Growing tomatoes

Posted: May 5, 2014 in Uncategorized

Last summer, we produced nearly 400 pounds of tomatoes on our tiny lot and at the Plot. We ate them all summer. We canned them. We froze them. We dehydrated them and made sun-dried tomatoes. We sold the extras in produce boxes. Now in May, there are a few pounds left, but the new crop is on the vines, so we may make it to the first of this year’s harvest.  There are also still a few jars of pasta sauce, some sun dried tomatoes, and a few bags of tomato paste around.  We are pretty good at growing tomatoes. And we eat a lot of them. Opening a can of tomatoes is like a breath of summer in the middle of, um, an 80 plus degree winter heat wave…

We grow almost all of our tomatoes from seeds. We have a small greenhouse and we love all the varieties that can be purchased from seed. Last year, I started our tomato plants in December. That was too early. They were too big way before mid-March. This year, I ran late. I started them in mid-January. We plant our seeds in a mix of garden soil and either perlite or vermiculite. I have read that one should use a sterile soil for seeds to avoid disease. I have not done that yet. I have garden soil, so that is what I use. We plant a lot of seeds. We keep the soil moist, but not wet. Tomatoes are pretty good about germinating in our greenhouse. When the seedlings get to about 6″ high with a good number of leaves, we cut, not pull, all but two of the seedlings in each pot. We’ll let these two get a little bigger, and then, cut the smaller or less healthy looking seedling. Ultimately, you only want one seedling per pot.

Once we get to early to mid March, we start hardening off our plants. We work regular jobs, sort of. That means I’m not going to be able to put plants out for an hour and then, move them back to the greenhouse. But, this is Southern California. So, we put the seedlings out in the AM and move them back into the greenhouse in the PM. We’ll do this for about a week or so, depending on how busy we are. Then, we’ll leave them out of the greenhouse. AM and PM. We try to get them planted soon after this, but again, it depends on how busy we are. But, the sooner they are planted, the sooner we’ll get tomatoes!

Note: The Home Depot near us now carries organic seedlings. If you do not have time, inclination, or simply don’t want to bother, you can still buy non-GMO seedlings!  We picked up a couple of plants there, this year, and they are doing very well.

We plant our seedling tomatoes starting in mid-March. The local mountains have an event they call their March Miracle. It is the last hurrah of winter and often the biggest snow dump of the season. At sea level, this event often is the last of the hard winter rains. We try to wait until after this event to plant our seedlings, but even if we miscue, usually, most of the seedlings survive.  And depending on how the seedlings, do, we keep planting them, until we are satisfied we have enough plants.  I threw a couple of seeds into one of the aquaponics systems last week!

We plant our seedlings in raised beds and in containers. Large containers. One plant per large container- which is usually a 20 gallon Sterilite container with drilled holes. We put determinate tomatoes into the containers and indeterminate tomatoes into our raised beds. We do not put the tomatoes in the same place two years in a row. And we put our tomatoes where they will get as much sun as possible. Tomatoes need sun. Unfortunately, if you do not have a good sunny place, this might not be the ideal plant. Determinate tomatoes will grow to a certain size, a determined size, and stop. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing and growing and growing. One day, we will learn to stake our tomatoes at the start and we won’t be out in the garden-all 3 of us- in long sleeves and gloves, wrestling with tomato plants, trying to get the vines up without snapping them, onto a tripod or lattice. If you are planting indeterminate tomatoes, put in a trellis or a tripod that you think is way too big. Our tripods are 8 feet tall. By August, you’ll be wondering what you were thinking of, putting such a small support in! We do not bother with the tomato cages for our tomatoes. We use them for our pepper plants.

We plant our tomatoes in lasagna beds with vermacompost. Tomatoes are pretty heavy feeders and they clearly love the compost. Our raised beds and our containers started out as lasagna beds, but have now decomposed and the soil is light and loose and holds water well. If there is room in the bed or container, which there usually is, we’ll add a new layer of greens and either beer grains or straw. We add fresh garden soil, mixed with coffee grounds and rabbit manure, to the top of the bed (or container). Do not plant in this immediately. Give it a couple of weeks. Last year, we ran late planting and put some seedlings in right away. Duh. The greens and beer grains were composting and the resulting bed was so hot , the roots of our seedlings fried.

We water our tomatoes in our raised beds every few days. Too much water and they don’t fruit; too little water and they don’t thrive. We make sure the soil has dried out before watering again. But, we do not let the soil remain dry. We just check them frequently. So, if we water on a Monday, and subsequent June days are gloomy, we may not water again until Thursday, or maybe even Friday. But, if we water on a Monday, and its hot and sunny, we may water again on Wednesday. If the Santa Anas are blowing in April… which is unusual, but can apparently happen, we’ll water daily.  Usually, we water everything on the roof, which is all of our container plants, every day. The containers just cannot hold enough water and the roof is usually quite sunny and hot. The year before last, when it was really hot all summer, we would water our plants in the AM and then, stick a full 1.5 liter water bottle with small holes drilled in the cap upside down into the container. The water would drip into the plant for the rest of the day. Sometimes we even watered the tomatoes in the afternoon. Although generally speaking, when we water the tomato plants in the afternoons we frequently get powdery mildew.

The worst pest problems we have usually occur in August. Except for powdery mildew. That most often occurs in June. Powdery mildew is a white to gray mold that forms on the leaves and prevents them from getting sun. The leaves wither and die. Powdery mildew is combated by not over-watering, not watering the leaves (yeah, right), and not watering in the afternoons. We pull affected leaves and spray the rest with soap and baking soda in water. Occasionally, we find tomato hornworms. Those, we pull directly from the plants and feed to the chickens. We will sometimes get slugs and snails that eat the tomatoes, too. This is usually avoided by trellising the plants, but DE (diatomaceous earth, food grade!), sprinkled on the soil will chase off those slimy pests. We grow heirloom tomatoes, mostly. I had some leftover hybrid seeds and planted those seedlings at the Plot. I suspect that there are nematodes in the soil at the Plot, because the heirloom plants were stunted and looked terrible. The hybrid plants looked a bit better but produced tons of tomatoes. If you know you have nematodes, plant hybrids. Hybrids are merely crosses between different types of tomatoes, not GMO plants. We do not have a problem with birds going after our tomatoes. We read, somewhere, that birds are most interested in the water that they get from tomatoes. So, we just keep the bird bath full. And although we have a ton of birds around, they do not go after the tomatoes.

By late October, the tomato plants begin to slow down. We yank the plants and put them into the raised beds as compost and begin to prepare the beds for the winter crops.

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