Just as we think spring is just around the corner, March surprised us with a blanket of snow. Don't let that dampen your spring fever, now should be the time to put your quest for the best tasting tomatoes in gear. There are so many good heirloom varieties available these days, the important thing is to select only the varieties that grow well in your region, and mature in time before winter (in our case, the rain) sets in. Ask around, talk to your local extension agents, don't leave it to chance!
There are a few things you can do to maximize your success.
(1) Use fresh seeds as much as you can, especially if you are new to grow your own starts. Fresh seeds have higher vitality, they germinate faster and produce healthier seedlings.
(2) Use only sterile soil with good drainage and wetting agent: Tomatoes are slow growing seedlings, be sure to start with clean soil with no containment so the seedlings will not die of premature death (called damping off). The soil you use should be a seed starting mix with wetting agent. I use a seedling mix that contains: 50% peat moss and 50% vermiculite. Wetting agent, fertilizer and trace elements added. Free of weeds, disease and insects.
(3) Germination: Assume the above two conditions are satisfied, three elements are essential for the tomatoes seeds to germinate: temperature, moisture and oxygen. The optimum temperature for tomato seeds to germinate is between 75F-80F. They will germinate at a lower temperature, it will take longer. You supply the moisture by watering. Keep the soil moist after sowing. The fluffy loose soil should allow good drainage and plenty oxygen to reach the roots. Your seeds will emerge in 3-14 days, depending on the freshness of the seeds and the conditions they are growing in.
(4) Seedling Growth: Once they seedlings emerge, they will need light and nutrients to grow. Transplant the seedlings to larger containers. Give them plenty of light, otherwise they will grow thin and tall. Keep the seedlings in a condition that is not too hot, let them get some air so they can grow strong. They will remain in the containers until you are ready to transplant then out to the garden.
(5) Seedling Care: Since tomato seedlings are going to remain in the pots for quite sometime, there are a few good practices you can use to keep them healthy and disease free. You can keep the seedlings in the greenhouse with proper ventilation; or in a covered area, be sure to bring them in when the temperature drop below 40F, otherwise they could suffer frost burn. Other tips that are helpful are: cover the pots with a thin layer of chicken grits, these fine rocks act like a mulch. They keep the moisture in the pots and discourage molds from growing on the pots.
(6) Varieties I had success with:
Cuban Yellow Grape: A small yellow grape tomato with intense flavor. Matures early and holds up well in the fall. Great in mixed heirloom tomato salads. An early maturing indeterminant type cherry tomato, a prolific yielder.
Pick Red: An early, determinant plant, produces large slicing tomatoes with great taste.
Peron: An early, indeterminant plant,produces large slicing tomatoes with great taste. Very productive.
Isis Candy: A great tasting tomato when fully matured. It took longer to mature than I had hopped. It was quite sweet with very little acidity. I guess they were not ripe when I tasted them back in August. It sure takes a long time to mature, but it was worth it.
Roma Tomato: The variety I grew was very productive. Good for sauce and drying, not fresh eating.
Jet Star (Hybrid): This is a very early variety, produces large sized tomatoes that are great for fresh eating.
I have found a tomato list from LoveAppleFarm in California, it will provide some good references.http://www.growbetterveggies.com/files/laf-tomato-variety-list-2011---3-1.pdf