Growing Herbs for Tomato Dishes, Summer Cooking & Garden Beauty

By Cyndy Crist

Herb Garden - by Cyndy Crist
Herb Garden – by Cyndy Crist

Herbs for Small Gardens:

Herbs can be one of the most rewarding things to grow in a small garden, and while I’m guessing most of us grow them primarily to be used in cooking, they have other values as well.   For example, many are quite attractive (I love the look of feathery fennel, the deep red leaves of some basils, and the flowers of pineapple sage); some are grown for their fragrance more than their flavor (lavender being an obvious example); and others can look beautiful in fresh or dried arrangements (again, think fennel and lavender). Still, for me, the primary purpose is culinary and that will be my focus here.

Growing  Tips on Specific Herbs:

Lovage and Chives - photo by Cyndy Crist
Lovage and Chives – photo by Cyndy Crist

Happily, most herbs are quite easy to grow.  Most require full sun and even moisture, but some can thrive in otherwise difficult locations. For example, many Mediterranean herbs do well grown next to hot pavement or stones; thyme and chamomile can stand up to foot traffic and still thrive; and mint can grow in somewhat soggy spaces. Many herbs are quite hardy in most USDA zones (English thyme, oregano, lovage, chives, and tarragon among them); some will survive through mild winters in my zone 4 garden if well covered (sage is one); and some common herbs, like parsley, are biennials that will grow for two years before needing to be replaced.

In addition, some annual herbs will self-seed and return beyond their “inaugural” year if the ground around them is left largely undisturbed. Borage, with its beautiful blue blossoms, and sunny calendula are two that have made repeat visits in my garden, and chamomile is another prolific self-seeder (with some varieties also hardy in many zones).  Of course, self-seeding isn’t always a blessing.  Take garlic chives, for example. When they’re blooming, I love the look they add to my kitchen garden, and I like to use both the leaves and the blossoms in salads.  However, they are notorious self-seeders, and I find myself pulling out new plants by the handful during the growing season.  I’d save myself lots of headaches if I was more vigilant about deadheading them before they set seed.

Some perennial herbs have proven themselves to be thugs that I’ve worked hard to remove from my garden and others require a close eye to keep them in check.  I made the mistake of planting Tansy once and it took a lot of digging to remove the shoots that popped up throughout the bed.  I’ve also grown two oreganos and loved their looks initially (the Greek for its purple flowers and the golden for the way its rambling leaves lit up a mostly green garden), but they eventually spread far beyond their intended spaces. Since oregano is about the only herb I prefer to use dried in cooking anyway, I gladly removed it from the garden.  Mint is notorious for spreading far and wide, and even sinking a pot in the ground won’t keep it in check if the pot has a drainage hole; as a result, I now only grow it in pots on my porch.

Perennial Herb Favorites:

While I highly value some perennial herbs, many of my favorites are annuals that must be planted each year. Since I can’t imagine my little potager without them, I gladly plant basil and chervil every year, and I also add at least one lemony herb, most often lemon verbena or lemon grass.  I also always have Italian parsley in my garden, so that gets planted every other year, and if my sage doesn’t survive the winter, I plant a replacement of that as well.   With both basil and sage, I often plant more than one variety to bring visual variety to the garden and the table.

Rosemary and Parsley - photo by Cyndy Crist
Rosemary and Parsley – photo by Cyndy Crist

I also love rosemary and grow it in a big pot that sits in the kitchen garden from late spring until late fall and then moves into the sunroom for the winter.  I’ve generally had quite good luck over-wintering plants of a mature size (e.g., the stem has become woody and strong).  In fact, I had one that I kept growing for six or eight years at least, and I didn’t lose it until the summer that it drowned from overwatering because, unbeknownst to me, the roots had become so matted that they had completely closed off the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.  I briefly mourned its loss, then immediately replaced it since I love having fresh rosemary available throughout the winter.

Among the perennials in my garden are chives, whose leaves and flowers I prize; French sorrel for early spring, lemony tang; lovage, which imparts a celery-like flavor that works especially well in potato dishes; thyme, which can be used in many ways and harvested nearly any time of the year (I’ve been known to sweep snow off it mid-winter); tarragon, so great with chicken; and wild arugula, whose fine-cut leaves offer a peppery bite. Although not considered by most as an herb, I also generally grow several varieties of garlic in my potager; it is an indispensable companion to many herbs in the kitchen.

Growing Herbs for Beauty:

I have focused primarily on growing in a kitchen garden, but it’s worth noting that herbs can be successfully and beautifully grown in any suitable garden space.  For example, bronze fennel can be a lovely companion for pink or white roses, lavender and hyssop add beautiful purple to any perennial border, and thyme and chamomile can create a living carpet between the stones of a garden path.  I’ve also seen curly parsley creating lovely green edging along perennial beds and dill adding a feathery contrast to plants with flat, smooth leaves.  There are also a number of plants that are classified as herbs but generally grown as perennials, including Artemisia (wormwood) and Nepeta (also known as cat mint), or annual flowers, like Nigella and nasturtiums.

Growing Herbs in Containers:

Globe Basil in Container - photo by Cyndy Crist
Globe Basil in Container – photo by Cyndy Crist

Many herbs also lend themselves well to growing in containers.  Since this makes them movable, you can take advantage of specific growing conditions that suit them  best and place them close to a kitchen or back door for ready cutting for use in the kitchen. As noted earlier, some herbs in pots can be successfully overwintered inside, and rampant and invasive growers like mint can be kept in check.  As with any container growing, the keys are selecting the right soil and right size of pot (for example, tall pots are best suited to herbs that send down deeper roots) and remembering to water regularly throughout the growing season, and especially during the hottest, driest days of summer.

Pairing Herbs with Different Cuisines:

There is no end of ideas about how to use herbs in the kitchen.  The key, I think, is thinking about what kinds of ingredients and culinary styles or traditions you prefer and planting accordingly.  For example,

  • basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, and rosemary are great with tomatoes and tomato-rich dishes;
  • chervil, parsley, chives, and tarragon are backbones of French cuisine;
  • many English dishes rely on sage and thyme;
  • dill is a feature of many Scandinavian dishes;
  • Thai basil and lemon grass are much used in many Asian cuisines;
  • basil, oregano, and arugula are essential to Italian culinary traditions; and
  • basil, lemony herbs, and mint can all be wonderful with fruit as well as vegetables.

Great Resource Books on Herbs:

I have built a pretty big collection of herb books over the years. Most offer great advice about growing, cooking with, and saving herbs, and many have wonderful non-culinary and crafting ideas as well.  My oldest and probably most-used herb books were written by Emelie Tolley and photographed by Chris Mead. They inspired my early herb growing and also have aided my hand-made gifting for many Christmases. I especially like Tolley’s Gardening with Herbs for design and hands-on growing guidance, and Gifts from the Herb Garden, which offers lots of edible and decorative project ideas.  The The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs is one of two great books in my library by Patrick Lima for that publisher; it is a highly valued part of my collection and one that has become well worn by repeated use.  A newer addition to my shelves is the New Book of Herbs by Jekka McVicar, a beautifully illustrated and comprehensive guide by the woman dubbed “the queen of herbs” by Jamie Oliver.  It is as beautiful to look at as it is informative to read – in other words, strong on both style and substance.

I guess something of the same thing can be said for herbs and why I love growing them. They are both practical and beautiful, great to look at and delicious to eat.  They inspire endless ways to use and enjoy them, singly or in combinations.  As a result, they are very rewarding to grow.  If you haven’t done so already, give them a try.  I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.

Research and Resource Materials for the Urban Gardener

Spring buds calling out to gardeners
Spring buds calling out to gardeners

by Cyndy Crist

As gardening in urban areas grows, from small city lots to large community gardens, some people are finding that their experience and knowledge don’t quit match their increased interest in growing their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.  Happily, there is a wealth of information readily available on the Internet to help gardeners, from novice to experienced, learn what they need to know to grow successfully.  Some of these are public sites and services (your tax dollars at work), while others are developed and managed by non-profits devoted to supporting urban agriculture and community development.

Here are a few such resources that you may find useful.  Some are national in scope while others are specific to Minnesota and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Rest assured, though, that if you don’t live in or near Minnesota, you’ll be able to find similar sites closer to your home and garden; I offer my local resources as examples of what’s out there to support you.

Crabapple blossom drop signaling spring planting
Crabapple blossom drop signaling spring planting

National Resources.  Although there are many commercial sites about gardening available on-line, I want to focus on two sites, one public and one non-profit, that have broad reaches and offer quality information for urban gardeners.

One is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose web address is .  Although most of the resources here are geared more to farmers than home gardeners and address broad issues like biotechnology, climate change, energy, and dietary and food safety, there is also some great information for home growers.  I had a little trouble finding what I was looking for until I searched the “A-Z Index” where I selected “Consumers” which in turn led me to a list that included  “’Gardening.”  Bingo, there I found links to:

  • Extension Horticulture Information, including a map that shows the locations of extension offices in each state;
  • National Agricultural Library’s Gardening Resources, which offers a comprehensive list of subjects to browse and dig into;
  • the National Arboretum Gardening site, which provides consumer-friendly information on a range of topics from amaryllis, bonsai, and camellias to spring magnolias, turf, and winter holly;
  • an organic vegetables page with links to a dozen or more pages about topics like intensive organic gardening, weed management, and seed saving;
  • the plant hardiness zones map; and
  • several state-managed sites, like the University of Maryland Extension Service’s Home and Garden Information Center and the University of Illinois Extension’s Hort Corner.
Finally edible gardening begins in earnest
Finally edible gardening begins in earnest

Another resource with a broad scope is the website of the American Community Gardening Association,  ACGA is a bi-national nonprofit membership organization whose mission is “to build community by increasing and enhancing community gardening and greening across the United States and Canada.”  The site organizes its information under four topics: learn, connect, store, and take action.  Under “learn,” there is a wide array of free PDF documents on topics like fertilizers and soil building, composting, and seed saving as well as on policy-focused issues like food security, how to secure space, and the value of community greening.  The site also provides links and services to help you find community gardens in your area and to get involved in community greening activities.  In other words, whether you’re looking for information about how to garden or want to get involved in the community gardening movement, you’re likely to get a good start on the ACGA page.

State Resources.  At a state level, departments that focus on agriculture and natural resources are frequently good sources of information about gardening practices, needs, and issues specific to the state in which you live and garden.  Here are three examples from my home state of Minnesota.

Our premier source of information about gardening and related activities is the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Its website,, provides a wealth of information on just about any topic a home gardener or commercial grower might wish to explore.  Particularly valuable are a diagnostic tool that provides guidance on identifying and managing an array of garden pests and plant diseases and SULIS (the Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series). A great SULIS tool is the Plant Selection Program, which lets you search for plant choices within the two broad categories of woody (trees or shrubs) or herbaceous (think perennials) plants and then by an array of factors that include plant names, texture, form, flower color, and seasonal interest.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture website ( ) includes excellent information about “Plants, Pests and Pest Control” that can help the home gardener identify and address these challenges.  The site also provides an array of information and resources about organic growing. Although, like the USDA site, much of the information provided here is geared to large-scale growers, there is also some great information for the small urban gardener or farmer.

A second state agency, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (, although primarily associated with the management of state parks, hunting, and fishing, also works to meet the needs of home gardeners.  For example, they offer information about topics like landscaping with native plants and planting butterfly gardens, and they are a key player in the state’s efforts to fight the emerald ash borer now threatening the considerable canopy of Minnesota ash trees. Like MDA, they frequently partner with Extension to serve the state and its citizens.

green tomatoes in July
green tomatoes in July

Local Resources.  Many counties and cities also play a role in serving residents with interests that connect with gardening, local food production and distribution, and related environmental issues.  I offer here three examples of resources in and near my hometown of Saint Paul, MN.

In the broader Twin Cities area, we have a great resource in Gardening Matters ( ), a nonprofit organization formed to promote and preserve community gardening by connecting gardeners and providing training and other resources.  In addition to offering “tips, techniques, and resources” for gardening in community settings, the site offers a calendar of local events; information about specific projects and opportunities for community organizing and advocacy; and composting information (how to make compost and sources of compost and mulch that are free and for sale).  The site will soon include a community garden directory, a resource long desired by folks interested in finding available space or identifying existing gardens to visit.

I also want to give a “shout out” to a fascinating local site that I discovered while researching this post. Yards to Gardens ( ) is a site designed to help people share what they have (e.g., extra space, plants, seeds, or tools) or “find what [they’re] looking for.” It offers some additional resources to help gardeners get started and handle the logistics of sharing resources and has a strong environmental focus.  What a great concept!

Rosehips winding down summer
Rosehips winding down summer

The City of Saint Paul has launched a site on its webpage focused on healthy and local food (  Here you can find information about urban food production (community gardens, water access, etc.); zoning and permits (e.g., what animals and structures are allowed within the City); community connections (finding community garden sites and discovering other local resources); and more.

Don’t live in Minnesota? Don’t despair.  Much of the information provided by these Minnesota and Twin Cities sites is applicable to growers anywhere in the U.S., as are the resources offered by extension offices across the country.  Of the latter, two of the best I’ve used are Cornell University ( ) and Iowa State University (  The link on the USDA site will help you find the extension service office closest to you.  Although in many states funding for these services has lagged far behind the demand for assistance, they remain a great, and mostly free, source of information and assistance.

I hope you’ll use the links I’ve provided here as a jumping off point. Although we sometimes need to be a bit skeptical of what we read on the Internet, I feel confident that the sources I’ve identified here will provide you with accurate, research-based information you can trust as you plan, plant, maintain, and ultimately enjoy the bounty of your urban garden.    So go ahead, surf your way to some great growing!

Considerations for Growing Vegetables in Urban Soils

By Cyndy Crist

soil profile at HeathGlen
soil profile at HeathGlen

It’s easy to take soil for granted.  I mean, it’s just there, right?  And dirt is dirt, isn’t it?  Many of us dug in it as kids, delighting in making mud pies and otherwise mucking about to our mothers’ distress (for my generation, it was always our mothers who were responsible for washing us up and keeping our clothes clean).

But when we start gardening, if we’re wise, we start paying more attention to soil, because it’s not all the same and the differences really matter.  The composition of our soil; it’s capacity to hold enough water to support plant life while draining enough water to keep them from rotting; the nutrients it holds or lacks; and its acidity are all important if we want to successfully grow what we choose to plant.

Many urban gardeners may have additional challenges.  It’s more likely that our soil has been compromised by things like pealing lead paint and automobile exhaust; there may have been multiple construction projects over time on or near the spaces in which we grow that compacted and contaminated the soil; and our boulevards and front yards may be more affected by salts and chemicals thrown up by snow plows and construction vehicles.  In addition, we may have neighbors who employ lawn services that leave those warning flags behind, indicating the application of chemicals that may leach into our soil or drift over onto our plants, lawns, and trees on otherwise friendly breezes.

Although a deep  understanding of soil requires more scientific and mathematical skills and knowledge than many of us have, there are some pretty simple things we can do to get, if you’ll pardon the pun, the dirt on our soil.  Here are a few things to get you started.

Soil Composition.  Good soil should be roughly composed of 50% solids, 25% air, and 25% water. Ideally, the solids will primarily be silt or loam containing good organic matter, but soil can be heavy in sand or clay.  Sand poses the challenge of holding few nutrients and little water.  Clay, by contrast, is particularly challenging for drainage and compaction, both of which reduce water drainage by closing the pockets of air needed by plants to grow and thrive.

One simple assessment of your soil’s composition is a quick visual test.  Dig down 3-4 inches and take a good look at the color of the soil (and do this quickly before the sun and air dry it out).  If it has a rich, dark color, it’s likely a good loamy or silty soil, though it may also contain clay.  If it’s light in color, it’s more likely to contain significant amounts of sand and be nutrient-poor.

moistness level of soil
moistness level of soil

Next, you can tell something about the soil’s composition and it’s ability to hold or drain water by performing a simple “ball” test.  Dig up some soil from your garden space and wet it down(not enough to make a mud pie, however – you don’t want it to be soupy, just moistened).  Grab a handful and press it firmly into a ball, then release your fingers.  If it immediately and completely falls apart, it’s likely to be heavy with sand.  If it remains firmly compacted into a ball, it’s probably heavily clay-based.  But if it forms a loose ball that is easily broken up, you’ve probably got good loam in which to plant your garden.

Soil Nutrients.  To know more about the composition of your soil and particularly what nutrients it may be lacking, there’s no substitute for a soil test.  A likely source to turn to for a soil test is your local extension service.  In Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Extension Service will complete soil tests for $15 with results usually sent within 2-3 weeks.  The report completed will include recommendations about how much NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, the three key nutrients needed by most plants) your soil needs, what it’s pH is (a measure of how acidic your soil is), and general information about its composition (a measure of organic matter and an estimate of the afore-mentioned sand, clay, and silt make-up).

Where to send soil samples
Where to send soil samples

It’s easy to prepare for a soil test.  Simply dig up 3-5 trowels-full of soil from different parts of your garden (representative of the total space in which you’re planting to plant) and mix them together in a ziplock bag or other bag that can be sealed easily and mailed safely.  If you’re concerned about lead in the soil, you may need to have a separate test conducted with a separate sample of soil.  Otherwise, a single test is all you’ll need.

Soil Contaminants.  Lead is a particular concern in neighborhoods with houses or other buildings that were painted at a time when paint routinely included this substance now known to cause major health problems if ingested and/or those located where traffic is consistently at high levels.

But there’s some good news here for gardeners.  First, research has shown that the concentration of lead needs to be pretty high in order for it to be taken up into edible plants to an extent that can compromise health.  Lead is commonly found in soil at levels of approximately 10 parts per million (ppm), and research has shown that edibles grown in soil are likely safe if the levels of lead fall below 300 ppm.

wash radishes & root veggies well
wash radishes & root veggies well

Second, since plants don’t usually absorb or accumulate lead, its presence in soil will primarily be a concern only in leafy greens and root vegetables, and with the latter, any lead will likely be on the surface only and therefore easily washed away. If you’re growing things like tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries, lead is likely not something about which you need to be concerned.

If you are concerned about levels of lead in your soil, there are a few things you can do to achieve improvements.  One is to raise the pH to at least 6.5; one easy way to do that is to add lime.  In addition, adding organic matter can reduce lead levels in your soil.  If you think your soil may contain more than “normal” levels of lead, by all means have a soil test done.  But rest assured that except in extreme circumstances, you likely have little to worry about which to be concerned.

Soil Amendments. Once you have all of the information garnered from the tests and procedures above, what do you do?  Again, it’s pretty simple.  If your soil is sandy, you’ll need to work in compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mold, or composted bark, all of which will improve the soil’s capacity to retain water and nutrients.  Appropriate amendments for clay soil include coarse sand (but be careful here, as fine sand can end up creating something more like concrete, not what you need to improve drainage) or lime.  Perlite is another option for either sandy or clay soil. Of course, you can also replace the top 4-6 inches or so of your garden soil with purchased top soil; this is a quick, but expensive, solution.

compost and fertilizers
compost and fertilizers

As for nutrients, a soil test will tell you what you’re lacking and give you figures about how much you’ll need to work in.  Commercial fertilizers will always provide a NPK ratio that you can use to calculate amounts.  Your extension service website will provide the ratios and other information you’ll need to determine appropriate fertilizers and applications.  This isn’t rocket science but does require a little basic calculation so that you’re not applying too much of a nutrient to the detriment of plant growth, wasting your money on unnecessary fertilizer, or contributing to water pollution by applying nutrients that can run off and cause environmental problems (for example, in Minnesota, there are laws restricting the application of nitrogen because of the problems it can cause when it enters the water supply).

* note on fertilizers and soil testing:  Phosphorous is not available to the plants until the soil warms up so be careful not to overload your soil with phosphorous if it doesn’t express itself early on.  It is not something we need to have appearing in our streams and water supply from the runoff.

You’ll want to work your amendments into the top 4-6 inches of soil before planting.  Later, you may be able to simply “top dress” your soil with compost if you have worked the soil well and kept it from becoming compacted. With this kind of friable soil (think crumbly like good chocolate cake), the new layers you add will work their way in over time with rain and ongoing cultivation to remove weeds.

Good Resources.  This is a big subject, and I’ve just scratched the surface here, so I encourage you to learn a little more about soil as you proceed with your garden. There are lots of sources you can turn to for more information about soil and its composition, preparation, cultivation, and amendments.  As mentioned previously, extension services in your state and across the country are terrific sources of free, research-based information.  Agriculture and natural resources departments, state and federal, are also great sources of information for the gardening public.  A growing array of websites and computer applications also provide all kinds of readily accessible information at little or no cost.  One example of a site with good overall gardening information can be found at

Do a little judicious digging, literally and figuratively, and you’ll know what to do to improve your soil so that it will provide a good home in which to grow your garden.  Improving your soil isn’t something that will be complete overnight, but you’ll find it’s well worth the time and effort. So, get digging!

How to Start Heirloom Tomato and Pepper Seeds for Best Germination


Pepper Seedlings One Week After Germination
Pepper Seedlings One Week After Germination

Healthy garden-ready heirloom tomato seeds can be easily started at home, but success is more likely with some tried and true practices.  My first three years of starting heirloom tomatoes and peppers by seed were rather angst-ridden.  I was depending on selling hundreds of plants at market and I had never done anything like this before. I read, and watched, and worried, and called the seed companies and MN Extension Service ad-nauseum.

Fast forward 14 years and I am much more trusting of these  heirloom tomato seedlings to take care of themselves with just a little help from me.   Maybe all the fretting paid off in a cumulative knowledge of methods that offer seedlings optimum growing conditions.  In this post I’ll  pass on what I have learned over the years , in hopes that it will help you on your way to growing healthy plants in your garden or farm.  It’s a lot of information, so I’ve organized it into three sections:

I.      The Germination Process

II.     The Seedling Growth Stage

III.   The Potting Up and Hardening Off Stage

I’ll cover stages I and II today and Stage III in next week’s post.  Caveat:  I grow around five thousand heirloom tomato seeds each year now, but the principles of seed starting are the same.  Of course, you will have to modify your set-up if you are only starting a few seeds for a small garden or for pots (more on pot growing later).

I.  The Germination Process for Heirloom Tomato Seeds: 

Useful seed starting supplies
Useful seed starting supplies

1)  Timing:  It is important that your heirloom tomato plants be at the optimum stage of growth when you plant them outside.  This means stocky plants, with thick stems, about 5-9 inches tall, with good root growth (preferably in 4-inch pots so they are not root-bound).  You do not want tall thin plants with weak stems, because they will not transplant well.  Nor do you want huge plants in small pots that already have blossoms on them, because this means they have spent too much energy forming those blossoms, leaving them somewhat depleted and hence not able to yield as many tomatoes.

It takes about 6 weeks for a heirloom tomato seedling to reach this optimum growing stage (about 8 weeks for peppers).  So, wherever you live, determine when your weather is likely to be stable enough to plant in the ground and count 6 weeks back from that date.  In Central Minnesota, where I live, I start all of my tomatoes March 14th through March 16th, and I start the peppers about 2 weeks before that.  In mid-May, after they have been hardened off thoroughly, they are primed to get in the ground and start doing what they are destined to do….grow.

2)  “Soil” for seeding:  If you are a totally organic grower, you can make your own potting mix (but it is a bit involved).  I have tried several, but my favorite combination is as follows (you will need to scale down proportionally for smaller batches):

  • 5 gal. compost
  • 5 gal. peat
  • 3 – 5  gal. mix of vermiculite & perlite
  • 1/2 c. lime (don’t use this if your compost is horse manure as the beds are often limed)
  • 1/2 c. bonemeal
  • 1/2 c. bloodmeal
  • 1/2 c. greensand (or 1/4 c. sul-po-mag)

If you’re not worried about being totally organic, Miracle-Gro Moisture Control is a potting soil that gives consistently good results.  The main thing is, use a sterile potting mix, not garden soil.  Starting seeds in garden soil frequently leads to “damping off” of the seedlings, where they start to grow and then just keel over and collapse at the stem.  Garden soil carries disease-promoting fungi that is hard on young seedlings, not to mention the weed seeds prevalent in garden soil.

3)  Trays/Flats/Containers:  I use sturdy, reusable, 128-cell flats that have lasted a minimum of 5 years (and I am not gentle with my equipment).  Any container will work, including yogurt cups, peat pots, etc. as long as there are holes in the bottom.  One of the reasons I start my seeds in flats with small cells is to fit as many seedlings as possible under the grow lights, but an equally important reason for me is that the seeds will germinate faster in smaller cells.  The small amount of potting mix in each cell heats up more quickly, and there is not as much of a danger of over-watering.  It is worse for the container to be over-watered rather than under-watered (that damping off condition again).  *Note:  if you are using a grow light setup similar to mine, make sure your bottom tray that the cells sit in does not have holes in it or it will drain onto the grow lights below and short them out.

4)  Seeding Process:

Potting Mix Moisture Level
Potting Mix Moisture Level
  • Pour your potting mix into a large, shallow tub.  Add hot water in increments and mix well with your hands.  Take a handful of the mix and squeeze.  You want the potting mix to be damp enough to form a ball, but not so wet that you can wring water out of it with a gentle squeeze.
  • Fill the flat with the potting mix and then hold it slightly above the floor and let it drop to the ground to make sure the mix compacts a bit and gets into all the cells.  If the mix is too fluffy, the seed will not make good contact with the soil particles.  Refill any of the cells that are not full after dropping the flat.
  • Mark the heirloom tomato variety and the date on a small but sturdy tag (I use cut up venetian blinds I get at garage sales), and place the seeds on top of each cell individually.  Some people pour the seeds out carefully onto the cells, but it really doesn’t take that long to seed the cells individually (good time to listen to music or podcasts).
  • Now go back to the first cell and use the pencil with one hand to poke the seed slightly down into the mix and use your other hand to firmly cover the seed with a small bit of the soil.  If you are only starting a few seeds, and using individual containers, don’t poke the seed down too far into the soil.  It just needs to be slightly covered, about 1/4 inch.  The main thing is to make sure the seed has been firmly pressed into the soil.  Good contact with the soil is important to germination.
  • Cover loosely with plastic to keep moisture in and the seeds warm.  The clear tops that come with some of the flats are fine, but you don’t really need them.  The plastic is only on the seeds for a few days and then you are done with it.  Easier to fold up a piece of plastic and store it for next year than store the hard plastic covers.
Using 100-watt bulbs for Heat Source
Using 100-watt bulbs for Heat Source

4)  Heat Source: Warm soil is more important than warm air, which is why I use hot water when mixing up the soil.  My seed-starting shop is not heated, so I do use a small electric heater to keep the ambient air around 70 degrees during germination, but the main heat source for the soil is 100 watt bulbs placed under the trays.  A  heating pad placed under the flat would work also, but these lights were something I had on hand 14 years ago and they worked so well I never found the need to upgrade.  The 100-watt bulbs put out quite a bit of directed heat and the seeds all germinate within 3 days.  I do check the flats once a day and mist the cells with water if they look dry.  I will also turn the flats around if the germination is uneven.  Remember that germination time also depends on the seed variety and how old the seeds are.  The date on the seed package is a packaging date, not the date the seed viability was tested.  Buy seeds from a credible company and don’t keep them over for too many years if you want 100 percent germination.


Indoor/Outdoor Hose for Seedlings
Indoor/Outdoor Hose for Seedlings

5)  Watering/Misting:  Heirloom tomato seeds in the process of germinating  do not need a lot of water!  This is important because too much watering can lead to the damping off situation described above.  The plastic covering the flat should actually be enough to keep the cells moist until germination, but you should check the edges where it tends to dry out first.  I tend to keep the peppers on the dry side and the tomatoes a bit more moist.  When I do water them, it’s more of a misting with a gentle spray than a watering.  I use a small coiled hose attached to my shop sink.  The indoor hose pictured to the right is no longer available and I have switched to the  is a Water Right MCH-050-FG-6PKRS 50-Foot x 1/4-Inch Mini Coil Hose With Wand – Forest Green, which has a small nozzle, and it is perfect for misting the seeds at this stage and watering the seedlings with a larger stream of water later on.  I love this hose, but it does get clogged occasionally with the minerals in our water (we’re on well water) and needs to be cleaned regularly.

You’ve got seedlings!  Now the next stage:


II.     The Heirloom Tomato Growth Stage

End View of Light Set-Up
End View of Light Set-Up
Front View of Grow Lights Set-Up
Front View of Grow Lights Set-Up

1)  Grow Light Set-Up:  My husband set up a grow light system for me that involves five 4-tiered metal shelving units with 20 fluorescent light fixtures attached to each shelf (see example to the right).  Whether you have one light fixture or twenty, there are several key components to remember:

  • The distance between the light and the seedlings will change as they grow, so make sure the light can be easily adjusted up and down.  When the plants are very young, they will need to be fairly close to the light (about a 1-2 inch distance).  This is to ensure they do not get leggy and develop weak stems trying to reach for the light.  As they get bigger you can increase the distance so that the light source covers more area (around 4-6 inches distance).
  • Use two different types of fluorescent bulbs in the fixture; one warm bulb and one cool bulb.  You do not need to buy the expensive gro-light bulbs, the combination of warm and cool bulbs is really effective.
  • Keep the lights on the plants for 14-16 hours per day, but turn them off and let them rest at night.  A timer that you can plug the lights into is a must if you want to sleep peacefully.

2)  Day and Night Temperatures:  Once germinated, I tend to grow my heirloom tomato plants fairly cool to encourage slow steady growth that will give you sturdy, stocky plants.  I keep the daytime temperature around 65 degrees and the night temperature around 55 degrees.  At this stage it is important not to have wide fluctuations in temperature.

3) Watering:  Keep the soil moist, but not wet.  Heirloom tomato seedlings will need more water at this stage than when germinating, but it is still important to have a light hand with watering.  The plants are still very tender and should be watered gently.  I do love the The Rumford Gardener GA1001 40 Foot Indoor/Outdoor Garden Coil Hose with Spray Wand for this task because the small nozzle and stream of water allows you to easily water “around” the seedling rather than on top of  it, making sure you don’t break the stem.  The nozzle is also adjustable so you can use it for misting at the germination stage and watering at the growth stage.  It connects to the shop sink and the coil expands far enough that I can take it outside to water the plants when they are hardening off.

Thinning the Seedlings
Thinning the Seedlings

4) Thinning the seedlings:  Even if you have carefully hand-seeded, it is not uncommon to get 2-3 seeds germinate in one cell.  Make sure and snip off all but one (the straightest, strongest one) right at the soil line, so that they won’t compete for the same soil and water.  It’s difficult to snip a seedling sometimes, but it is worth it.  Do it.

5)  Air flow:  Some of the literature recommends running your hands across the seedlings periodically, tickling them, to make the plants stronger.  A fan works much better.  An overhead fan is ideal, but a floor fan or a table fan will work fine also.  Keep it blowing across the seedlings for most of the day and turn it off at night.  It really does wonders for the strength of the plants.  They must think they are outside in the gentle breeze of spring.  Just don’t let them experience the roiling  thunderstorms of spring at this stage of their growth.

6) Re-potting:  This is really important, and a big reason why your home-seeded heirloom tomato plants will be healthier than the heirloom tomato plants you often see for sale that have long since outgrown their small container.  When the seedlings are 3-4 inches tall and have their second pair of leaves, it is time to gently take them out of their cell and move to a larger pot.  I use a dull kitchen knife to slide down the side of a cell and pop the plug out without disturbing the roots.  I pot them up into a 4-inch pot filled with more of the potting mix that you used for germination.  If your seedlings have become leggy, plant them a little deeper in the pot, but do not cover the green leaves, as they are needed to provide energy.  Water the heirloom tomatoes well “before” you repot so the soil will stick to the roots and protect them from drying out.

7) Keep the re-potted plants out of bright sunlight for a few days so they can ease into the transition.  The next stage before planting in the ground is Hardening Off, which I will cover in next week’s post.

Comments are welcomed.  Share your tips and tricks…….this is what has worked for me, but I’m always learning.

The Urban Gardener’s Favorite Seed Catalogs

Where Can I Find That?  Favorite Seed Cataolgs and Websites

by Cyndy Crist

I’m an urban gardener,growing things in a small city lot in Saint Paul, MN, that is largely shaded by two-story homes and old trees, so as the seed catalogues begin arriving in December, I try to restrain myself.  While the romantic in me pictures a lush potager full of heirloom tomatoes, Genovese basil, French melons, and more right outside my back door, the pragmatist reminds me that it would be crazy to buy hundreds of seeds when I have so little space in which to grow them.


Still, there are many reasons to peruse and enjoy seed catalogues, including getting information to inform purchases at local markets, and a garden box full of partial seed packets from previous years provides evidence that my internal, practical voice doesn’t always win the argument!  As a result, I’m pleased to share with you some favorite seed catalogues, all of which are also available on the internet, and a few reasons why each has made my list.  My comments reflect input from other Master Gardeners in Minnesota as well as my own experience.  I hope you’ll find something of value here.  Happy reading!


John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.  John Scheepers is a great source for high quality seeds whose website is inspiring from the minute its oh-so-attractive screen comes up on the computer.  The catalogue provides excellent, clear information about planting and growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers along with useful gardening tips and featured recipes.  The illustrations are great and the website and on-line catalogue easy to navigate.  A great selection of high quality bulbs are sold on a separate website (  Check out the seeds and request a catalogue at .


Renee’s Garden.  Renee Shepherd has long been one of my favorite sources for  “heirloom and gourmet vegetable, flower, and herb seeds,” first sold under the name Shepherd’s Garden and now Renee’s Garden.  Although the selection is smaller than some of the other catalogues featured here, the illustrations are enticing, the quality is consistently good, and the choices outstanding (I’m especially intrigued by one of this year’s new selections, “Mandarin Cross” Japanese Slicing Tomatoes).  Some seeds come in two- or three-variety combos, which is great for an urban gardener with limited space (examples include a Red and Yellow Mini Pear Tomato combo and a trio of Black Krim, Sweet Persimmon, and Costolluto Genovese tomatoes). You can see it all at <> .


Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  This catalogue is frequently mentioned by Minnesota Master Gardeners who grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers from seed.  The website and catalogue are easy to shop by type of plant (e.g., tomato, bean, or melon) as well as by such categories as heirloom, organic, AAS winners, “easy choices,” etc.  Plant descriptions are accompanied by good photos, and the website includes videos on useful topics like pruning tomatoes, growing guides, a seed calculator, and a blog offering growing ideas.  Although for me it doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal of some others, the quality is first-rate and it’s a great source worth a visit at .


Seed Savers Exchange.  Seed Savers is widely known for its mission of preserving plant diversity by encouraging gardeners to save seeds and thus help maintain the wide array of plants that were grown before factory farming and mass marketing began to seriously narrow the choices of plants, seeds, and produce available in the U.S.  And what a variety the Seed Savers catalogue has to offer!  For example, they sell more than 80 kinds of tomato seeds, and for much of what is on offer, a shopper can choose the number of seeds s/he wishes to purchase (sometimes as few as 25).  The site includes good photos and growing information, and this year they are launching a new webinar series. Find Seed Savers Exchange at .


The Cook’s Garden.  Focused on serving “Gourmet Gardeners,” Cook’s Garden Seeds offers a gardener with limited space the advantage of being able to purchase organically grown plants as well as seeds.  A growing calendar is useful, but search categories are limited (for example, there is no way to search specifically for heirlooms).  Once at the top of my list, the catalogue is neither as distinctive nor as beautifully illustrated as it was when it was owned by Shepherd and Ellen Ogden (it’s now owned by Burpee’s and it’s catalogue largely mirrors their catalogue).  Still, it is a reliable source for the home gardener and can be found at .