My Tomatography

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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5 Responses to My Tomatography

  1. Becky says:

    I wish I’d read this a few weeks ago!

    Everything I could find at the time (including info on the seed packets) suggested I should plant at the end of March. Well I did, and I’ve got a mix of sizes with my tomatoe and pepper seedlings…although this is giving me hope that my single thriving celery seedling will be up to size by the time it warms up enough to get him out there.

    Well, I do have more seeds, so if I have to scrap it and start over I will…but I’m going to wait and see for now.

  2. kvbk says:

    Becky, you will probably be all right with your seedlings. The peppers won’t grow as quickly as the tomatoes and won’t take up a lot of space. Most people plant out their tomatoes earlier than I do. Some varieties stand up to cool temperatures better than others. Maybe we’ll have a really warm May? You could heat the soil with black plastic, fashion cloches or mini-greenhouses for your transplants, or keep potted plants on the sunny side of the house for a couple of weeks until the garden is warm enough. If the plants have spent a long time in pots, pull apart the roots before transplanting; you want to encourage them to grow outward and down into the soil. And plant seedlings deep (up to their armpits) so that feeder roots can grow from the stems. If you do have to start new plants, you can root cuttings from the plants you already have, rather than sow more seeds.

    • Becky says:

      Well that’s not so bad 🙂

      I have a few seedlings that are outgrowing their second pots at the moment…I’m going to re-pot them tonight or tomorrow into something a little bigger. And then I’ve got a few that are only an inch or two tall…from the same seeds planted the same day, kept in the same spot…oh well.

      I have been planning to get some black plastic to go out there, and on making some sort of home-made cloche for the back garden, I guess I’ll just have to get right on that!

      With the taller tomatoes, when I re-pot them, can I nip off the lowest leaves and plant them even lower? Or should I just plant right up to those first leaves?

      It’s great to get answers from someone in the same region, it doesn’t make me an jealous as reading blogs from more southern people 🙂

      • kvbk says:

        Yes, nip off the lower leaves and plant deep into the new pot. And then when you transplant these long-rooted plants into the garden, you can dig a shallow, sloping trench and lay the root and lower stem horizontally (more or less). This will keep the roots close to the warm soil surface.

        I know some people make cloches out of milk jugs and pop bottles, but I imagine them blowing around the yard.

        The seedlings in the top photo are 15cm tall now — a good size to go into the garden, but six weeks too soon. A couple that sprouted later and stayed small I threw out. I doubt they’d have grown into vigorous, productive plants.

      • Becky says:

        I’m thinking for my homemade cloche I’ll use hula hoops, zip ties, and some clear plastic we have lying around the house. It’ll be semi-permanent that way and a bit more sturdy/larger. That’s the plan anyways, we’ll see how it turns out.

        Some of my starts are a foot tall! I’ll definitely plant them nice and deep in the new pots, and then in a trench outdoors. Hopefully they’ll make it until they can get outside.

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