March 21, 2010
If you're at all familiar with my writing, you know I tend to strongly advocate growing your own plants from seed rather than purchasing seedlings. Starting your own seeds saves you money, offers the widest variety, and gives you absolute control over the conditions in which they are raised. I realize, though, that not everyone is going to follow that course season after season - perhaps it's perceived as being too much trouble; maybe space for growing bench and lights is simply not available; or it may simply be a matter of available time (I certainly can relate to that one!).
So, in part because of general interest in this topic and in part because of personal time pressure, for the past few seasons I've purchased tomato seedlings. I've bought them from "big box" retailers, from local growers, and as of last season I've purchased them mail order from Territorial Seed Company.
My experience with the plants offered by the large chain stores was not always good. Tomatoes are relatively tough plants, so they almost always survive and eventually produce... "eventually" being the operative term. But really, who wants to wait until mid August for their first ripe tomato? The situation isn't that surprising, really, since most often those plants have been by a handful of giant companies located in California and Florida. Even when the plants are healthy, finding varieties well adapted to our cool summers is difficult at best. I'm sure most of the companies involved are doing their utmost to offer the best plants they can, but you simply can't grow a handful of varieties and expect them to be the optimal choices for the entire United States! So while you can have a good experience with plants purchased from these retailers, I would describe this as a sub-optimal choice.
Local growers can be a better option. The good ones, being familiar with our climate, take care to raise their transplants under relatively cool conditions so their plants can better handle our cool summer nights. And because they're catering to a much smaller market, local growers usually offer varieties that are reasonably well adapted to our region. The plants I purchased from local growers were healthy, grew well, and produced tomatoes fairly early in the summer - usually starting to ripen around mid-July. Really, the only complaint I've got against local growers is they don't often offer a very wide selection. If you want a popular cherry tomato like Sun Gold, you'll almost certainly find it; but you can have a harder time locating paste tomatoes or other specialties.
Then, last year, I decided to try Territorial's seedlings. They offer an astounding number of choices, since if they carry the tomato or pepper as seed they also make it available as a plant. Given their dedication to selling only seeds that are well adapted to our maritime climate, their plants being well adapted to my garden was pretty much a given. The main thing that needed to be investigated was the quality of the plants - how they were raised, and how they would be shipped. Based on when I like to put my own starts in the garden, I chose the late April delivery option.
The plants I received were stocky and a nice dark green - in appearance they were very similar to the plants I've grown myself. There was no problem with being root bound, or having a plant whose top was too big relative to the size of the pot (which can indicate overfertilization, as growers try to rush their seedlings to market as quickly as possible). I treated them as I would my own starts at that stage, leaving them outside under plastic during the day and bringing them in at night. Then, on May 8th, I transplanted the tomatoes into a fertilized bed, and set up a cloche over them.
I saw no signs of shock - under the cloche, the plants grew quickly. Most importantly, they produced flowers early and then set tomatoes. The first one was ready on June 27, and by mid-July I'd harvested several. The plants continued to thrive and produced lots of tomatoes through the entire summer. Compared to tomatoes I've started from seed myself, the Territorial plants had performed equally well.
In short - based on last year's experience, I have absolutely no qualms about recommending Territorial's plants to any maritime Pacific Northwest gardener that is interested in them. This year I will be repeating this "experiment" to verify my good experiences; but I expect similar results.
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This page was last updated November 18, 2013