Published Feb. 26, 2012 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “From scratch: A beginning gardener shares her experiences gained from taking the first steps in growing indoor tomato plants from seed.”
By Barb Gorges
Can I call myself a gardener if I buy blooming bedding plants and keep them alive until frost?
Possibly. But my real test is whether I can start something from seed indoors, which I haven’t done in 20 years. And, even though it’s February, now is not too early to start thinking about that.
My inspiration is the pep talk Kathy Shreve and Barb Sahl gave the Master Gardeners’ class recently. It looks so simple: florescent shop light, sterile seed-starting medium and pots, proper watering, a little air circulation and fresh seed.
Seed. There’s the sticky spot. Some plants I like don’t do well in Cheyenne or would need more sun than my shady yard offers.
This is my experiment for the coming growing season: raise from seed at least one easy annual flower and a fast tomato.
Why all the bother? Because just as I can bake my own bread, even though it’s much easier to buy a loaf at the bakery, I want to see if I can grow from scratch.
There are several seed companies out there that cater to our unique gardening needs.
For starters, I was already familiar with Maine’s Pinetree Garden Seeds. This company offers a reasonable climate match. I ordered from them years ago and Shreve does today. Visit www.superseeds.com or call 207-926-3400.
Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, mentioned three seed catalogs recently that match other aspects of our challenging growing conditions.
For high altitude, try Seeds Trust, located in Littleton, Colo., www.seedstrust.com, or call 720-335-3436.
For drought-hardy plants, High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, N.M., offers recommendations on xeric gardening, as well as plants and seeds. Visit www.HighCountryGardens.com, or call 800-925-9387.
For a comprehensive flower and vegetable catalog, check Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is another Maine company. Visit www.johnnyseeds.com or call 877-564-6697.
You can also check local garden centers, but do read the seed packets carefully.
Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone specializes in plant varieties that are hail and wind resistant.
For my summer project, Wissner recommended I start with a cherry tomato plant. The fastest tomato I could find, maturing in 55 days, is called Gold Nugget, which produces yellow cherry tomatoes.
Local gardeners who want to grow tomatoes might want to look for tomatoes that mature in 55 to 60 days, she said. This means with luck, you’ll harvest your first tomato 69 to 80 days after May 25–that is, between Aug. 2 and 13. The average first frost date looms barely more than a month later, about Sept. 20.
Why all the extra time? Vegetable seed packets and catalogs will tell you how many days it takes for seeds to germinate and how long until harvest time. In reality, you need to extend those time frames by many days, Wissner said.
When Wissner starts vegetables indoors, she first adds another 14-20 days after germination to allow plants to grow to transplant size.
She then adds another 14 to 20 days after transplanting outdoors. That accounts for transplant shock. At that point, she can start counting the stated days to maturity.
For my annual flower, Wissner recommends cosmos, which produces brightly colored flowers.
The cosmos I’ve chosen, a dwarf variety in a mix of colors, germinates in seven to 10 days. Maturity is at least 75 days for some cosmos varieties so if I want flowering plants to put out in May, seeding indoors the first of March might not be too soon to start. But since even dwarf cosmos could be 2 feet tall at flowering, they’d get too big for my set-up, so I’ll wait a bit.
And both the flowers and the tomato will need “full sun,” –at least 6 hours per day. I’ll have to think about where to fit them in my shady yard, or which tree to cut.
It’s easy to see why buying well-developed plants from the nurseries is so popular when, for instance, some varieties of tomatoes are rated at 120 days to maturity, the number of days after seed germination before the first fruit can be harvested.
Next month I’ll prepare my seed-starting equipment. Digging in the garden is still months away, even if wind keeps evaporating the snow.
The first hurdle to choosing plants that will thrive in your yard is understanding the climate.
The newly revised USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov) shows Cheyenne in Zone 5b, meaning our maximum cold temperatures are -15 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of our 6000-foot elevation and northern latitude, we also have a short growing season.
Cheyenne’s average first frost-free date is May 25—that’s considered a safe time to get your plants in the ground.
After that, the growing season is only 90 to 110 days long, according to Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Laramie County Extension Service Horticulturist.
You can see why season extenders like Wall O’ Water, hoop houses or high tunnels— modern, light-weight greenhouses—are popular here. They can push the planting date earlier by weeks.
Note: Using Catherine’s formula and the catalog information, I figure I’ll need to plant the seeds four to six weeks before May 25, in early April. If I decide to try Wall O’ Water, giving each plant its own little protective, water-filled, plastic walls so that I can transplant them earlier, I will have to start seeds earlier.