Winter always seems too long and in January we have all those seeds patiently saved from the previous season, plus the packets with the new things we want to try, and little patience to wait for warmer days. In previous years we have sown our first tomatoes around January 20, but sometimes those early trays take so long to germinate that the seedlings are weak and easily surpassed by the ones sown a month later.
This year, however, we had such a cold, rainy winter that we did not even consider starting anything in January. But as February went by with one rainy day after the other we counted the days and worried about all the work that was being postponed: soil preparation (impossible to do with soaked soil), sowing, transplanting. By February 15 we made a trial with our most robust tomato seed, and on the 22th we took the chance to prepare some trays and try to start the first sample of our favourite and also some new acquisitions.
There are two ways we sow tomatoes: using old styrofoam trays (they are put away at the fishmongers) or the regular sowing trays. In any case we fill them with a germination substrate we buy at our vegetables nursery. If we use our regular soil it is so full of seeds we get all kinds of weeds germinated well before the tomatoes!
So the first step is to fill the trays: the substrate comes dehydrated and compact, we have to loosen and hydrate it. After that it is easy to fill the trays and compress the soil in each cell.
Just to be sure we gave most of our favourite varieties a try, we prepared two 8x5 trays. We chose 8 of our tried-and-true varieties and also picked some seeds from the 8 new varieties we have ordered this year. For weekend gardeners, it is really insane to test for 8 new varieties in the same season, but as we go through all the wonders in the Real Seeds website, it becomes very hard to resist...
It is easy to get all the seeds mixed up, so we always prepare the labels and label the rows in the trays prior to laying the seeds. In this case, we used tongue depressors (also used for beekeeping tasks) cut in 4. The little white plastic labels are nice and easy to reuse but we buy a bag and they are soon spent. We need larger packs.
When each cell has its seed, it is time to slightly bury them (we learned the layer of soil on the seed should be approximately twice the size of the seed). Now there is a problem with seeds in the greenhouse: mice are hungry this time of the year and they like seeds. So some times we wait, nothing sprouts and we see that the seed is no longer there. Not so common with tomatoes, but almost certain with pumpkins, melons and watermelons: their favourite! So we already have some hardware cloth folded to the size of the trays. They can be left until the seedlings are 2-3cm high and there is no seed any more. By that time we have to be careful with snails, but we will talk about them later.
Now it's time to select a good spot on the greenhouse table, check the irrigation timer, and hope the next weeks will bring some sunny days. The greenhouse is not heated, but keeping the door shut and taking advantage of the longer days we have now, our average temperature in the past weeks has been 12.5º C, with 10º C minimum. Tomato seeds would appreciate some 5º extra, let´s see how they will do.
It has been a week since we made this sowing, no seedlings have sprout yet. But we expect to have some next weekend. As we have lots of seed from last year, we have put some in a pot a week prior to these. It has 2 weeks now, and a regular hair of good looking seedlings.
So we are optimistic about our first batch of 16-variety tomato seeds.
We need these tomato plants to develop and leave rooms for all the other vegetables and flowers we will start in the greenhouse. We are just beginning the season and the table is already well stocked: besides the two tomato trays, there are two large styrofoam trays with our most common varieties: the large oxheart which are cherished in the neighbourhood and the heavy-production plum tomato we use for preserving and making sauce. Another tray is starting our first parsley. Two trays have echinaceas sown in autumn: they overwintered in the greenhouse, died back and are now sprouting. Hopefully in two or three weeks the weather will be warm and we will be able to take our seedlings outside, start new batches and get room for basil, zinnias, scarlet sage, ...