Where do you get them? Definitely not at your local garden center or mega box store. Sure, they will have hundreds of flats ready for you to swoop in and snatch them up, but this isn’t the source of the strongest tomato plants. And here’s why…

All the bedding plants, including the veggie garden starts everyone shops for in April-May are grown in commercial grower media, using commercial grower fertilizers (the same stuff used to grow petunias). They have also likely been sprayed for aphids and thrips so you will feel compelled to buy them, and – they are grown in a greenhouse.

Not that there is anything wrong with greenhouse growing, but unless the operation has the funding for auxiliary lighting, your new tomato plants, pepper plants, and assorted other starters for this summer’s outdoor garden will have not had all the light energy they should have. Yes, it is warmer in the greenhouse than outside, but the seeds are started in late winter/super early spring when there are fewer full sun days than cloudy, dismal ones. While the plants look pretty good in the trays, their root system isn’t what it could be. And this is the difference between an okay plant and a robust one…

Roots.

Everything that happens above depends on what you’ve got below once the young plants leave the coddled and pampered life of inside that greenhouse. Or beneath your growing lights in the backyard propagating space somewhere in your home or garage. Yes, it’s pretty simple to pick up all the starter plants you need for the summer garden, but they will never have the root system gotten from starting your own from seed – if you do it right.

The difference in vigor is very noticeable. The plants started in propagation trays under T5-HO lights with root systems like what you see below will deal with the fickle whims of Nature much better than those in the cell-pak on the right from the local greenhouse. Even though both sets have gone from a protected environment to the harsh reality of my backyard garden. Granted, the greenhouse plants have already suffered our chilly northern nights, which gives them purple tinted leaves. Both trays have seen drought, hence the yellow leaves here and there.

[column size=one_half position=first ]Home Grown Tomato Roots[/column]

[column size=one_half position=last ]Commercially Grown Tomato Roots[/column]

If you’re going to grow peppers and tomatoes in the outdoor garden in the northern tier of states in the US, you need plants with kahones. Some of this has to do with the varieties chosen to grow, but even so, wimpy root systems give you wimpy plants. All these roots will help peppers, tomatoes and all your food garden plants be more resilient and more productive. But you have to leave as much of the root systems intact, which means cutting the cells aware from the root balls delicately. Sure, my T5 plants are leggier, but that won’t matter once they have┬ásoil around those roots, and sunshine on their leaves, because then they will develop very nicely.

So what makes the difference in growing methods? That seed starting mat is always moist unless you forget to check the water level in the tray! Yes, I’m guilty, and they exhibit signs of drought damage fast with the roots exposed like this, but soon they’ll be living large enveloped in ground soil. Secondly, the first year this happened I added some vermicompost to Miracle Gro potting mix I had already, and watered with some liquid fish/soluble seaweed mix. This year I used Ocean Forest potting mix, and Eric has kept me so busy I just never remembered to do any seaweed or liquid fish in the water. The result with this batch beats the worm poo-Miracle Gro blend, ┬áthose roots are incredible. Had I given them some seaweed-liquid fish like I planned on, they would be even better than this.

You might be wondering why I have greenhouse plants and home-grown plants too. Someone sent me some early-ripening tomato seeds they bred and a lot of them didn’t germinate. Then there was the morning I wished I’d waited til after that first cup of coffee to mist the unsprouted peppers after I had to removed the tray cover… grabbed the Mean Green cleaner spray bottle instead of the water! So, I’m a bit thin on home-grown tomato and pepper starts this spring. Hopefully summer will be decently warm, and those greenhouse plants will produce some food… that deer don’t trample and the turkeys won’t discover.

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton