Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Get ready, get set...time to plant tomatoes!

It always happens that I have to start seeding tomatoes (indoors of course) at the same time my kids have their March Break from school.

So while other families are off to the Science Centre or enrolled in fun activities, my Emily (then), and now Mollie are at home finding specific tomato seeds for me to plant, or more fun yet, organizing tomato seeds in alphabetical order.  They love that activity!

Yes, it is that time.

Although it isn't really necessary to start your tomato seeds quite yet if you have small quantities to plant, I need to start now or otherwise I just run out of time.  I will seed tomatoes now pretty much for 2 weeks straight.  It's lots of tomatoes this year, as always.

And that brings us to April 1, when, April Fools - it's really time to get your tomatoes in!

In my area in Southern Ontario, the common wisdom is that it is generally okay to get your warm weather plants out into your garden by May 24. (We say it May two-four because it is a long weekend- and you know, beer, two-four...).  At this point that date is 10 weeks off.

The 24th is generally considered to be the frost free date, but really, the last few years we have had some chilly late May days and nights, so judge accordingly.  Warm weather plants don't appreciate being shoved into cold ground and being forced to tolerate cold nights.

Tomatoes like a good 6-8 week advance start.  So early April really is ideal to get those tomatoes going.
A nice light seed starting mix , either purchased or concocted yourself is ideal.  Potting soil and garden soil is really to heavy for the job.  Some folks use straight compost, or mixes with perlite, vermiculite and peat or coir (coconut shell fibre).

I add hot water to my seeding mix in a pail, and stir it up with my elbow deep in the warm earthy goodness.  When nicely moist, but not wet, I add it to my planting container.  I use cell trays, but anything with good drainage will do....yogourt tubs, egg shells or cartons or whatever is convenient.

I poke a little hole in the spot I want the seed planted, then pop in a seed, or two or three, then cover lightly with more seeding mix.  When I'm done, I carefully label what I have planted, then spray it with a hot water mist, cover it with my humidity dome and place it under my florescent lights.

I keep the light very low over the seed tray until the seeds have germinated, then raise them as the plants grow.  This can be done in a sunny window as well, but the plants tend to reach for the sun...becoming more spindly and tall.  If you do use a window, remember to turn the plant so all side have equal access to the light, and put the plants in very deep when the time comes to transplant them - that is, bury the stem.

When my tomatoes are up in the trays I brush them with my hand several times a day.  Ahh- the smell is wonderful, but also it makes them healthy and stocky.  I also move them into a cooler location which slows the growth and makes them strong.

When the second set of leaves appear, it's time to transplant.  I prefer to put my plants into 3-4" plastic pots, which I use over and over again...and will gladly take off your hands if you don't need them.  I find the plastic retains moisture better, and the plants are healthier for it.  I pull the plants out by their stems, not leaves, put them deep into a pot filled with the same warm seeding mix, only the top two sets of leaves showing.  The tomatoes will quickly root all the way up the stem and your plant will be super strong with a well established root system.

I water then with a good organic fertilizer, like a diluted kelp solution.  At this point, because I have run out of indoor light and space, my plants are in my double poly hoop house, with shade to prevent them from burning and assist them in their adjustment to different conditions.

Gradually I remove the shade, and by the time it's warm outside they are removed from the hoop house and completely" hardened off ", or adjusted to the outdoor conditions.  I continue with the organic fertilizer every week.

I found last year the best thing I did was hold off on the water.  I bought 600 ft of hose to reach to my far tomato field, but only used it once....watering the plants in to establish them when there was a lack of rain.  I didn't water for the rest of the season...not outside, OR in the hoop house.  The tomatoes were super sweet and their distinct flavours shone.  It makes sense.  In a wet year, tomatoes just don't taste as good, the taste is diluted.  It seems to me that less is more in this case.

The most important thing to remember is that seeds want to grow and reproduce, and there is no reason to think only experts grow from seed.  You can mess up pretty good and they can still carry on.  It is what they were designed by nature to do.

Last year I had little currant tomato that chose to grow on my deck, right beside the patio doors.  She grew with no rain and little sun in likely 1/4 inch of dog fur and Lord knows what other crud that accumulated between the cracks in my deck.  She coped with two pups who pulled at her for fun, and managed to produce some lovely little fruit.  Now that's a tale of survival!

Next up is some of the very cool varieties I'm planting this year- some" new" oldies and some old favourites.  Stay tuned!


Erin Wilson said...

When you're ready for me to start writing out tags, let me know!! :)

Jesse said...

Wow Linda, there's an incredible amount of info in here. Don't think we need to visit anymore! But we will!

Linda said...

Lots of tags to do Erin, as you can well imagine!
And look forward to seeing you Jesse.

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Erin Wilson said...

Well let me know when you're ready for help. :)