Generally speaking tomato and pepper seedlings are ready to be planted outside in the garden about 6 weeks following germination. It is a huge benefit if seedlings are “potted up” from their original small cells into slightly larger pots before planting outside. Potting up tomato and pepper seedlings is best done around the 4-week stage (or when they have 2 sets of true leaves).
How to get Tomato Seedlings Successfully Germinated:
Click here for detailed information on how to get seeds to germinate in the first place.
When to transplant seedlings from seed tray to larger pots:
Although the 4-week timeline for potting up seedlings is a good benchmark, another sign that they are ready is when they have two sets of true leaves (do not count the seed leaves at the bottom).
Depending on the weather and when you are going to put the heirloom tomato plants in their permanent bed, you may want to pot up a second time. A good rule of thumb when deciding when to do the second transplant is to wait until the height of the seedling is three times the diameter of its pot (probably around 6-10″ tall).
How to handle tender seedlings when transplanting:
- Handle the seedlings by the leaves rather than the stems. If you tear a leaf, the plant will still grow. If you break the tender stem, the plant is ready for the compost pile.
- I grow my initial heirloom tomato plants in 196-cell trays, and when it is time to pot up I take a butter knife and gently pop the plant out of the cell with the soil bundle (aka a plug) intact. Have a 4″ pot ready with moist potting soil and make a hole with your finger in the center of the soil in the 4″ pot. Place the seedling plug into this hole and gently press the soil around it to make contact with the roots.
- If you grow many seedlings in one large container rather than in cells, you will need to tease apart the roots from each seedling and then place in the hole of the 4″ container. Alternatively, you can snip off the weaker seedlings at the soil line and leave the strongest plant in the container to take advantage of the nutrients in the remaining soil. Remember…don’t handle the seedlings by the stem!
Watering, fertilizing, & soil considerations when potting up seedlings
- When potting the heirloom tomato plants up to larger pots, plant them a bit deeper than they were in the cell or original container. Additional roots will form along the buried stem and give you a more vigorous plant. You can cover the seed leaves and plant right up to the lower set of true leaves.
- Newly potted up heirloom tomato plants may look limp and stressed the first day or two. Don’t fret and do anything drastic like fertilizing them. They will recover with a couple days rest in the same environment they were in prior to potting up. Keep them out of bright sunlight for a couple of days.
- Use the same potting soil that you used to start your seeds…not garden soil.
- Water the tomato seedlings in their cells or container well BEFORE you start to pot up. Moist soil will cling to the roots and protect them from drying out.
Trouble Shooting Problems
If your heirloom tomato seedlings are getting tall and spindly, it may be related to one of the following:
- the light source may be too weak or too far away from the growing tip;
- the room temperature may be too warm (I keep my daytime temperature around 70 degrees and the night temperature around 50 degrees; or
- you are using too much fertilizer. Just use potting soil that already has fertilizer in it or use potting soil with compost. Wait until they are in the garden or in their outdoor pots before getting more generous with fertilizer.
When this post was written it was one of the the longest, coldest winters in Minnesota. There was still 4” of snow on the ground by April 19th.
If Spring weather is fluctuating a lot with cold temperatures or heavy storms, it is really important to get the seedlings outside for short periods on the good days. This is called “hardening off”.
You do not want to take your young seedlings from a protected indoor environment outside without hardening off first. They will often wilt and die. Here is a guide on how to harden off tender seedlings.