Seed Sense #7

originally published April 16

More on tomatoes.
This is a long post so grab a cup of coffee ( or wine ) and sit back and enjoy.

Who doesn’t love a good fresh sun kissed Tomato? That is why there are numerous books dedicated to the topic of tomatoes. There are 100’s of lovingly saved heirloom varieties and even more hybridized cultivars. How do you choose? What are the pros and cons of each and how many should you plant?

Well, if you were to listen to me during the Master Gardener’s seed selection committee’s review of my list, you’d know I have a really hard time at choosing, and consequently we always ended up growing more for the plant sale then originally planned or needed.

So how do you choose?

Here are some steps for choosing and starting tomatoes from seed.

1. Choose a location where you will be growing them. Tomatoes need full sun. That means 6 or more hours of full sun. Less sun will mean slow to poor growth, fewer flowers set and fewer tomatoes
2. Will they be grown in the ground or a raised bed? You can choose the indeterminate varieties that will continue to grow and produce till frost..
3. Will they be grown in a container? If so, growing determinate tomatoes ( or a bush variety will keep the plant more contained. The bush varieties tend to have only 1 or 2 crops per season). A minimum of 2 gallon sized containers. You can grow indeterminate, but plant all the way to the bottom of the container, leaving only a couple set of leaves on top so that there will be lots of roots and stability for the weight of an indeterminate variety’s growth.
4. What is the space available? Kitchen Garden Seeds recommends 3 ft space without support or cage and 2 ft space with a support. So if you have a 4 x 8’ bed, you can grow 8 plants in a support. Space 1’ in from the edge of you beds and 2’ apart from each plant. Note: if you crowd your plants, light will not get through to the plant for setting fruit. You also risk getting a fungal Blight disease because of poor air flow.
5. Now choose your plants according to your style of eating or cooking. I like a couple different cherry tomatoes of different colors because they are pretty in salads. A couple of early medium sized slicers for salads too, a couple of heirloom beefsteaks for sandwiches or sliced with salt and pepper and cheese. Several paste or plum varieties to make sauce and to blanch and freeze for fall and winter stews, soups and sauces. I like a mix of heirlooms and other known producers. Plus I try to test out a novelty. This year it is Green Bell. Looks like a pepper and has all its seeds at the top. good for stuffing ( even though I’ve never ever made stuffed Tomatoes!) Variety of colors and shapes.
6. Read reviews. Sometimes when a variety has been hybridized to be crack resistant, it will have tough skins as a result. Taste can also be sacrificed to a hybrid.
7. Next decision when narrowing down your choices is to look at the maturity times of the varieties. That is the approximate days to harvest between planting in the ground and picking your first tomato. Heirlooms are traditionally 80 – 90 days. The earliest tomatoes are 50 – 60 days and are usually smaller or similar to a 3-4oz compari type. It is always good to have a mix of both so you won’t be harvesting everything at once. Plus our growing season is very short here and if all your tomatoes are 80 – 90 days, you may end up having to pick more green then red fruit to save before the frost hits. Here’s a tip I learned: By September, prune back the tops of the indeterminate plants. This will encourage the plant to put its energy into ripening the existing fruit on the vines instead of growing more.
1. Start seed indoors 7 – 6 weeks before last frost date. Place the seeds on a moist, soilless and sterile medium, press to make seed to soil contact and cover lightly. The seeds are small so they don’t need a deep cover. They will germinate in 7 – 14 days.
2. Cover your tray or pots with a lid or Saran Wrap to hold moisture in. A heat mat will assist with germination timing. When using a heat mat, keep checking your seeds to make sure they are not drying out from the heat. Just spray if they are.
3. When the seeds have germinated, and green is visible, lift and remove the cover and place the seedlings under lights.
4. Have the lights connected to a plug in timer and set it so the seedlings will receive 16 hours of light. Set the light fixture so that it is 2” above the plants. This will need to be monitored daily since the closeness will dry out the soil quickly. As the plants start to respond and grow, adjust the light to maintain a 2” clearance. The plants will start to use up more and more moisture as roots fill the pot so check frequently for moisture levels.
5. Once the seedlings have 2 sets of leaves, start fertilizing, by watering with a diluted balanced fertilizer or fish emulsion if growing organically.
6. Set up a fan to blow on the tomatoes to keep them from being too moist and make the stems strong. I wave my hand over their tops after watering to not only remove excess moisture when sprayed but also to simulate outside winds. ( Ideally, water from below or at the base but still wave your hands over the plants.)
7. By the time the plant has at least 3 sets of leaves, you can transplant into a larger container. Like a 2.5” pot. Sink deep in the container for more root growth. Make sure you have sterilized any saved and previously used containers first. Tomatoes are very susceptible to fungal disease.
8. Plant outside ( after hardening them off ) when temperatures are 65 – 70 degrees consistently and no threat of frost exists. I trench in the young plants leaving just a small bit above ground. This will allow the plant to have more roots to pull up moisture and nutrients plus make it stronger against our winds.
9. Another good step is to sprinkle in a low nitrogen fertilizer in the planting hole or work into the soil around where you intend on planting. Tomatoes are heavy feeders.
10. If your watering choice is going to be overhead watering, make sure to put mulch down to prevent any pathogens from splashing up on your plants. Straw is very effective for this. Just remember to keep any form of mulch away from the base of the plant.
11. Cheers! Enjoy your bounty!