The Cycle Begins

When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents always had a garden.  We’d plant the staples…tomatoes, bush beans, and beets…lots and lots of all three.  Not much variety in the types that I can remember, we focused on quantity, not so much on quality.  We planted the beans and beets by seeds, but always bought tomato plants.  I remember asking my grandpa why we didn’t plant tomato seeds and he said they were way too hard to get to grow.  I accepted that as fact for almost 30 years until I found out the truth.

Growing tomato plants from seed isn’t so much difficult as it is time-consuming.  The process starts, in this part of the country anyway, in mid-late February.  For peppers, eggplant, and basil I start in late January.  A few rules need to be followed to be successful, other than that, they are a joy to grow.

First, you need to start with a soil less seed starting medium.  Using regular potting soil or other stuff is a recipe for disaster.  Tomato seeds need to germinate quickly and are prone to damping off and other fungal issues, especially heirloom and untreated seeds.  The soil-less mix is void of any little nasties that could attack your seedlings and cause major catastrophe.  I use “Pro-Mix” and follow the directions for preparing it before I fill my trays.

Once the mix is moistened, I fill 4 pack cells loosely and place them in a tray with no drainage holes in it.

Note the snow in the background…last day of January.  Now check out my thermometer in the greenhouse with no heaters on…just good old radiant sunshine energy!

Now you don’t have to have a greenhouse to grow your own seedlings, but if you ever get the chance to buy one or build one, they are a wonderful addition to your gardening life, but I digress.

When I first started growing tomato and pepper plants from seed, I would place ONE seed per cell.  This took up a LOT of space and used a lot of soil-less mix.  Then I came across Craig LeHoullier’s dense panting method on  Craig (NCTomatoman) is a wealth of tomato information and has always been helpful when I’ve asked questions.  All the folks on Tomatoville are equally helpful though…join up when you get a chance!

I put around 30-50 seeds per 4 cell pack.  He uses a different type pot than I do, but the process is the same.  For peppers, I put around 30, for tomatoes and other small seeded plants such as basil and lettuce, I put 50+ seeds per 4 pack.  I know it looks REALLY crowded and scary, but trust me, it works!

Once the seeds are spread out, I cover them with about 1/4-1/2 inch of the soil-less  mix that’s a little bit wetter than the mix in the bottom of the pots and pat it down gently.  You don’t want to pack them in so the seeds don’t have to work too hard to break free.

I then stick a label in each 4 pack to keep track of all the varieties I grow.

This next step requires some special equipment to increase germination rates to near 100%.  If you don’t want to invest in a small indoor greenhouse and seedling heating mats, then placing your seed pots on top of the refrigerator covered in plastic wrap or near a furnace floor vent might work.  You need to keep the soil temps at or around 75-85 degrees to have the best possible germination success.  Cooler temps will work, but all of your seeds may not germinate.  I have three of the heat mats in my 2-tier portable greenhouse and it sits in the south window of my breezeway.  I call this my “Incubator”.  you can’t see the heat mats, but they look like smaller waterbed heater pads.

After 5-10 days, most of your seeds should have germinated.  I’ve had some older seed and some varieties that take 10-15 days, but most usually sprout in a week.  Once they sprout, remove them from the incubator and uncover them.  you don’t want them to touch the cover because they can “damp off” and die very quickly.  Place them in a south window or under grow lamps.  I have a grow table I built several years ago and use regular fluorescent shop lights with one warm and one cool light bulb in each.  You don’t NEED those expensive grow lights!

These are lettuce and spinach seedlings I started a week ago using this method.  They look good enough to eat!  I’ll post up the pepper seedlings next week and will explain the rest of the process as I go through it.  If you have any questions on how to do this, feel free to ask!


  1. mary norton said

    Great blog. I am starting tomato seeds for the first time this year (Laurel just got too expensive) and I will be following your advice. Keep the info and pictures coming. Stay warm. Mary (cbadcali)

  2. […] This post details the dense planting method I learned from Craig LeHoullier. […]

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