Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of Tomato Gardening

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Who should grow tomato plants?

People who have the drive and dedication to tend to their plants throughout the spring, summer and early fall are good candidates for growing tomatoes.  Tomato growing is a commitment of time, energy and money with tremendous rewards for those who pay their dues.

Tossing a plant into the soil and then coming back in a few months expecting to have bushels of fresh fruit is an exercise in futility.  Plan to dedicate a few minutes each day per plant to check on their growth and well being and you’ll have much better results.  Think of a tomato plant as a treasured pet…they need daily care and maintenance to live healthy and productive lives.

If you can’t attend to your plants daily or at least a few times per week due to job, family, vacation commitments, consider getting a “plant sitter” to take care of your plants when you’re away.  Share the harvest with them and they should be happy to help with the chores of growing tomatoes.

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What kind of tomato plant should I buy?

Look for a plant that is 4-10 inches tall and stocky.  Avoid buying those giant, leggy plants and especially avoid buying plants that are flowering or have already set fruit.  Plants that are too tall or have flowers already have likely been grown in hot house conditions and are not suited to do well in our harsh climate.

Buy a plant that has been exposed to our weather extremes of cold, heat, wind, and rain and you have a tough plant that will thrive in your garden.   Buy a plant that is grown locally, not shipped in from an out of state nursery.  Buy a plant from someone who knows how to grow tomatoes and can be there to help you along the journey throughout the summer.

Avoid growing the traditional hybrid tomatoes if you’re looking for the best flavor.  Those fruits can easily and cheaply be purchased in farmer’s markets all summer long.  Grow unique and extremely flavorful and beautiful tomatoes that are all but impossible to buy.  Heirloom tomatoes and unique hybrid varieties are a feast for your eyes and your palette that is worth all of the time, effort and cost it takes to raise them.

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 Where should I plant my tomato plant?

Tomato plants need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight to grow well.  They benefit from early morning sun and afternoon shade if those conditions can be met.  Planting a tomato in a shady area will yield a very small harvest if any at all.

Tomato plants need a rich, well drained soil which supplies enough nutrients, but not too much nitrogen.  Soil rich in organic matter through the addition of compost is your best bet.  Soil that retains too much water will cause your plants to suffer.  If your soil does not drain well, consider making a raised bed of at least 10 inches.  Tomato plants can be grown in LARGE containers, but you will need to water them frequently and add supplemental fertilizer throughout the year.  Container grown plants tend to have smaller yield than ones grown in the ground or in a raised bed.

 

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Tomatoes do not need to be round and red!

When should I plant my tomato plant?

Avoid the temptation of planting early unless you are prepared for heartbreak.  Warm days in March and April will tempt you to get a jump on the season, but it is best to wait until the first full week of May to avoid most chances of frosts or freezes.  Last year it snowed on May 3rd and the year before that we had a frost on May 5th.  Mother’s Day weekend or the week following the holiday is the optimal time to plant.  If you plant earlier, the soil tends to be too cool for the plant to grow rapidly and the length of day isn’t enough to spur rapid growth.  Planting too late in May can be bad as well.  If your plant hasn’t grown to size and set fruit before the super hot days of July and August arrive, it may not set fruit at all.  Try to get all plants in the ground during the first three weeks of May.

If you absolutely must plant your tomato plants early, make sure you have some method to warm the soil and protect your plants from cool night time temperatures.  Building a cold frame or hoop house over the plant is your best bet.  Keep the frame or house open during hot days or you’ll cook your plant.  Keep it closed each night to retain heat.  There are other devices out there to help you get tomato plants started early, but I can’t recommend them.

 

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Ananas noire and KBX make for the best BLT’s!

Why grow your own tomatoes?

Is this a rhetorical question!?!?  Seriously though…growing your own tomatoes is one of the most fantastic things you can do with your summers.  Everyone loves the taste of freshly picked fruit and will be impressed with your gardening skills when you gift them with your bounty.  Grow tomatoes to feed your family throughout the year with fresh, frozen, and canned fruits.

Fresh heirloom tomatoes tend to have a very short shelf life, so eat them fast!  If you have more ripe tomatoes than you can eat, they are very easy to freeze.  Just core them and toss them in a ziplock bag and stick them into the freezer.  The skins will slip right off when you thaw them and they will lose their texture, but retain their fresh flavor.  Frozen tomatoes are excellent for making soups, stews, sauces, and other dishes where tomato texture isn’t important.  You can also can your own tomatoes, tomato sauces, and tomato juices.  Make sure you follow a tested recipe for canning to keep your food safe.  Canned tomatoes retain their texture better, but their flavor changes somewhat.  If you don’t have a lot of freezer space, canning may be your best method of preserving.

Also, you can bring your fresh tomatoes and tomato dishes for everyone to share at the 6th annual TOMATO TASTING on August 2nd!

 

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Photo of my plants courtesy of the fine folks at Tomatotown.org

How do I plant a tomato seedling?

I have an excellent video here of the basic steps to plant a tomato seedling.  Make sure you plant deeply leaving only the growing tip above the soil.  You should also use some form of a collar around the stem to prevent cutworms from damaging your plants.  Water your seedlings in well, then do not water them more than once every 5-7 days throughout the year.  Over-watering tomato plants causes so many problems for gardeners who are too judicious with the garden hose!  Tomatoes that are allowed to stay dry will send down deep roots to tap sub-soil moisture and will thrive under these conditions.  Tomatoes grown like this will also have a more intense flavor than ones that are waterlogged.  If your plant looks wilty on a hot summer day, do not water it.  If it re-bounds in the evening and looks fine the next morning, it does not need water.  The leaf wilt is just the plants response to the heat and does not usually mean the plant needs water.  If you are growing in containers, however, you will need to water much more frequently to keep the soil consistently moist.

Mulch your tomato plants well.  Adding a mulch of some kind retains soil moisture, reduces weed growth, and keeps the soil cool on hot summer days.  I like to use silver reflective plastic film as mulch.  The plastic does an excellent job of retaining moisture and preventing weeds and the silver film bounces light under the leaves and repels all sorts of insects that might seek the shade of your plants.  You can also use grass clippings or straw to much your plants, just make sure that the mulch does not actually touch the stems of your plants.

Water your plants deeply once a week at the most.  I prefer to use a drip irrigation system, but you can use soaker hoses in a pinch.  Do not water the foliage of the plants..only water base of the plant to get the roots wet.  Watering the foliage is a recipe for disease disaster!

Fertilize your plants when you plant them and then again after they set fruit.  Use a balanced fertilizer that is not too high in nitrogen.  Organically you can use Tomato Tone or a 10-10-10 for non-organic fertilizers.

Support your growing tomato plant with stakes or cages.  I prefer to use Texas Tomato Cages or concrete wire cages as these are much easier to train the plant as it grows.  Keeping your plant off of the ground is the best way to avoid many diseases and damage from animals.  Prune any foliage off of the bottom of your plant that may touch the ground. Also prune any leaves or branches that show signs of yellowing or spots.  Doing this will keep diseases from creeping up your plant and allows for better air circulation.  A well pruned, caged plant is very easy to manage and will produce a heavy harvest!

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FRESH SPINACH!!

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ALL SPINACH HAS BEEN SPOKEN FOR THIS WEEK!  I’LL HAVE MORE AVAILABLE NEXT WEEK.  THANK YOU!!!

I just picked a bunch of fresh spinach from one of the beds I planted back in January and covered under a double tunnel.  The spinach has been washed and is ready for you to eat raw in a salad or in your favorite recipe.  I have 7 gallon bags of it available this week for $7.oo a bag .

If you would like to purchase one or more bags, send me an e-mail at kctomatotimes@gmail.com to reserve your bag (s) and receive information on how to pick it up.  By e-mailing me, you are committing to purchasing and picking up your spinach within 24 hours.

If you e-mail me and I do not reply, that means that all of the spinach has been spoken for.  Please try again next week.

 

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Too Tired To Type

This blog entry will be mostly pictures as I am worn out from all the work in the greenhouse and gardens!  Enjoy!

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Greenhouse #1 with all of the extra tomato, pepper and herb seedlings as backups. 4 Shelves of tomato plants as well.

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Greenhouse #2 filled with pepper and herb plants as well as as cucumber plants.

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3 carts filled to capacity with tomato plants. 2 more carts will be delivered on Tuesday to help me spread things out. The plants stay on the carts so I can roll them back into the greenhouse at night.

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Grow! Grow! Grow!!!

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The beginning of this year’s pepper project. I was given a bunch of pots for free, so I am using them on this plot and grow bags on the other one. 60+ containers to be filled….lots of shoveling!

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Rhubarb coming up FAST! We are going to be swimming in rhubarb in a few weeks. Started seeds last year and they made it through the winter in excellent shape.

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Asparagus coming up nicely…tasty snacks in the garden!

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No vampires to be found!

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Snow peas…lots of stir fries in our future!

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Green under the Agribond.

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For the “Left Brained” Gardeners.

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Salad Circles!

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Beet thinning needs to happen…good thing the greens are delicious!

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Can’t Beat Those Beets!

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Outer tunnel has been removed, but the lower tunnel remains to keep out hungry critters.

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Planted spinach seeds in January under double tunnels…AMAZING!!!

 

 

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More Tunnels Than the Average Mole

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One of these days I’ll blog about moles and all the problems I’ve had with them over the years, but for now, I’ll tell you about my own tunnels.  While a mole’s tunnels make my yard and garden paths look a mess, my tunnels give my garden a look of sophistication. A mole’s tunnels are built in his search for tasty earthworms, my tunnels are built in my search for tasty veggies!

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Tons of tunnels!

There are lots of different kinds or tunnels you can build in three basic categories:

  • High Tunnels–Very large structures you can walk in to, usually permanent, but can be somewhat mobile.  Made of top-rail chain link fencing posts bent to an arch and then covered in greenhouse film.  These tunnels are cheaper to build than a permanent greenhouse, but need to be re-covered every few years as the plastic film degrades.
  • Medium Tunnels–4 foot tall tunnels made of EMT or PVC conduit and covered in greenhouse film or Agribond (spunbond polypropylene).
  • Low Tunnels–1-2 foot tall tunnels coveredin Agribond and supported with wire frames and twine.

All of the tunnels do an awesome job of extending your seasons, protecting your plants from wind, frost, insects, and hungry mammals.  each one has very specific benefits and I’ll do my best to explain what I have learned over the years.

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One of these days….one of these days!

One of these days I plan to build my own high tunnel in my driveway, but the expense is just too much right now and I have not outgrown my two small greenhouses yet.

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The “Salad Chute”

The simplest and least expensive of the tunnels is the amazing little “low tunnel”.  These tunnels are great for growing salad and cole crops as well as other lower growing vegetables.  You can build one of these tunnels for your garden for about $20.  I have been using these tunnels to extend my growing season in the spring and fall for many years and have had amazing results.  I use Agribiond 19 in the 83″ width for covering these tunnels and use “hoop loops” for the supports.  3 hoops and some twine will support the cover over an 8-12 foot long bed.  This covering is absolutely amazing as it protects your plants from frost and keeps them from freezing as it holds in heat.  Last weekend, the temperature dropped to 24 degrees, but the wet soil and plants under the Agribond 19 was still unfrozen and frost free.  It also does an awesome job of protecting young seedlings from harsh winds.  Make sure your fabric is anchored securely with heavy weights or heavy duty garden pins or staples.

Keep the covering of Agribond on these tunnels all the time.  This material allows 85% light transmission and you can water right through it.  Remove it only to weed, plant, or harvest.  If your plants grow tall enough to touch it, it’s ok, they won’t be damaged.

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Snap Clamps Hold Down Agribond 15

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Medium tunnel protecting my kale from cabbage loopers

Medium sized tunnels can be used for two very different purposes.  The first purpose is insect control of vegetables that do not need pollinators or for isolating plants to avoid cross-pollination for seed saving.  Formed from 1/2 inch PVC or EMT conduit and either clamped to the sides of your beds or stuck into the ground, these tunnels are a bit more expensive to build at a cost of $50 or so. The above bed is planted with kale and kohlrabi and covered in the very light Agribond 15 which allows 90% light transmission.  My goal is to keep out the cabbage loopers and flea beetles that love to feast on these brassicas.  I use “snap clamps” to secure the fabric to the hoops.  Make sure you get the right size snap clamp for the type of hoop you are using.  The ones for EMT vs. PVC are not the same size.  Keep this tunnel covered at all times except to harvest or weed to keep out the bugs.

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Twice the tunnel, twice the protection, twice the work!

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Spinach is tucked in under the security of a double tunnel.

The final tunnel I am using, the double tunnel, is by far the most difficult one to build and to manage, but it offers tremendous protection and advantages for your garden. This tunnel is not for the casual gardener as it requires daily maintenance to make sure the plants do not over-heat on sunny days, yet still stay warm on cool nights.  These tunnels are fairly expensive at a cost of around $100.  Double tunnels provide greenhouse-like conditions to extend your seasons to almost year-round gardening.  Use them to grow salad crops throughout the winter or to get a jump-start for warm weather loving plants like squash, beans, and tomatoes.

Double tunnels consist of a low tunnel covered in Agribond 19 and a medium tunnel covered in 4 mil greenhouse film.  The supports for the medium tunnel need to be made of EMT conduit to be able to support the load of a heavy snowfall.  To make the frame, I use 10 foot sticks of 1/2 inch EMT conduit and bend them using a “Quick Hoops” bender. Heavy sandbags and snap clamps are used to hold the plastic down in high winds.

During the low-light days of December and January, these tunnels should remain closed to retain as much heat as possible.  The other months of the year, the tunnels must be opened at one end or both ends during the day to keep the temperatures from getting too high inside and closed each night to retain heat.

These tunnels protected my salad crops through temperatures in the teens, but once we hit single digit and below zero temps, I lost most all of my greens.  In a mild winter, I firmly believe that you can grow spinach, lettuce, carrots, and other salad crops just fine.  In January, I re-planted two beds with spinach seeds, watered them in well, and covered with a double tunnel.  It was a lot of work, but the results are looking great!

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January seeded spinach doing very well under the double tunnels

Try a tunnel in your garden if you can.  The results are very rewarding!

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Garden While You Can!

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We’ve had some very brief windows of good weather lately…fortunately today’s great weather came on  weekend!  They are calling for some much colder weather and maybe some snow next week, so I’ve been hustling and bustling to get as much accomplished so that I’m ready when spring finally decides to spring!

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The greenhouse is needing supplemental heat a lot this year, but all of the early season plants are in fine shape and ready to go in the garden in early March.

I did some heavy lifting and managed to build 4 raised beds this morning.  My plans were for three, 4 foot by 12 foot beds, but my garden configuration allowed me to build two 4×12′ and two 4×4′ beds.  The 4×4′s are small, but it’s amazing what you can grow in a small bed.  I think I’m getting close to 30 raised beds now…need to count!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe spinach and carrots are tucked into their raised beds with double tunnel coverings.  I haven’t peeked at them since I planted them, so no idea what’s going on under there.  Hopefully they will provide us with lots of greens and crunchy snacks!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast chore of the day was to start the tomato seeds!  I’m growing over 120 varieties this year…got about 40 types started in this tray of densely planted seeds.  Probably 1,000-1,200 seeds total in this one tray.  They’ll be ready to pot-up in about a month and ready to go in the garden in the garden in two months or so.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOrganization is important with this many varieties!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATime for  well deserved nap, then it’s time to start moving 10 yards of compost into those new beds and top dress the rest of them!

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Warming Garden Soil

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I think I read somewhere that this is the 14th coldest winter on record so far.  The soil is frozen down to a very deep depth and now it’s covered with a thick layer of snow.  I fully plan on putting in my early spring gardens by the middle of March, so I need to act now to get the soil thawed out and warmed up so that my baby plants can hit the ground running and make salads as soon as possible.

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To get the soil ready to plant, it is necessary to get most of this snow off of the beds you plan on using first.  If you let the snow melt off, you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks at least and you’ll end up with soggy soil that’s not good to work in.  Get out there this weekend or sometime this week and shovel off most of the snow.  You don’t have to get it all off, but remove as much as you can.

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Partially cleared off bed with soaker dripline already installed.

To speed up the thawing and warming of the soil, you really need to cover your bed with some form of covering. You have three main options, glass, clear plastic, or black plastic.  If you have access to some old windows or sliding glass doors, you can lay these over your bed as an excellent source of solar energy retention and insulation.  You can find these windows on craigslist.org or from construction sites where they are installing new windows in an old house.

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Double tunnel covered raised beds tucked under a blanket of snow. The EMT conduit hoops really held up well to the snow and high winds this winter.

 

If you don’t have access to glass for a covering, you can use either clear or black plastic film  Both types of plastic work well at allowing solar energy to warm your soil and help with retaining heat at night to keep the soil from re-freezing.  I’ve tried both and prefer the black plastic film.  Clear film can actually make your soil too hot and kill beneficial bacteria (solarization) , black is a good balance of hot, but not too hot.

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When you lay your plastic over your beds, make sure that it has good contact with the soil  With clear plastic, you can stretch the film tight over the bed and the solar energy will pass through to the soil, but with black you need to have the film touching the soil or it won’t transfer the heat very well.

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Anchor the plastic well with garden staples.  You may need a hammer to drive them through the frozen soil.  When it’s time to plant in March, just remove the fabric, plant your seedlings or sow your seeds and then cover with a low tunnel of agribond for continued protection from frosts and cold winds.

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Tiny lettuce seedlings

Meanwhile in the greenhouse, we have growth…very slow growth.  I am keeping the temperature from falling below freezing, but not warm enough to make them grow rapidly.  I am hoping for sturdy, stocky seedlings ready to transplant in March.

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Micro-greens!

Get out there, do some shoveling and covering and you’ll be rewarded with garden soil that’s ready to plant much earlier than anyone else on your block.  In the meantime, stock up on croutons because fresh salads are not far away!

 

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2014 Tomato Plant List

Ok tomato lovers…here is the moment you’ve all been waiting for!  I seem to always post this list on the yuckiest days of winter so that we have some hope that this ice will melt and the soil will warm by May and we’ll all forget about this bitter cold winter.

I’ve added a BUNCH of new varieties this year despite not participating in my usual seed swap.  I buy all of my seeds from small independent sellers and other smaller companies (A huge thank-you to Tatiana’s Tomato Base, The Sample Seed Shop, Secret Seed Cartel, and Johnny’s Seeds for providing superb service and excellent products!).  All of my seedlings are grown with organic methods and are non-GMO of course.

Many of the varieties I have will b in extremely limited quantities and I can’t guarantee that I’ll have them depending on germination rates and myriad other variables that usually happen.  If I do not have a variety you’re interested in when you come by to get your plants, we can talk about suitable replacements.  With 122 varieties of seeds in hand, I’m sure to have a great plant to suit any of your needs!

Plant prices will be $2 each this year.  If you buy 100 or more plants at a time, I can reduce the price even more to help save you some money.  All of my plants come with a satisfaction guarantee…if they die (disease, cutworms, wayward squirrel, meteorite hit, etc), I’ll replace them free of charge with the same variety or a similar one if I run out of your type.

I will take pre-orders for tomato, pepper, eggplant and herbs through the end of March.  Look through my lists and click on them to learn more about them. Just send me an e-mail with your list of varieties and number of each and I’ll have them ready for you starting in mid-April through mid-May depending on when you’re ready to plant.  kctomatotimes@gmail.com

Pepper, Herb, and Eggplant List

Any variety that has “*” next to it will be in very limited quantities. 

Red or Pink Tomatoes

African Queen *

Amish Canning *

Anna Russian *

Arkansas Traveler *

Blue Ridge Mountain *

Bolseno F1

Boondocks *

Brandywine from Croatia *

Brandywine Sudduth’s Strain

Budenovka Pink *

Crimson Cushion *

Dester’s Amish

Early Girl

Eckert Polish *

Eva Purple Ball

German Giant

German Johnson *

Goose Creek

Grandfather Ashlock *

Grightmire’s Pride *

Lithuanian *

Liz Birt

Marianna’s Peace

Marlowe Charleston 

Marmande Garnier Rouge *

Martin F1 

Mortgage Lifter

Moya *

Mule Team

Nel’s Red *

Nepal

Porter

Prue

Rayskoe Naslazhdenie (Heavenly Delight) *

Red Pear Giant Gran Sasso Strain

Rutgers 

Soldacki

Stump of the World

Wes (also listed in sauce)

Yellow, Orange, White or Bi-Color Tomatoes

Aunt Gertie’s Gold *

Banana (Paste) *

Basinga *

Burraker’s Favorite

Cherokee Gold

Garden Peach *

Hippie Zebra

Jaune Flammee

KBX

Kellogg’s Breakfast

Northern Lights  *

Orange Heart

Pineapple

Pineapple Pig *

Virginia Sweets

Weissbehaarte *

Yoder’s German Yellow

Green When Ripe Tomatoes

Absinthe

Aunt Ruby’s German Green

Beryl Beauty *

Cherokee Green

Dwarf Emerald Giant *

First Mate (Tri-Color) *

Green Moldovan *

Green Zebra

Grub’s Mystery Green

Malachite Box *

Black Tomatoes

Ananas Noir

Bear Creek

Black Brandywine *

Black from Tula

Black Krim

Black Magic

Brad’s Black Heart *

Brazilian Beauty *

Carbon

Cherokee Purple

Chocolate Stripes *

Indian Stripe

JD’s Special C-Tex

Noire Charbonneuse -*

P&J Ellis

Paul Robeson

Sara Black *

Tomatoes for Sauce or Salsas

Amish Paste *

Dix Doights de Naples *

Heidi*

Opalka

Polish Linguisa *

San Marzano

Wes 

Cherry/Grape Tomatoes

Black Cherry

Black Cherry x Quartz

Chocolate Cherry *

Christmas Grape *

Green Doctors

Green Doctors Frosted

Guernsey Island (Black) *

Honey Drop *

Kiss the Sky *

Riesentraube *

Sungold

Sweet 100 Hybrid

Sweet Olive F1

Tigerella

Yellow Pear

Tomatoes Good for Growing in Containers

Aurora *

Better Bush VFN Hybrid

Extreme Bush

Kimberly

New Big Dwarf

The Miracle BPF *

Tiny Tim *

ARTISAN COLLECTION

Blush

Green Tiger

Lucky Tiger

Pink Bumblebee

Pink Tiger

Purple Bumblebee

Sunrise Bumblebee

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