Sowing Your Tomato Seed for the Show Bench
2nd Mar 2005
As soon as you can after St Davids day, the 1st March, set aside a little time to sow your tomato seed for the show bench. I have always sowed mine around this time and was always able to stage a dish or two at our local Anglesey County Show which is held on the second Tuesday and Wednesday of August. You really need to get the seed in this early in order to be picking you best shaped fruit from the second truss upwards with the very best coming from the third and fourth trusses. Rarely if ever do you get the best shaped tomatoes from the first truss, but they are, naturally, delicious to eat.
The tomato varieties that's winning on the show benches for the last few years now has been either Cedrico or Goldstar. Goldstar is no longer available in seed and as it was an F1 hybrid, the only way it could be grown correctly was vegetatively through cuttings. Luckily for me I was able to get the real strain of plants from Charles Maisey who still considers this variety to be superior to Cedrico and he has won at most of the top national shows with it. From those plants vegetative cuttings were taken and those produced the best tomatoes for me last that I"ve had for many a year.
Tomato seed are large enough to be handled individually so they can be spaced out on top of some fine seed compost to ensure that each emerging seedling has sufficient space to develop properly. Another advantage of sowing well apart is to develop a strong sturdy seedling. Tomato plants are notorious for extending themselves upwards, getting weak and leggy, particularly when they are sown too close to each other. This also applies throughout their various potting stages, they do need to be well spaced out on the bench to prevent this from happening. Cover the seed over with some Fine grade Vermiculite which allows the emerging seedling to pop through relatively unhindered. Water the tray from the bottom by floating the seed tray in another container, and, preferably, moisten the Vermiculite on top by using a fine sprayer. Because the vermiculite particles are so light, the force of water coming through a watering can will very often dislodge the material leaving the seed exposed and without adequate cover.
At this time of year Tomato seed must have warmth in order to germinate and if you have a propagator, then germination can be as fast as within seven days. I never cover the seed tray over with a pane of glass, I much prefer to inspect it on a daily basis and give the surface a light spray if I feel the vermiculite is drying out. You can also germinate the seed in a warm room such as a conservatory or the windowsill inside the house. When germinating inside the house, you do need to be particularly vigilant in turning the tray around daily so that all the seedlings get as much light as possible to fall on them.
After the seed have germinated you then have to decide what to do with them, and just leaving them in a cold unheated greenhouse at this time of year will be devastating. Tomatoes are not frost hardy and will turn to a bluish hue, even when the temperatures fall anywhere near freezing. Once this happens you might as well discard them as they will take an awful long time to overcome such a check to their growth. Pot them on into a three inch pot using compost from within a Gro bag, which has after all been formulated to grow tomatoes in. When potting them up, be very careful as the thin stem can, even with plenty of light around, be approaching two inches in length and very brittle. Use an old fork from the kitchen to go into the compost and lift up the seedlings one by one whilst at the same time supporting it by the seedling leaf with the other hand. Make a hole in the centre of the compost with your index finger or a seedling dibber and carefully drop down the seedling into it. Drop it down until the two seedling leaves are nearly resting on top of the compost and water the pot well.
It's very beneficial to plant tomatoes deep because they have a hairy prickly stem and when this stem gets in contact with moist compost, it will throw out what is termed adventitious roots. These roots will develop all along the stem of the seedling giving you a much stronger and sturdier plant. Go along with this theory at every stage of potting or planting, burying the stem as low down as is practical thereby introducing effectively a fresh set of roots at each opportunity.
If you are planting out in pots or in a ring culture pot system, don't fill the pot right up to the normal rim level initially. Leave about three inches of space from the top so that when the plant is around eighteen inches to two feet high this space can also be topped up with more compost from a Gro Bag. Always buy the best quality Gro bags as they will contain a more sustainable source of nutrients. I have been very impressed with the Westlands Planter, a type of grow bag which contains more compost than your normal Gro bags and is made from Moss peat rather than Sedge peat.