Just about every gardener I know grows tomatoes. No, I take that back, EVERY gardener I know and have ever known, grows tomatoes! Big ones, little ones, hybrids and heirlooms, red, green, purple, pink and all colors in between. Striped ones, hollow ones for stuffing, thick solid ones for sauce, tomatoes come in a huge variety and now, it would be hard to think of a summer backyard garden without thinking of tomatoes. A salad isn't a salad without tomatoes. We wouldn't have pizzas or spaghetti or BLTs without tomatoes. So, I thought that it would be a good idea to start our gardening Sunday posts out with some information on our friend, the tomato.
If you are a beginning gardener, you might want to pick up plants at your local feed and farm store, or Lowe's or even evil Walmart. Here, I start tomato plants for us and all our neighbors every year in a little makeshift greenhouse that my neighbor put together for us several years ago that we cover with plastic. We start our seeds about mid to late Feb. and have good sized plants ready to set out come the first of May.
We grow a variety of tomatoes. Mostly heirloom from seed that I save every year, to some hybrids.
There are tomatoes that grow really tall, these are called indeterminate, most heirloom varieties are indeterminate and that means they have to be staked. Some, like the Italian tree tomato can reach heights of 20 feet given the right growing conditions which I didn't have when I tried to grow them. Mine only got to about 6 feet but that's pretty tall for a tomato plant! LOL
Determinate tomatoes are shorter and bushier and they tell you you don't have to stake them but I do anyway to keep the wind from blowing them over if we have a bad storm.
Some folks prefer cages to stakes and those work fine too. It's just a matter of personal taste.
There is a great article here from the Weekend Gardener on growing tomatoes.
Right now, I have tomato plants about 10-12 inches tall. they have been re-potted in half gallon pots and are just aching to go out into the garden.
If you want to start seeds, get a good seed starting mix and either use cups or I like to make newspaper pots for mine sometimes and fill you container with soil.
A good rule of thumb for planting depth is about 1 1/2 times the width of your seed deep. You can do it one of two ways, either works, drop the seed onto the soil and push it in a bit with your finger and dribble a bit of soil on top to cover, or, just lay the seed on the soil and when you have all your cups filled, dribble soil over them and pat down a bit. then water gently. If you use peat cups or the newspaper cups, you can sit them all in a shallow tub and add water and let the cups soak up the water slowly. This really works best once the tomatoes are up too and helps prevent surface mold which will kill you young plants quicker than anything you can imagine.
More on that later.
Anyway, in about 10-14 days, you should see little plants reaching up our of the cups. Rejoice! You are a gardener! LOL
Those first simple leaves are actually part of the seed and after a few more days the first true leaves, the ones that look like tomato plant leaves, will pop up and you will be on your way.
Keep you plants reasonably warm, tomatoes will not tolerate cold temps at all and keep them in as much light as you can. If they are not getting enough light, they will be tall and skinny "leggy" and not do well at all. you can almost see the little things struggling and looking for light. That's why they get tall like that, they are reaching up trying to find light.
Even with the greenhouse, because it's covered in two layers of plastic, I take mine outside in the sun on pretty days and let them soak up all the sunlight they want.
About watering, you don't want them sleeping in soggy soil in the dark without air circulation. That will cause mold that forms on the surface of the soil and causes what is referred to as "damping off". If you get up one morning and all your little plants seem to have been snipped of at the surface of the soil, and you see a white moldy growth on the top of the dirt, that's what's happened.
If you started early, you might still have time to try again with fresh seed and dirt.
You'll want to "harden off" your plants before they go full time into the yard. It is mearly taking your plants outside in good weather to let them become accustomed to the bright sun and wind and rain and the cool night temps. Just keep an eye out for any signs of stress or discomfort and remember to water them and if it's really windy, provide some protection or keep them inside and wait for better weather.
Once you've reached your last frost date for your zone, it's time to plant you seedlings outside in the garden or on the deck or porch or patio in large pots.
find your location on this map and then see when your average last frost date is.
If you want to take a chance on the weather and try it, you can put a few of your plants out earlier but make sure to provide nighttime protection if the temps dip too low.
Next week we'll talk about seed saving and the difference between hybrid, heirloom and GMOs.