Early spring is the time to start some of your seedlings indoors, such as: tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, eggplants – and, of course, the perfect accompaniment to them, your basil. (More about growing basil in a future post).
All of these plants are in the nightshade family (Solanacae). They really are sub-tropical species, so unless you live in a climate that verges on sub-tropical (e.g., places like the southern USA or Australia), you do need to start them inside, just so they get a long enough growing season to produce for you.
Here on the west coast, I start the tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers and eggplants in trays on a heated mat around mid-March. The photo above shows my tomatoes on April 1st. The photo below shows them a few days later, after transplanting them into 4″ pots.
And at the bottom of this post, you can see what they looked like a few days ago, after a month of spending several hours outside per day. I’ll be able to put them into the garden in just a few more weeks.
Yes, it is a lot of work moving the plants in and out every day, but this “hardening off” period is super-important for them to acclimatize to outdoor living, so they thrive once they are dug into the garden (or on the balcony in pots). If you are only growing a few plants, you’re probably better off just buying seedlings a few weeks before transplanting time. But if you are growing a lot of plants, it is both more economical and more gratifying to start your own seedlings.
The timing noted above is for tomatoes and tomatillos here in the Pacific northwest. If you live in the south, you can advance these dates a little bit. If you live more in the interior of North America, or in central or eastern Canada or USA, where spring comes a bit later, you probably want to seed them later, more like mid-April, and do your final transplant around the second half of June.
Peppers and eggplants are a bit more tender than tomatoes. Wherever you live, you can start them at the same time as your tomatoes. However, don’t plant them in your garden (or set them out in pots) for several weeks after the tomatoes go in: around early June in the south, more like mid-June in temperate coastal climates, and early or even mid-July inland.
The reason these times are always inexact is that the weather is different each year. You must pay attentiong to what is happening. (Yes, gardening connects you to our planet!) If you know there’s a cold snap coming, you may have to delay putting your seedlings out for a week, whereas if it’s an unseasonally warm spring, you may be able to put them in earlier than normal.
Here where I live, our spring here has been much warmer and sunnier than usual. My tomato and tomatillos seedlings have had so much more outdoor time than they usually get – and you can see that in how dark green they are, how sturdy their stems are, how big their leaves are. I’m already looking forward to a great harvest!
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