Planning on tomato plants

tomato seedlings

Q: I really want to start my own tomato plants this year. Am I too late?

 A: No, you are not too late. In the Chicago area, we do not recommend that tomatoes be transplanted into your garden until June 1. Since tomatoes require approximately eight weeks from seeding to transplanting, you do not need to start seeds until early April. However, starting tomatoes from seed, while a straightforward process, requires planning and preparation well before April.

First, decide how many plants you will need and what varieties you wish to grow. Key decision factors are whether your plants will be in the ground or in containers, and the amount of space you have available for tomatoes (be realistic!). You can then purchase seeds from a garden center, or from one of the many online or mail-order suppliers.

Second, you will need to choose a location for starting the seeds. Tomatoes need strong light. A south-facing window with bright sun, space for the starting containers, and a temperature in the upper 60s or 70s Fahrenheit will work. Lacking this, an interior location with the requisite temperature and a bright light source that can be on for 16 hours daily will be needed.

Third, gather supplies: Starting containers (plastic trays, yogurt cups, or plastic foam egg cartons with drain holes in the bottom); soilless starting media; fish/seaweed emulsion fertilizer for foliar feeding; transplant containers; soilless transplant media; a spray bottle for water and fertilizer; trays or pans to hold the starting and transplant containers and collect water that drains from them (baking pans or rimmed baking sheets will suffice).

If this is more effort than you can spare, you can purchase many different tomato varieties, including heirlooms, as plants from garden centers and many of the online and mail-order seed suppliers.

Read more about tomatoes on our Tomato Talk page. If you have more questions about seed starting and specific tomato varieties, please contact Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972 or plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org for additional information.