It is that time of year when you start to see garden centers large and small open their doors to allow consumers like you and me to purchase their vegetable starts, among other things. Hopefully, this post will give you a few things to think about before making your purchase.
First and foremost, you must consider timing. The large box stores in particular are great about providing an overgrown tomato start for you to purchase before anyone else does much like you can buy Christmas decor before Halloween, however, unlike most of your Christmas decorations, these starts don’t store. Usually, there are ready to put in the ground right away and you may be in an area that is still waiting for the correct weather to put them outdoors.
Here is a picture of a tomato start that I found in a big box store 7 weeks before it should have been planted in my area.
If you were to purchase this tomato start your chances for success are very small because it is too big to keep for 7 weeks, even in a wall-o-water or hotcap. If you are growing directly in a greenhouse, then of course, timing is not that important, but don’t be suckered into buying this start because you have “Spring Fever” and are ready to start planting when the timing is not right.
Next, quality doesn’t equal size. In the example above you see a large tomato start, but you should know that if you were to plant a start half that size the difference in when you will start harvesting will not even be perceptible. This means that you should buy healthy looking, vibrant, vigorous starts that are not root bound. This means that the root system is still appropriate for the size pot it is in. I guarantee you that the tomato roots in the above picture are circling around inside that pot looking for more places to root. This is not good for a transplant and ideally the roots should not be circling.
Therefore, I would prefer a tomato half the size of the one pictured above that is dark green, no dead or wilting leaves, and ready to put in the ground the day I buy it, which for my area is the first week of May.
For reference here is the size that I believe a tomato start should be when transplanting to the garden. These are 4 week old.
Those are 2″ pots and you can see that they are much smaller than what you find in the big box store. My neighbor bought the big ones a month earlier, put them under wall-0-waters and they were almost 2 feet tall by the time I plant these guys, however, when it was time to harvest, ours were equal in size and I actually started harvesting earlier because I planted an “Early Challenge” variety with my other varieties.
I am all for trying to get vegetables out in the ground as earlier as possible, but if it is too early, then you increase the chance of failure in order to really gain no benefit.
In summary, biggest is not best and you have to keep an eye on the calendar before you rush to your local nursery and buy a bunch of starts. Of course, I don’t have to buy any starts anymore because I just grow from seed indoors and save a bunch of money, but I realize that not everyone is that ambitious. However, the store bought tomatoes are about $2-3 dollars a start and limit your selection to just a few. Growing from seed yourself is about $.20 a start and you can pick whatever seed you would like. Admittedly there are some costs associated with getting a light stand and providing electricity, but you make that back fast.