Giving tomatoes a head start on the growing season could mean a trip to the nursery for an armload of expensive hothouse plants. For a much wider variety of economical tomatoes grow your own plants from seed. Choose between hybrids known for high production and disease resistance, and heirlooms with distinctive color and flavor.
Check seed catalogs and online seed exchanges in mid-winter for the best selections of tomato seeds. Popular hybrids could present fewer problems during the growing season, but heirloom varieties also produce well with proper care. Ethnic favorites and once popular market tomatoes often yield uniquely flavorful fruit. Modern commercial hybrids may be bred for shelf life and impact resistance rather than taste.
Order tomato seed early and plant tomatoes indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your area. Peat pots and growing trays provide a simple and inexpensive foundation for the project. Homemade paper containers and potting soil also work well. Plant two seeds in each pot, thinning out the least vigorous plant after the second set of leaves develops. Tomatoes grow well on the sill of a south-facing window, but remember to shift them to a warm area when the sun goes down. A warm basement with grow lights also serves.
Early planting does not guarantee early tomato fruit. Cold rainy weather could interfere with the crop, since tomatoes need warm temperatures to set fruit. If some plants don't survive early spring stresses, direct seeding in warm soil gives replacements a good chance of bearing later in the year. Midsummer's hot, dry weather also causes a drop in yield. Tomatoes often set fruit late into the fall--green tomatoes pulled from the vines before frost will ripen indoors.
Tomato blossoms do self-pollinate since the flowers have both male and female organs. Without the assistance of bees and other insects fruit would be small and malformed--the sign of incomplete pollination. For fruit to fully develop it must host a large number of fertile seeds in every segment. Bees and other beneficial insects do the most efficient job of pollinating the blossoms. The tomato flower drops its pollen in response to the buzzing vibration--referred to as sonication--of the visiting bee.
Saving hybrid seed isn't recommended, since the next generation shows few of the positive characteristics of this year's plants. Heirloom varieties set seed that usually stays true the next season. Save heirloom seed by squeezing some of the pulp onto a sheet of paper. Dry the paper and seeds thoroughly and place them in a sealed container over the winter. Planting the following spring results in the most vigorous plants, but tomato seeds stored in a freezer will be viable for several years.