I live in area between Syracuse and Ithaca… near Cortland. I have tomato seeds–many different varieties. When should I start the seedlings to grow in peat pots inside the house? Is it too early? While I am at it…what else should I be starting? Thanks a bunch.
My name’s Talitha, and I’ve been growing vegetables for our family for the past several years, so my mom asked me to answer your questions.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a very quick answer for your question, because it depends on so many different things. I know where Cortland is, generally speaking, but even knowing your general location really isn’t enough, because micro-climates can differ so much. For example—I normally get one last frost in the last week of May or the first week of June–but people just 1 1/2 miles away don’t get cold enough for this last frost! This is because we live in a deep valley, and the hills on either side of us really funnel the cold air right at us. People at the end of the of the street are out of the valley, and they don’t have such extreme cold.
The Standard Advice
So the standard advice is to start your tomatoes inside about 6 weeks before your last frost date. For me, that would be starting them around the last week of April. You will have to count back from whenever you think you get your last frost.
Because tomatoes dislike cold so much, it has been recommended not to plant them outside until 2-4 weeks after your last frost. If I did that, I wouldn’t be planting them out until the middle of June or the beginning of July!!
Pros and Cons of Wall o’ Waters
Wall o’ Waters work quite well for mitigating situations like this, and you may find it is a good solution for you. For me, my garden is on a hill, and Wall o’ Waters need level ground to keep from collapsing. Because my last frost date comes so late and my growing season is so short, I start my tomatoes around the first of April, and pot them on many times. By the time I plant them out, they’re in gallon sized containers and have thick stems and are quite bushy. I could, I suppose, plant them out and cover them for that last sneaky frost (there are often weeks before that last one where it doesn’t frost at all), but since tomatoes don’t like cold and I don’t like worrying about losing all my tomatoes, it doesn’t seem as good an option to me.
It really depends
So with tomatoes it really depends on your last frost date, your micro-climate, how many times you would like to pot them on, and how much season-extending you would like to do. On the year I used Wall o’ Waters (with much effort, as I had to level every single spot), I planted my tomato plants into the ground in the middle of April!!! The Wall o’ Waters were quite effective at keeping them alive, but I can’t say I really noticed a significantly earlier yield for all my trouble.
Using Wall o’ Waters
My guess is that your last frost date is typically in the middle of May. If you had level ground and the inclination to use them, I’d plant your tomatoes outside, with Wall ‘o Waters, at the beginning of May. I’d take the Wall o’ Waters off about 2 weeks after your last frost date (I’m guessing around the end of May), after the nights have moderated and don’t get so chilly. That would mean starting your tomatoes inside around the end of March.
Using Peat Pots
However, I also notice that you were planning on starting your tomatoes in peat pots. Peat pots are meant to allow the roots to grow through the pot; they are not meant for potting on. If you want to grow your tomatoes in peat pots instead of potting them on to bigger pots, I don’t think I would start the tomatoes any more than 3-4 weeks before the last frost date. Otherwise, your tomatoes will get too big for your pots.
Start these seeds first
As for your other seeds, the first ones to start would be broccoli, leeks and cabbage. Leeks can be started the very first of all, as you want them to be strong seedlings by the time you plant them out—so you can start them two months or more before your last frost date, maybe around early March (or even earlier). Broccoli and cabbage can be started 8-9 weeks before your last frost date. Those are cold weather crops, so if they have been properly hardened off, they can be planted out before the last frost.
Cold Weather Greens
The next batch of seedlings to be started are the cold weather greens, like lettuce, spinach and chard. These can also take light frost if properly hardened off, but they grow faster than broccoli and cabbage, so they can be started about four weeks before last frost date. These can also be sown straight into the ground as soon as it can be worked, but that doesn’t work as well for me. First of all, I have a better and more reliable germination rate starting inside, and can use a lot less seed. Second of all, although my ground might be technically unfrozen, it is still very, very sodden, and seeds that are kept too wet for too long rot instead of sprout. So I start my greens inside instead of out. Peas, however, I have always planted in the ground as soon as I possibly can, but I try to make sure they are in a well-drained or elevated area, especially if we are having a very rainy spring.
Heat loving vegetables
Squash and cucumbers need only be started a few weeks before last frost date, or if you please, straight into the ground after any chance of frost. Although they appreciate a long growing season, they grow so fast it is unfeasible to start them very much ahead of time.
I hope that helps. If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask!