I won’t be sowing tomatoes for another two weeks, but some seeds I was cleaning started germinating, sending out a rootlet, so I refrigerated them in damp paper for a few weeks and then potted several, knowing they would eventually start to rot in the fridge. (Sure enough they did, and I threw them out today.) I wonder, if I had dried them instead of wet-packing them, would they have germinated again? An experiment for another time.
I start tomatoes as late as possible for a few reasons.
- Tomatoes sprout and grow quickly. They soon need to be repotted, and then repotted again, taking up more and more of our limited window space.
- Tomato seedlings need to be hardened off — gradually exposed to direct sunlight. If thirty or forty seedlings must be moved outdoors and back indoors every day, transferring them is much easier if they are small plants in small pots.
- There is no advantage to planting tomatoes into the garden early. If the soil is cool, the seedlings will sit and wait for it to warm up. They may go into shock and then need a couple of weeks to recover.
- Small seedlings planted into warm soil root in quickly and soon catch up to, and even surpass, earlier, larger transplants. Garden centres begin selling tomato plants in early May, six weeks before ideal planting time. They do this because they want people to buy twice — first in early May and then, after those plants have died, again in late May/early June. By mid-June — ideal planting time in this part of the world — garden centres are discounting surplus stock or donating it to school fundraisers, because their tomato-growing customers have been trained to buy plants early.
I plant tomatoes around a pit, dug in April and filled with the winter’s kitchen scraps (fruit and vegetable peels and parings), and covered with last season’s dried garden waste (pea vines and corn stalks, etc.). The idea, or theory, is that heat from the decomposing material will warm the nearby soil. Late in the season, this compost may provide nutrients to the plants, as well. The following year, it certainly will.
I surround the pit with tall willow poles — having cut all the branches off our willow tree in the fall, for this purpose. The tomatoes go among the poles, quite close together, at most 20 cm apart. I dig compost into the soil and build up a little ridge, the greater surface area meaning more soil is exposed to warm sunlight.
I set a metal can, ends removed (tomato can, large soup can), around each seedling, pressed into the soil. The cans guide water to the roots so the water doesn’t run away down the sloping ridge. Also, the cans seem to deter slugs, new and shiny cans as well as old, rust-roughened ones.
When the plants start to flower, and again when they are heavy with fruit, I fasten them to the willow poles, and to each other, with ties saved from bags of coffee beans (photo below). I feed with comfrey tea — liquid from rotted comfrey leaves mixed with water. Does it help the plants? I can’t say for sure. I don’t think it hurts them. They grow well and don’t seem to need any other fertilizer.
September and October evenings when frost is forecast, I set a couple buckets of hot water on top of the central pit, among the plants, and throw sheets over the poles. Before the first hard frost, in mid-October, I cut off the green tomatoes and bring them indoors to ripen.
By this time, we will have been eating tomatoes off the plants for a couple of months. This yellow cherry, for instance, ripens early, as smaller tomatoes generally do.
We grow many tomatoes from the previous year’s seeds. So far (as far as we can tell), they have always come true, except in this one instance. The seed that produced these fruits came from a Costoluto Genovese (a beautiful, mildly flavoured heirloom variety). I have saved seeds and will see what comes from them this year. (Thinking of ‘Sore Bottom’ as a name — too unappetizing?)