Sunday, March 30, 2014

Seeding Tomatoes

Over the past month I've been fortunate to meet many people who have taken the workshops that I have been teaching either here at my small farm or at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington.
It's been fun, and I hope it has been for you too.
The one thing I have noticed over the years of growing is that many of the "rules" I've read about gardening I have discovered just don't ring true for me. As in many other parts of our lives, absolutes are not always true, maybe because in gardening as in life, there are so many variables.
Lots of people are scared of seed and think they can't grow from seed. Some of these people have children and have managed to grow them successfully, so growing vegetables from seed should be no big deal at all.

But it is for them.
Vegetable seeds, like children are meant to grow and have a a biological destiny to reproduce themselves and produce seed so their legacy continues. Like us to some degree.
Many seeds do just that very successfully without any interference whatsoever from us. We have all seen tomatoes and squash growing out of the compost and fruiting in time or weeds that have no problem at all sprouting after they are dispersed. Likely exactly where you don't want them.
Right now is the ideal time to think about seeding tomatoes in our part of the world, Southern Ontario, Canada.
I know without much doubt that there will be a risk of frost right up until May 24th and I want to be planting my tomatoes into a warm soil when the conditions are ideal. Again in the ideal world (which I generally tell people isn't my world) I want to plant my tomatoes outside when they are between 6 and 8 weeks old.
Snow-are you kidding?

This winter has been particularly harsh and I think it is a good time to watch what Mother Nature has in store for us. I honestly didn't expect to wake up to a blanket of snow on the ground today, March 30, when it is supposed to be spring. So if the cool temperatures continue, I will let the reality of the weather dictate my actions, rather than the date on the calendar. Hence, if it's still cool on May 24, those warm weather crops will stay protected and safe.
Tomato seeds remain viable for a good number of years, so it isn't imperative to start with fresh every year, and discard the old seed. Check to see if your seed is viable by placing a sample of the seed between 2 pieces of dampened paper towel that are put in a plastic bag and the bag placed in a warm environment.. Check the seed daily to see if any has sprouted, and how much.
If only a small amount of the seed has germinated, sow your seed more thickly to make up for it.
I like to sow my tomato seeds into a soilless mix (peat/perlite/vermiculite) dampened with hot water.
I use plastic cell trays to sow into because I find they retain the moisture far better than peat pots or pellets. I use the same trays year after year, and despite the fact gardening books advise you to sterilize your used trays with a 10 % bleach solution, I have never had an issue and don't do that. My trays are stored outside and I figure the cold winter weather has killed off any pathogens that might have been present.
I gently fill my cells with my soilless mix, level it off and plant the tomato seeds on the surface, 3 or 4 seeds per cell. I sprinkled soil over the whole thing, covering the seeds with twice as much soil as the seeds are large, maybe 1/4 of an inch.
I cover the tray with humidity domes, put them under my fluorescent lights in a warm room, my kitchen by the woodstove, and within 3 or 4 days most of my seeds are up. I don't have to have them under lights as they germinate actually and there are times I run out of light space and pop them on top of the fridge until they are up.
At that point they need the light though and I remove the humidity dome, so that no nasty little diseases like damping develop because of an overly warm and humid environment.
I keep the lights low on the seedlings and generally move them into the basement under lights I have there because they prefer that cooler environment to grow on.
This is the point at which I begin a gentle round of fertilizing. It's diluted kelp all the way.
I usually use it most times I water, and I water so I am not saturating., only when the seedlings are dry to the touch.
Can you grow your tomato plants in south facing windows? Oh yes, many people do, but it is realistic to think that they will get leggier and weaker because they must reach for the light.
Just make sure that when you transplant them you are sinking that long and lanky stem very deep under the soil and a stronger root system will be encouraged.

Tomatoes like to be transplanted.
Stay tuned...that's up next!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Long Keeping Tomatoes

I originally posted this way back in 2010, but in the last week, people have been asking lots about these tomatoes thanks to a post on The Art of Doing Stuff blog (thanks for the mention Karen).
In answer to your questions-yes! I will have long keeping varieties of tomatoes available on my "Tomato Days" sale weekend, a number of varieties actually. 
Try them! They are the best things ever!

Mystery Keeper tomato

I often think that if people knew about some of the amazing food out there, they would complain a whole lot less.

For example, how many times have you heard people complaining about off-season tomatoes.?

I think the solution to that is simple. Either don't buy the darn things, or grow something yourself that is just better.

And you can do it. You can have homegrown tomatoes in the harsh Ontario (or wherever) winter by planting a longkeeper type. I've tried a bunch of them, and like Mystery Keeper the best. But there's a Burpee longkeeper, Graham's Goodkeeper and more no doubt.

No special trick to it....these are storage tomatoes that ripen super slowly after you pick them. I've had fresh tomatoes for Easter from tomatoes picked the fall before.

Sources for these seeds are Burpees of course, but in Canada Mapple Farms and Salt Spring Seed have them . I'll try to have some too.

Join the seed exchanges and find even more variety.

I generally plant my long keepers a bit later than my other tomatoes so they are ready for picking right before a frost-that's NOW!!

And they look like the picture, just sort of ripe and still hard. Any with blemishes are no good, they will just rot. Bring in perfect fruit, sit them at room temperature, and they'll slowly ripen.

You'll know when they are ripe when they are soft to touch. They will look the same on the outside, still rather orangey. But inside the flesh will be red and juicy with a nice acid tang.

So- so long indian rubber winter tomato balls! This is better!

Thursday, March 6, 2014's March!

Since early February I've been bopping around Southern Ontario, attending various "Seedy" events as a vendor, and speaking at most of them too. This Saturday is Brampton, and if last year's inaugural event was any indication, there should be lots of interesting and interested people passing through the doors once again.
These events are fun because I get to meet some interesting people, see some familiar faces and talk about growing heirlooms.
On the down side is the stress that some of these conversations cause me. There are always some people that view growing food as a competitive sport, and are happy to divulge that, oh yes, "I've had my peppers planted for weeks now", or "I only got 20,000 leeks seeded this year", or better yet "I'm growing 2 million kinds of carrots this year."
To be honest, this stuff seldom stresses me out anymore. Maybe it's age, maybe it's my complete knowledge that bigger isn't better, and more is sometimes less. I'm just carrying on and doing what I do.
But I will sometimes take pause and think..."did I miss the boat-am I getting things in early enough?"
Then I stop myself and collect my thoughts.
It's just simply not too late for anything at all. And way too early for many things, especially this year.
I think that with the harsh winter we have had, that we just won't be able to get out on the land too early.

At this point the prediction is for a cold March, and with the amount of precipitation we've had, the ground, especially for us clay lovers, may be slow to dry up.
March will be a busy month to sow seed though, no question about it.
I've got all my onions seeded indoors under my lights, leeks as well and they are all nicely up. I seeded them in teeny tiny cells in a tray with about 300 cells. Ditto my perennial herbs such as oregano, parsley, rosemary and mint. They are all up too after being seeded 2 weeks ago.

I also made a point of getting my stupid hot peppers seeded like the Bhut Jolokia, Carolina Reaper and so on. I placed those trays on my heating mat as they appreciate a good bottom heat. With the woodstove going beside them, it's been imperative to check that they aren't drying out and keeling over.
It's looks like a good germination rate on all of them, a good thing indeed.
Opening the seed packs of the Carolina Reaper caused me to erupt into a coughing fit as the fumes assaulted me, so it's nice to know that the pain the seeds inflicted may not have been in vain.
Next week, I'll be planting the rest of the hot peppers, sweet peppers too and then the eggplants.
Again this year I will post a list of all the peppers and eggplants that will be available for purchase as plants.
Then it will be time for the artichokes, cardoon, strawberries (from seed), and a nice heirloom asparagus from France. I'll go through all my seed next week, and see what I've forgotten about that I'll need to get in.

The week after that, I start the tomatoes, preceded by the task of putting all the varieties in alphabetical order. March 15 is when I usually start, but I do a lot and need all that time.
The first week of April is more than enough time to get your tomatoes in and have them ready for the warmer weather. If it comes. Which I just bet it will.
I'll also start putting in some small crops in my hoophouses. Radishes, peas, spinach, scallions, lettuces will quickly get  sown, and already there are mustards, claytonia, kales and a few other things popping up.
Today I was out in the hoophouse picking for a CSA delivery tomorrow. Hot is the word. As I picked the mizuna, arugula and red mustards, off went the winter coat, off went the sweatshirt, off went.... well you get the idea.
I will leave you now as I must apply a bit of soothing lotion to my sunburn. Yes....sunburn!