4/24/10

Growing Tomatoes

In my neck of the woods, it is the perfect time to plant tomato plants in the garden (zone 7). Apologies to my friends from New Hampsha' - I don't mean to rub it in while you are still in mud season! I'm constantly learning, but here are my techniques for growing tomatoes from seed. This is long and detailed - sort of like a Julia Child recipe - but perhaps it will help you.

If you don't want to start your own seeds, skip down to the section about hardening off....

STARTING SEEDS
About 8 to 12 weeks before your last freeze date, start your earliest tomato seeds. I started Roma seeds on Jan. 15th this year, and they have just started to flower. Roma is a determinate type, which means all the fruit ripens all at once and then the plant peters out, which is great if you plant to freeze or preserve. I also started Brandywine and Cherry tomato seeds around Feb 15, and some Amish Paste Tomato seeds last week (mid April), for one later crop. The Amish Paste are another plum/roma type, but they are indeterminate and will therefore produce continuously. We love homemade salsa!

Soak the seeds for two hours in a small glass of water. Then remove them from the water, and lay them about 1" apart on a dampened paper towel (Viva brand is recommended). Softly fold the paper towel once or twice and carefully place in an open ended clear plastic bag. Fold the end over, but don't seal it (needs air). Place the bag in a pie plate in case the water leaks, and put in a warm place, like on top of the refrigerator. It doesn't need to be well lit, just warmth will make the seeds begin to sprout.

In 2-3 days carefully unfold the paper towel to see if the seeds have swelled and are sending out a white shoot. If so, they are ready to plant. If not, return to the bag and check every few days, then continue with these instructions when growth appears.

I handle them very carefully and plant these tiny seedlings in little seedling starter peat pellets which have been soaked in warm water to swell them. Plant so the seed and its shoot are about 1/4" under the soil, and gently firm the soil around them. Put these in a warm, brightly lit place, like a sunny window or under a light bulb which gives off heat. I use the clear plastic clamshell containers which strawberries and lettuce mixes are sold in as mini-greenhouses, nesting my little peat pellets close together inside which helps keep them from drying. They will dry fast under the light and with all the soil exposed, so check every day to be sure they are damp. In about 2-3 days you will see tiny green seed leaves begin to grow. If you have a warm sunny window, you probably won't need to keep the plants under the artificial light anymore. Rotate the plant if it grows toward the light source.

Once I begin to see roots come through the peat pellet netting, I transplant each plant into a 4" pot with damp fresh seed starting soil. Continue to keep in a warm and well lighted place as the plant grows. Don't worry too much if it gets tall and leggy, or even if it bends over instead of standing up straight... you'll see why when I describe trenching below.

HARDENING OFF
I bought a cold frame this year, so my next step is to put the potted tomatoes in it, just sitting on top of the garden soil. I open the cold frame on sunny days and close it at night if the temperature is going below 60 degrees. This "hardens off" the plant, getting it ready for life in the garden.

Also this year I have tried using a product called Kozy Coats when ready to plant the tomatoes in the garden soil. This is a tubular red bag with vertical pockets, open at the top. You fill the pockets with water and the red plastic absorbs daytime heat. I support the inside walls of the Kozy Coat with two 3' wooden stakes driven into the soil on each side of the plant's roots. At night, the heat keeps the plant warmer than the outdoor air. If there is a chance of frost or freeze, you can collapse the sides down so it forms a more protective teepee shape. So far my results with using this product on the first two tomato plants put in the garden have been successful. I am past the average last freeze date now, but they continue to keep the plant warm which tomatoes like.

PLANTING IN THE GARDEN
OK, now for planting the tomatoes in the garden. Best lunar planting time is in the waxing of the moon, the two weeks before the full moon, since these are plants with fruit harvested from the above-ground part of the plant.
My planting ingredients include:
  • 2 dry eggshells
  • Pail of good compost or purchased aged or composted manure
  • Espoma brand "Starter Plus": about 1/3 c mixed into the above listed compost (this is a new product for me, which re-introduces beneficial mycorrhizae fungus to the soil, making plant roots stronger. I bought it at Lowes.)
  • Tomato plant, just watered (to hold the soil together when you remove it from the pot)
I use the "trenching" method, which works well especially if the plant is tall and skinny vs. bushy. It helps force the plant to grow stronger roots. This method is also suggested for peppers and eggplants:  Assuming you are planting in a very sunny location, in good garden soil which you've adjusted with lime or otherwise for a pH of about 6 to 6.5, dig a hole where you intend to plant the tomato. Make the hole about 6" deep by 12" long by 8" wide. If you plant the tomato roots too deep, they can suffocate, I've read. Use about half of the removed soil, mixing it in the pail with the composted soil mix. Pile the rest of the dug soil in a ring around the hole. Crush the two eggshells and sprinkle them into the bottom of the hole. This will add a boost of calcium and will prevent "blossom end rot" which is when one end of the tomato is a big brown patch.

Carefully pinch off and discard the lowest leaves of your tomato plant close to the center stem, leaving about 5" of leafy growth at the top of the plant. Also pinch off the tiniest set of two leaves in the very top center, to make the plant grow side branches. Squeeze the sides of the pot to loosen the soil, then slide out the plant root ball with all the soil. Lay the plant on its side in the hole you have dug, with the roots at one end of the 12" trench and the naked stem laying in the hole, and the leafy top at the other end of the trench. Carefully fill the trench with the soil mix in the pail, from the root end up the stem, letting the leafy end project above the soil. Fill the hole so it is slightly below the surrounding soil level, even mounding the garden dirt in a circle around the plant top to make a basin where the water will fill and funnel into the plant roots. Press the soil to compact it a bit.

Put the plant in its Kozy Coat or support the plant within a sturdy tomato cage. I sometimes get the cage in the soil before I start planting the tomato, so I won't disturb the plant after planting. Cages can be purchased or made from rolls of concrete reinforcement wire. We get very strong ones and support them with a tall rebar stuck in the ground and fastened to one side of the cage. A strong wind can topple a large tomato plant in a cage right when it is at the height of production - I speak from experience. A stake inserted near the center stem can be used as a support as the tomato plant gets tall.

Tomatoes like "bottom watering" but I figure the rain soaks the whole plant, so I'm not so fussy. Watch for bugs or signs of disease; last year, a very wet spring, I had my first case of "blight," which made the leaves turn yellow with brown veins before they dropped from bottom to top. I didn't know what it was and was too late in treating the blight. I got a few tomatoes from plants which ended up looking like topiaries, but soon the plants croaked. This year I am watching for any early sign of blight, and am prepared to use a copper treatment.

I grow organic fruit, veggies and herb gardens, fertilizing with fish emulsion and other purchased organic fertilizers, and using garlic spray, food-grade Diatomaceous Earth, and other organic pesticides. I hope to have some cherry tomatoes in May this year!

Happy gardening.