - or on eBay! Here's the parts list:
- 2.25 in (5.7 cm) size
- black plastic trays with clear plastic covers, 11 x 20 in (28 x 50 cm)
- wet-proof electric heating pad, 12 x 23 in (31 x 58 cm)
- bag of potting mix
- small identification labels
- fine point permanent marking pen
- tweezers or forceps
- florescent "shop light" and two 40 watt plant-growth bulbs
- plastic mist sprayer bottle
- 16 or 20 ounce (0.5 l) plastic drink cups
When To Plant
Start seeds 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost in your area. Here in Zone 8B, we usually start seeds the second or third week of January. Your county extension agent can tell you the average date for the last frost in your area.
- Pack the peat pots firmly with potting mix and arrange 32 of them in one 11 x 20 in (28 x 51 cm) plastic tray.
- Water the peat pots thoroughly until the potting mix and the peat pots are saturated. Firm the potting mix down again and pour any excess water out of the tray.
- Place two or three seeds on top of the potting mix in each peat pot and insert a labeled marker.
- Use forceps or tweezers to push the seeds a quarter-inch deep into the potting mix (depth may vary if planting other types of seeds - In general, plant seeds as deep as about 3 times their length.
- Install the clear plastic cover and place the tray
on the heating pad set to medium heat.
Place the peat pots with the little seedlings in another black plastic tray and suspend the florescent lamps about one inch above the seedlings. The closer the better. Discontinue use of the heating pads and do not cover the trays. Mist the seedlings several times a day (or as they show signs of drying out) with a fine spray from a plastic plant sprayer bottle. (The drier the air, the more often they will need to be misted.) Raise the lamps as the seedlings grow, always keeping the bulbs as close as possible to the leaves. Leave the lights on 15-18 hours a day. Water as necessary by pouring water into the tray and letting the peat pots soak it up. Thin the seedlings to one plant per pot.
Controlling Fungus Disease
I never sterilize anything, I never use fungicides and I never have damping off, a fungus disease that kills seedlings that are kept too wet. My secrets: Never cover the seedlings after they have germinated. Mist the tiny seedlings when they are dry, but don't water the peat pots until they are dry on the outside and noticeably lighter in weight.
Potting and Aftercare
When the seedlings are 3-6 in (8-15 cm) tall, pot up into the larger plastic drink cups. Poke one or two 1/4 in (0.6 cm) holes in the bottom of each drink cup. (I use an electric drill to drill holes in the bottoms of several stacked cups all at once.)
Tear off the top of the peat pot rim to the level of the potting medium (so it won't wick moisture away if it becomes exposed to the air) and place the peat pot in the drink cup, then fill it with potting medium, packing it all around the peat pot. Bury tomato stems as much as you can, leaving just a few leaves exposed (They will grow additional roots on the buried stem.). It doesn't matter whether or not you bury pepper and eggplant stems, but many other seedlings should not be buried deeper than they were in the original pot.
Place the cups in another tray (you can use the same type of black plastic trays, but I use stronger, larger trays), and suspend florescent lamps an inch or two above the leaves. Hang the lamps at an angle and you can have the little peat pots under the lights on one end and the larger plastic cups at the other end. Keep the lights on 15-18 hours a day.
Take the seedlings outside and leave them in the sun and the wind whenever the temperature is above 45º F (7º C) except for eggplant seedlings that need temperatures above 55º F (13 C). Here in North Florida, I can have my seedlings (even those still in the peat pots) outside many days in January and February.
Water as necessary with water that has been spiked with the house-plant concentration (usually 1 teaspoon per gallon) of all-purpose plant food.
Transplanting To The Garden
Six to eight weeks after the seeds were first planted, the tomato and pepper plants should be 8-18" tall and ready to set out in the garden. Seedlings that received more time outside in the sun and wind will be shorter, stockier, stronger and healthier than plants that were confined indoors. Don't rush setting them out, either. If the soil and air are still below 50º F (10º C), they won't grow anyway.
If the seedlings have not had a lot of time outside in the real world, you will need to acclimatize them before planting out in full sun in the garden. Harden them off by letting them have full sun for a few hours a day, gradually increasing exposure until they can stay in the sun all day without wilting. It's best to transplant on a cloudy day, in late afternoon. Water them an hour or so before transplanting.
To set out your tomato plants, dig a gradually sloping trench and throw in a handful of lime (this reduces the chances of getting blossom-end rot). Slide the tomato plant and potting medium out of the pot, strip off the lower leaves, lay it in the trench, and cover all but just a few of the top leaves with 2-4 in (5-10 cm) of soil. Peppers, eggplants and most other seedlings should be buried upright, no deeper than they were in their pot, and they don't need the extra lime. Water well. Water some more.
I make cages out of concrete reinforcing wire (looks like heavy duty hog fencing) to support my pepper and tomato plants.
Enjoy growing (and eating) heirloom and rare tomato and pepper varieties that you will never find in a store!
Steve Christman 2/10/01; updated 4/24/03, 2/18/04, 1/12/05