Monday, April 08, 2013

Time for Tomatoes?

I planted my tomato seeds yesterday. That's really, really late. I don't know how it'll go, but I guess I'll find out!

They're already selling tomato starts around town. If you decide you can't resist, here are some tips:

Pick ones with well-developed roots. A lot of times they'll have big, fat, beautiful tops (growers encourage that any way they can through fertilizers, etc. because big tops sell better) but almost no roots. No matter how pretty they look, trust me: you do not want those tomatoes. Shop around and hold out for the good ones. How do you know? First, see if any roots are poking out of the bottom. Do a small, random sample of the rack. Zero roots showing on three or four plants means that it's very likely that the roots haven't even gotten to the bottom of the containers on any of them. Second (please don't do this to more than once--the plants will probably all be the same-ish) you can cup your hand over the container with the tomato gently supported between your fingers, turn it sideways (or upside-down if the dirt doesn't start falling off right away) and pull the container off partway to see if there are roots out to the sides. if there are no roots, as a courtesy buy the plant if the dirt all falls off and repot the plant at home to grow it out, but don't buy any others. If there are enough roots to hold the dirt together, that's a good buy and you should buy as many as you want of that variety of tomato. Bear in mind different varieties of tomato develop at different speeds, so the Early Girls may all be fine, while the Mortgage Lifters may be meh.

When you get them home, don't put them outside, even in a sheltered area. They can go in one of two places: in a greenhouse sturdy enough to withstand the weather (those inexpensive kit ones you can get at most stores are great, but they must be tied down and protected from heavy rain/hail/snow because they crush easily) or in your home.  In the home, you can set them up just about anywhere as long as they get enough light. Sunlight through the window is not enough light. Get them an aquarium light or a plant light and set it just above the leaves, as in an inch or two away. Sunlight through a window is great too, as a bonus. Make it a warm-ish area, but not in line with a heater vent as they'll dry out too fast. It helps to put a fan on them for an hour every other day or so. The very still air in a house makes tomatoes grow lazy. The stress of wind on their stems helps both the roots and stems grow stronger. Don't blow them over, but give them something to resist.

If they have nice, big root systems, pot them up to a bigger size.

Fertilize them on a schedule, but don't over-fertilize. If you luck out and don't burn them, you'll still have issues. They'll grow lots of big leaves, but often the roots become underdeveloped and it's actually the roots you'll really need to grow good tomatoes.

Waaaaaiiiit to put them outside! People say any time after Mother's Day is fine. Well, not for me. I've always regretted putting them out that early. You can ... if you protect them. But I think it's better to just hold off for at least two more weeks, or if the weather is really lousy, until June. In the meantime, keep potting them up. You'll love how big and strong and beautiful they get. Plus, on nice days, they can go for walkies outside. Just don't put them out in full sun on the first sunny day. They will burn to a crisp. Which leads me to ....

Harden them off before you plant them in the actual garden.  Lots of people have lots of different methods. I'd go crazy trying to put them out for a certain time each day, and then putting them back in. Instead, I have this spot under my porch that gets about an hour of sunlight and then is in shade the rest of the day. Perfect. They're also protected from hail that way. Generally speaking, you can put them anywhere sheltered (shade is necessary, cover from elements is optional) for a week or two until they get used to the elements. Dappled shade is even better than full shade. If you haven't fanned them, tied them to supports. It doesn't take much of a gust of wind to knock them flat and potentially break the stem.

Watch out for bugs! It's really easy for plants to get buggy when they're young, and it doesn't take much to set them back or stop growth altogether. Their most vulnerable times are in the house when they're kept moist--perfect environment for fungi--and when they're first outside in warm weather and all the bugs in the universe are looking for an easy, succulent meal. Be careful when applying pesticides. Remember, this is a food plant and you don't want to use anything that isn't rated for food plants. Also, young plants can be damaged by some pesticides. Be gentle!

And last, but not least, when you repot, consider planting the tomato a little deeper than the original soil line. If you look at mature tomato plants, the whole main stem, and often the larger side stems, start to develop roots. If permitted to crawl along the ground, tomatoes will add more and more roots, which will develop a larger, more robust root system, and hopefully more and faster-ripening tomatoes. You can help your tomato get more roots by taking advantage of this. Just don't plant them too deep--never deeper than the bottom-most leaves--and hold off on watering a bit. Don't let them dry out, but you don't want the soil around the freshly-buried stem bit soggy until the plant has gotten accustomed to the new reality. The stem can rot or develop fungal problems. And, when you plant them outside, consider planting them at an angle instead of straight up and down so that more stem is in contact with the soil, or, again, plant them a big deeper than the soil line.

I'm really looking forward to the growing season. I just hope I get the deer fence finished in time!

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