Now is the time to get tomatoes going from seed

March 29, 2011 03:55 pm

Winter seems more desperate this year than ever to dampen our enthusiasm and zeal for growing things and being outdoors. But we gardeners are a hardy lot and will not be swayed from welcoming spring.

There are five yellow crocus blooming in the lawn over the fence next door. Our plum tree blossoms are swelling and the grass is turning green. I’m not positive, but I thought I smelled fresh-mown lawn three days ago.

In line with the gardening spirit, local retail and nursery outlets are filling up with blooming plants. I’ve not been able to resist the urge to buy, and yes, there are colorful primroses on our kitchen window sill. And with them came the fungus gnats. You know, the little black bugs that are rude and fly up your nose if given the chance, and crawl on your glasses, and breed like, well, fungus gnats!

Fungus gnats breed and lay their eggs in the top layer of soil. Immersing the pot in a copper-based insecticide will kill currently hatching eggs, but this is labor intensive and not recommended as it must be done every seven days for three weeks to really put a damper on new egg hatching and destroying adults.

A much simpler solution is to simply pour a layer of decorator sand over the top of the soil. Fungus gnats do not burrow and cannot penetrate the layer of sand, any eggs already in place will not hatch. Do not use river sand or sandy soil from your yard. You will likely end up with something much worse then fungus gnats!

Since the first of April is almost upon us, now is a good time to get tomatoes going from seed. You will need heat and light to get them growing at their best and thrive. If using soil-heating cables for the first time, your setup operation does not have to be complicated.

Even cardboard boxes, if cut to no more than a 3-inch height, can be used. The important thing to remember with soil-heating cables is that you need to insulate the cable from underneath. This directs the heat upward.

What has worked well for me in the past has been to first lay down about a half inch of soil. This can even be placed on top of newspapers used to line a box to keep the soil from running out. Then snake the cables in a zig-zag pattern, up and back. Cover with another half inch of soil, or no more than an inch, or you won’t have all available heat reaching your pots or trays.

Place trays directly on top of this and it will keep an even temperature just right for germination of most seeds, about 72 degrees. Heating cables are insulated but are not safe if the plastic insulation is punctured. They usually last for a very long time if stored and cared for. Mine have lasted for years and I have found them well worth the investment.

Heating mats are another alternative, will also last for years, but are not as economical initially. Most seeds will sprout if given heat from above, such as with lights, but sprouting will not be as consistent and the overall germination rate will not be as great. With the price of seeds increasing as with most other things, every seed counts!

And yes, I know it snowed Monday morning. But I don’t care. Winter’s icy grip has passed.

Jennie Lu Hagen is a La Grande gardener.