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Tomato Germination

Seed Starting for the Greenhouseless

Last year, Nick and I started a new garden together for the first time. We had grown food in many established spaces before but this was the first time that we were in a place with no viable established growing area. Starting from scratch can seem like an idyllic freedom: the joy of placing everything exactly where you want it, designing it to the landscape, mapping out every square inch of useable space. That being said, as I reveled in the glory of a brand new garden last year, I was missing one simple bit of information that my dear friend, Louisa, mentioned the other night, “I’m worried about starting my plants too early since I don’t have a garden to put them into.” Touche.

No one knows this, but our home turned into a tomato warzone far before a single snowflake had melted last winter. This isn’t public information because we weren’t able to have people over to our house for nearly 4 months. Plants outnumbered humans easily 100:1. Our couches were placed facing each other 2ft apart with tables of plant starts taking up nearly every other open space in our tiny home. We had a chilly spring and no greenhouse to move our plants into so it was a daily ritual to take them outside to the sunshine and bring them back in for protection from the frosty night. This was no small task and there were many casualties along the way. Nick has implored me to prevent a rerun of what is now referred to as ‘The Great Tomato Massacre of 2012’.

Being one who tends to learn her lessons the hard way, here are some simple methods to keeping a happy home as you begin your plants this year–especially if you are like us and don’t have a heated greenhouse to start your seeds in.

Seed Starting for the Greenhouseless

Create an Efficient Germination Space
In a chilly place like Alaska, most people use germination lights. This creates a controlled environment with ample light, warmth, and the ability to germinate many plants at once in a small space. Even if you live in a milder climate and don’t need the extra light, this set-up will keep your windowsills open and prevent water and soil from being tracked around the house. A metal bakers rack is a great option to hang basic florescent shop lights for an easy and inexpensive solution.

Placement is Key
Create your germination space in a convenient area of your home that won’t be accidentally knocked, isn’t too far from where you’ll be getting your water, and won’t be a huge problem if something spills or leaks. If you have a sunny space, that will always help with extra light and transitioning the plants to an uncontrolled environment. Better yet, a sunny spot near a door to the outside will be your best placement for when it’s time to move your plants. It may take some adjusting but if you place your germination space in good location, it will reduce stress and prevent them from being neglected during this fragile stage.

Map Out the Dance
Do  your best to chart out when you start your plants, how long they will take to mature for transplant, and whether or not this timing works with when it will be warm enough for them to go outside.  If plants are ready too early, they will become leggy, lack necessary nutrients, and become more succeptible to pests and disease once they are placed in the ground. It’s a shuffle and a dance getting this to work smoothly. This is the hardest part but it is also the best way to avoid what we did last year and to keep your germination space at its highest productivity.

Take Great Notes
Even if you mess up your timing this year or have an atypical spring, take great notes to dial in the logistics for next year. You can’t predict the spring weather but for heartier vegetables, it likely won’t matter. Onions, cabbage, kale, and many other plants can spend their nights outside far earlier than you may expect. As long as plants are carefully adapted to the outside climate, they can make room for those more tender tomatoes, peppers, and basil.


4 Responses to Seed Starting for the Greenhouseless

  1. Alaska Tractor March 9, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Glad to hear of your presence.
    Growing up in the Midwest, I have been around agriculture and horticulture all my life. I have also worked in tree and shrub nursuries in the Pacific Northwest. We sell,repair and fabricate all types of small farm and horticulture equipment along with being a major small farm tractor dealer. We welcome you to the area and look forward to meeting and working with you in some small way. We are very open with any information we can pass on regarding equipment and it’s usage.
    Randy & DeNise
    Alaska Tractor
    Wasilla, AK.

    • admin March 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Hi Randy and DeNise,

      Thanks so much for your note. We are “no till” gardeners but I’m sure lot of other folks would be interested in a local tractor supplier. Send along a list of what you offer to our email address,, and we’ll be sure to recommend you as a local source for equipment. We really appreciate the support and will definitely keep you in mind for the future!


  2. March 22, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    So, even if we are planning to build a greenhouse this year, and use it this Spring, and we live in Fairbanks, AK, we should still be starting our tomoatoes inside? And transfer them to the greenhouse when they get big enough and it starts staying a certain temp at night in the greenhouse?

    Or can we start them right outside in the greenhouse as long as we can keep temps at a certain level out there.? I wasn’t planning to use lights outside, but maybe we will still need them for warmth at night.

    How will your methods differ when starting in a greenhouse?


    • admin March 23, 2014 at 10:35 am #

      Hi Carol,

      Yes, most people will start their plants inside and then transfer them to a greenhouse. Usually this is because it is easier to use the already heated house rather than eat the cost and struggle with keeping a greenhouse warm enough. We should be getting enough light now to not need supplemental lights but tomatoes are some of the most heat-loving plants. They are very fragile and require a lot of care, especially in Alaska. You can also give them a second plastic covering in addition to the greenhouse structure but again, they will die easily from the cold and can’t be revived the way Brassicas might be able to. I would purchase a maximum/minimum thermometer for the greenhouse and map temperatures for at least a week before placing your precious plants out there.


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