From ordinary to extraordinary. From a tiny, almost invisible seed, to more than 10 lbs of mouthwatering, slightly sweet, mildly tart fruit, the tomato wows gardeners over and over again.
Let this season be your time to shine, along with your tomatoes, of course.
Let’s start with the seed. If you have a shorter growing season, you may want to start your own. Here in Northern New England, (Maine-uh’s), we start our seeds by the first of April. That gives us 8 weeks, and (we really hope), the ground is ready for us to begin.
Sometimes mother nature does not comply, and we end up with tomatoes too tall and lanky. We have learned of a way to compensate for that, as I will share with you in a bit.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I’ll back up.
Starting your seeds. I do not have to fertilize my tomatoes until it is time for transplant. I take soil starter and add dried compost as well as worm castings to it, and that gives my baby plants all they need for a few weeks.
They get a great start. After a warm, moist, dark germination by our woodstove, they are moved to their spot on the windowsill for a short time. We extend our windowsill by attaching boards and painting a backdrop white to help reflect the sunlight right to the seedlings. Two seven foot sections can pack in 14 trays with the extension. Each tray has 39 seedlings.
Some years we have put them under fluorescent shop lights, and they have done fine that way. This year, our neighbor offered us use of his heated greenhouse, wow, what a luxury.
Self-heated, automatic venting . . . mmmm. So nice.
Anyway, until two to three weeks old we just water – keeping them moist.
At this point, they need to be moved to our greenhouse where we heat by wood. We also have a small electric heater we put underneath the tables to supply extra heat to the bottoms of the trays if this is necessary.
In Maine, it certainly can be.
By four to five weeks, it’s time to think about transplanting into bigger pots. We usually use three-inch used pots we get for very little from local greenhouses. I like the square best, as they fit closer together, but square or round will do.
At this time, we pluck off the lowest leaves, if they are in the way. I want the plants set down low, with about 1/2 inch of soil under their roots. I fill in all around and make sure the plant is centered. I pack the dirt firmly, as it holds the plant better, and the more soil I have, the greater the food and moisture is available for the seedlings. Tomatoes can grow roots from all along their stem. Handy.
When I transplant, I always make sure of two things. One, the soil is nice and moist and two, I have added all the amendments I need to keep those tomatoes growing at a nice steady pace.
Too much fertilizer, too long and lanky which results in a stressed seedling.
Too little fertilizer, a malnourished seedling which is, of course, stressed.
I know of someone who feeds their tomato plants 20-20-20. That’s way too much for me. I don’t find they need that.
So, I mix my soil-starter with another round of compost, worm castings, and an organic 3-2-3, maybe a little higher. It depends on what I can find. In the past, I have used Fertrells, but anything will do. You may also need to water fish emulsion in, as the last few weeks go by. If you notice any paleness of color or growth issues, go ahead.
I like to use it no matter what. It gives extra minerals and a small boost of nutrients. I find it helps with transplant stress, as well.
For my mix, I fill an 18-gallon grey tub from Walmart about half full of soil starter and add 1/2 cubic foot of compost. We buy Coast of Maine, but use whatever is available in your area.
To that, I add 1 gallon of worm castings and fertilizer that is not too heavy.
Jobe’s Organic Tomato Fertilizer has great reviews and is water soluble. That is really nice because if needed you can use it up until planting time. A dry mix is better to mix in with your soil, like Microlife 6-2-4. This is an amazing multi-purpose addition that has been used for years by a wide variety of growers. It is organic and filled with minerals and vitamins for your plants. I will be using this for the first time this year, and am really looking forward to what it does.
At this point, finish your transplants and keep them moist. If they dry out, not only do they stress, but the roots cannot take up much-needed nutrition.
Now, it’s a waiting game. I watch for signs of yellowing. I try to keep the temps from going too high in the day, and too cold at night. Our greenhouse does a good job of keeping them in the 50’s at night. We keep any heat-loving plants as close to the stove as possible.
It’s important to keep the day temps from going too high. If you can keep it in the low 70’s or even a little less at times, the plants will grow better stems. Thick and stocky, until they’re out in the garden.
If you notice a purple tint on the underside of the leaves, it’s possible they’re getting too cold. The purple underside can be an indication of a lack of phosphorus. They need to warm up so they can take in the proper nutrition. You can also give them a liquid fertilizer that will help by adding a little extra to their next drink.
Finally, it comes. The big moment. Planting time. Drum-roll, please.
If our seedlings have become too tall, we dig holes for them to lay down sideways. It’s not a bad idea anyway. They grow roots from all along their stem, and it enables them to access the warmth of the sun better. Just remember which way you have laid them down, so they can be watered well. We indent them so a well is created and it catches the water. We will often use organic mulch to keep the weeds down near the plant. But if the weather is chilly, the roots don’t warm as they would like. Black plastic or fabric mulch would be better.
Add your amendments to the soil. Mix it in well or topdress it. At this time add a tablespoon of Epsom salts and mix in well. Many believe this adds to the strength of the plant for production. It also adds magnesium. Calcium (egg shells) help ward off blossom end rot.
In all you do to add soil amendments, remember to evenly water.
Before I have finished transplanting, I will add more Microlife at this time, and if we have dried compost, mix it in as well.
Later on, we will add a stronger fertilizer, organic, as the plant is growing and the roots have established themselves.
After the blossoms have started coming out, we make sure our fertilizer (once a week), is not high in nitrogen or we will have the most beautiful plants in the neighborhood and not many ripe tomatoes.
A strong potassium – phosphorus ratio is best.
Finally, for the best tomatoes ever, you need the best plants ever. Stake them. I have done both, allowed them to crawl and tied them to a stake. The more upright, the better.
Last year we ran a row of 25 tomato plants along cattle panels. That has worked the best so far. We attached them with sheet strips. Despite such tall, heavy plants, they withstood the winds and weather and stayed strong.
Which brings me to my last point. Arm yourself. One night of a certain pest – he-who-must-not-be-named- and your tomato plant can be defoliated. One night.
Okay. I’ll name the pesky but gorgeous nemesis. The tomato hornworm.
We have two weapons of mass destruction that devastate our crops. The tomato hornworm and late blight.
This year we will plant dill as a catch crop, and we will separate the rows of tomatoes by 25 feet. We will also keep our tomato plants pruned, lower branches mostly, because it allows for air circulation, and easier access to pick those nasty bugs. Creatures. Things.
There is also a sulfur spray, approved for organic use that you can use on your tomatoes and go on the offensive if you have a problem with late blight. It needs to be applied before you have signs of the disease.
People have reported issues they have with it, so I won’t use it for now. Maybe someday if necessary. But for now, I will hold off.
There you have it. I have done my best to give you a complete picture with details on how we do awesome with our production of tomatoes. The exception being a couple of years with late blight.
This year we will grow only half of what we have other years because we get so much from one plant.
In a coming post, I will share with you how I easily handle all those tomatoes coming in at a time I still need to be in the garden, as well as working on my blog!
Happy planting and harvesting! Any questions or comments feel free to drop me a line!
A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.
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