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Bad tomato seeds?

Tomato seeds

I like to save seeds from my own tomatoes, but last year I got the idea that perhaps saving seeds is one of the reasons blight always shows up in my plantings.  I think it's more likely that tomato blights simply thrive during our warm, humid summers, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to experiment by buying tomato seeds for 2012.

Now I wish I hadn't.  I'm struggling to fill my tomato beds with romas this year, despite planting two flats and a quick hoop full.  Before I complain about the seeds, though, I have to be fair and say that part of the problem was my own fault.

I put tomato seeds in the quick hoops too early since it was so warm in March, and they came up just before a serious cold spell.  The quick hoops weren't enough to repel frost when the outside temperature dropped into the teens, so the tomato seedlings got nipped.  I replanted the garden beds in early April, but by then it had gotten so hot that the soil was bone dry.  In retrospect, I should have waited to plant my tomato seeds in the quick hoops until April 1 no matter what the weather was doing, and I should have taken the covers off on a warm day to let the sprinklers hydrate the ground and get the tomatoes up and growing.

Tomato setGood thing I decided to hedge my bets by starting some seedlings inside, right?  Unfortunately, this is where problematic seeds came into play.  I figured stock from Seed Savers Exchange would be as good or better than any seeds I could save on my own, but now I'm not so sure.  The seeds in one packet looked dusty gray when they arrived, almost as if the seeds were covered in mold, and I had a lot of germination issues that got worse with each planting (suggesting that the seeds were already near the end of their energy reserves when they reached our farm).  My second flat showed only 25% healthy seedlings, and many of the plants came up headless, with cotyledons seemingly pinched off by a hard seed coat.  (This is very different from damping off, which would have showed up as the stem withering at the base.)

Steve Solomon wrote that most seeds sold to home gardeners are of poor quality, but that we blame ourselves for seeds that don't sprout.  I can see his point --- I can't be confident this year's tomato dilemma is due to bad seeds and not to some issue on my end.  Regardless, I won't be planting as many tomatoes as I'd hoped (although still more than last year), and there will be more slicers and tommy-toes than usual since they sprouted better than the romas.

That said, it's hard to complain when the first few survivors are already nearly at the bloom stage.  And maybe at least the blight situation will be better this year?

Edited to add: See this followup post which probably exonerates Seed Savers Exchange.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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It's disappointing to hear the quality of the seeds that you received from SSE. I've only bought from them one time and didn't have any issues that time. I guess the seed supplier sent them bad seeds. The picture of the seed certainly did look like moldy seeds.

If you are looking for another seed supplier, I've had very good luck with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Since they are located in VA, they are fairly local.

Comment by Fritz Fri May 11 07:47:45 2012
Sorry to hear about your bad luck with SSE. I have ordered seeds from them for the past three years and haven't had a problem yet. I have ordered three different varieties of tomatoes. I had successful germination this year with seed that I purchased two years ago.
Comment by RDG Fri May 11 09:22:57 2012

I also bought all my tomato and pepper seeds from SSE this year: two kinds of roma, two kinds of cherry, and two kinds of peppers. Out of four tries of 4-10 seeds each type, in multiple different starting media (soil blocks, seed starting trays, different seed starting trays...), I got exactly one tomato sprout. One.

Then, I ordered transplants from SSE, as they had most of the tomato and pepper types I wanted available as transplants. I checked that I wanted them delivered the week of our last frost, and was told, "well, maybe we'll have some available, or maybe we won't." When the week of our last frost had come and gone, I had received no transplants and no email, I figured they hadn't had transplants available to ship out after all. So I went to one of our local farmers who sells bedding plants in the spring and bought transplants from him -- they weren't exactly the types I had planned, but they sounded like good plants. Lo and behold, the SSE transplants arrived a week later, still with no email letting me know that they were (or weren't) coming.

I now have twice as many tomato and pepper plants as planned (and the transplants from our local farmer are doing quite a bit better, although that may be due more to those plants not having been shipped half way across the country). This isn't a bad thing, and I should be clear that the other seeds I got from SSE have been fine, but it wasn't a particularly encouraging experience. I would have thought that SSE, of all companies, would be sure to provide quality seed.

Comment by Sarra Bess Fri May 11 09:24:12 2012
I have never ordered from SSE, and now will be a bit wary of ever doing so as far as tomatoes are concerned. I used saved seed for my Golden Girls and Dutchman (which turns out to be a mix of Dutchman and Omars Lebanese-oops:D)and gambled on heinz paste tomato seed from ebay. (I have no idea where Mom got hers.) If I have one thing that has been OVERLY prolific it's my tomatoes. I estimate that I ended up with around 3x the tomatoes plants as I needed, even scaling back the seeding drastically this year. Its hard to let a good seedling go to waste. So instead of flower beds full of flowers....well you get the idea:D
Comment by MamaHomesteader Fri May 11 09:58:51 2012
Maybe if you pinch off some suckers early in the season and throw them in some water to root up you can have somewhat of a succession planting. Of course that all depends on if your season is long enough to ripen them all.
Comment by Brian Fri May 11 10:11:39 2012

Fritz --- We got our garlic from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and have been very pleased. (Ecstatic is more like it.) But SSE was the only seed company that had all of my tried and true heirloom tomato varieties, so I figured I'd give them a shot....

RDG --- The slicers, tommy-toes, and peppers I got from SSE sprouted fine, which made me think there was simply something up with the batch of roma seeds. Probably they do a great job most of the time or you wouldn't hear so many people singing their praises.

Sarra --- From your experience and mine, it sounds like there might be something going on with their tomato seeds this year. Hopefully it'll get ironed out and people won't see the same problem next year!

MamaHomesteader --- I don't see how anyone could ever have too many tomato plants (well, not romas anyway.) After you gorge yourself, there's spaghetti sauce and pizza sauce and soup bases to make. Then, once those basics are covered, you can dry an unlimited amount and make ketchup too. Despite planting scads of tomatoes, I've never felt like we had enough, let alone too many....

Brian --- That's a good idea, and I did that last year to expand my planting. The rooted suckers only just barely started ripening tomatoes before the frost, though. Granted, I got a later start on tomatoes last year (transplanting the first ones on May 9 instead of April 25), and only got the rooted suckers in the ground June 10, so it's still worth a shot if the romas I currently have in the ground take off and produce some good suckers in the next week or two.

Comment by anna Fri May 11 11:26:14 2012

i've always bought seeds from stokes, never had a problem...some years ive had 98% germnination

even if you dont buy from them, stokes supplies excellent planting instructions:

Comment by rjs Fri May 11 18:00:09 2012
rjs --- So true that quality seeds are essential! I thought I was going for higher quality seeds, not skimping, which is why I was so disappointed. I've had good luck with seeds from Jung, Johnny's, and Parks so far. The trick is always to find a good company that has all the seeds you want so you don't have to add shipping to multiple orders....
Comment by anna Fri May 11 20:06:34 2012

I've been saving my tomato seeds the last 3 years or so. NO complaints at all. Threw the moldy batch. Looked like that. Planted up some of the others. I save more seeds than I'll use in a year if I have failure of other years etc.

I'm sitting at 99 +% germ rate with no disease issues. I have very few garden beds and so am on a tighter rotation than I'd like. One year off between nightshade families only. Two beds have had tomatoes in them with only a year break in between and have been clean. I know that is risky but I've tiny tiny space. My ideal would be to have enough tomatoes in a year to can for 2-3 years worth of eating and then only grow the cherry tomatoes every year so I can rotate beds better.. but...

The ironiy is I see your post and I've given away more tomato seedlings this year than I could possibly imagine as I didn't plan on such a high germination rate :D.

I also put out tomato plants twice last year, under hoops and plastic, the first bunch died from heat with an early unseasonable warm spell and I didn't vent them till mid/late afternoon and they were burnt to a crisp by then. I replanted still a month earlier than typical last frost for us and had tomatoes almost a month earlier than my neighbors. They were jealous, I know how much extra work mine took. :D

Comment by c. Sun May 13 18:09:44 2012
c --- I'll be sticking to homegrown seeds from now on too. Sounds like you've got a great tomato operation!
Comment by anna Sun May 13 20:57:27 2012

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