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Gardening 101.6

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Growing tomatoes

Tomatoes are a sort of holy grail to gardeners. Perhaps it’s the colour, the juicy succulent wetness of them, the soft delicacy of the touch, the sweetly acidic aroma – there’s something special there that makes you think they only grow where the summers are long and hot.

So forget it in Eastern Newfoundland, right? Not at all.

A few decades ago, it seemed only people with greenhouses were growing tomatoes, but lately they’ve become more and more common among po’ folks who can’t afford a greenhouse or those, like me, whose several were each blown down in turn by the cursed wind. If you have a greenhouse, you can grow big tomatoes, and lots of them. If you don’t, you’re better off growing a smaller variety, unless you’re content to nurture a plant through a whole summer and get four or five fairly big tomatoes for your trouble.

Growing tomatoes on your deck or in your yard depends mostly on your individual space – how warm, how sunny, how sheltered from the wind. I have a tarp covering my whole deck, and one on the windy end as well. Between those two tarps and the house itself, my deck is fairly sheltered. It faces south, so it gets sunrise to mid-afternoon light and the tarps are made of a plastic-like material that passes a lot of light, so I get some greenhouse effect. I’ve grown tomatoes there for several years now, and I’m happy enough with the results. It varies with the summer weather, of course. Last year, Igor was not nice to my tomatoes.

Pick the right variety

If you want to try it (and I encourage you to), I suggest a small variety, somewhere between the tiny grape tomatoes you see at the supermarket up to plum-sized. With these, you have a fair chance of getting a harvest in the dozens, maybe quite a few dozen. If you want names, someone I know grows one called ‘Tumbler’ on an uncovered deck, but in a sheltered backyard. I always grow ‘Early Cascade’, which are bigger than Tumblers – big enough to slice and put on a sandwich – and very productive plants.

Anyone at a (real) garden centre can advise you on choosing a variety. Don’t get sucked into the promise of turnip-sized tomatoes. There should be a label thingie stuck in the soil of the cell pack. That should give you details on size and requirements for growing.

Plan to buy the plants and transplant into the ground or a pot. Starting from seed takes much longer and you’ll need more luck and a better summer than it looks like we’re headed for as I write this. You can’t see to light a smoke right now, for fog.

Plan on a ten to twelve inch (across the top) pot, and remember a matching saucer. Fill the pot right to the top with good grow mix or potting soil or whatever, and smack it onto the deck a few times to settle the soil. Make a space in it the size of the cell or little pot your plant is in, gently release the tomato seedling from its container, put it into the pot. You can slide the soil ball out by holding the seedling at the base of the stem, but don’t yank. In the pot, preserve the level of where stem meets soil, the same as it was in the container it came in. Put a hand flat on the soil on either side of the stem, give one decent push to ensure good root-to-soil contact and to pack the soil enough to hold your transplant upright. Water. Done.

If you’re planting tomatoes in the ground, give them room to grow. They’ll get surprisingly big. Separate them by at least eighteen inches. Maybe even two feet.

Get out of the way. They’re gonna take off. Well, soon enough.

Apart from locating your plants in the most sheltered, sunny spot possible, there’s little to do besides watering and feeding until the plant is tall enough to need support. Oh, and picking off suckers.

The little suckers!

Watch your plant grow. There will be branches developing off the main stem, much like a tree. Everywhere a branch takes off the main stem, you’ll soon see another branchy looking thing grow from the crotch. That’s a sucker, and they’re to be discouraged. Pluck it off as soon as you see it. If you let it grow, it’ll take up nutrients like all the other growth, but produce no fruit.

Flowers and pollination

Not too long into its life cycle, the plant will start to produce star-shaped yellow flowers in clusters that will look familiar to you if you’ve seen clusters of tomatoes still attached to their stems in the supermarket. When the flowers are fully open, generally facing down, they’re ready to pollinate. If it’s windy, the wind will do that, but if you’ve got them in a sheltered location like I told you to do, it might not. You will increase your pollination rate if you do it yourself.

Sex with plants

Some people use a little artist’s brush or other fancy technique. I follow John Evan’s advice from the organic gardening course he taught eons ago. Slip your fingers under the cluster of flowers, he said, and, you know, just diddle them. Tap and vibrate the cluster of flowers to cause the pollen to transfer from where it was produced on each flower to where it has to go on each flower. If you must, use your body as a shield so onlookers can’t see what you’re up to. Some people have an exaggerated sense of modesty about these things.

The other way to do this is bring your mouth close to each flower and blow a good puff of air directly into it, mimicking the wind. You’ll have to grab the stem of the flower cluster to turn them up to face your mouth, because they generally face downward. Whatever –  it’s your call. Just know that it has to happen or you’ll get fewer or no tomatoes.

Flowering will continue throughout the summer, and while teensy little green tomatoes are developing over here, they’re getting bigger over there, and look, some are already turning pinkish here, and still, up top along the new growth, it’s still flowering.

Plants need support

Meanwhile, before your plant gets too big, you have to slip a tomato cage over it. Tomato plants get quite large, depending on the variety. My Early Cascades get four or five feet high, and a plant that tall weighs quite a bit. The tomato cage is phase one of supporting such a plant. It’s a round cage of stiff wire, narrower at the bottom, widening towards the top. The bottom has three wires sticking down, which you drive down into the soil at least six inches or so, to support the plant when it gets heavy and tipsy. When you set it up, do it carefully so as to not damage foliage. People who have it together put the cage in place as soon as they transplant the little plant. That’s a good idea.

Eventually, however, some plants will outgrow the cage by a long shot, and need even more support. Depending on your situation, you can use a bamboo pole or something like that, with Velcro plant ties or twist ties or string attaching branches or stem here and there. If you have a way of dropping a string from something solid overhead, that works really well. That’s what I do, but I just lucked into that situation. If you use a string, don’t tie it tightly around stem or branches, because as they grow and fatten, the string will strangle them. If you know how to tie a bowline, you’re off to the races. If you don’t, you’re on your own. I tie a loose loop around a stout part of the stem, down low, under a branch, and then use Velcro plant ties to affix stem or branches on the way up.

If you use a stick or pole, just remember that the whole plant may outweigh the pot of soil by some margin, and a stick in a foot of soil is not much of a support for a five-foot plant. If it’s windy, the stick may work loose in the soil, and if it’s really windy, the whole thing may topple over. You may have to improvise by securing the top of the pole to something solid.

Watch the soil for dryness. Like a hawk. On hot days, when the plant is really big, I have to water every day. Huge plant; relatively small pot. Those mothers drink like a fish. Water ‘til you see water in the saucer. Once a week, same procedure, only with water-soluble tomato food. Third number (npK) is the biggest.

Pruning

This is a tip I got from an expert, and it’s worked for me. Tomato plants seem bent on producing phenomenal amounts of foliage. Branches and leaves all over the place. Really thick. At some point in the late summer, it’s time to stop with the foliage and concentrate on ripening fruit. You tell the plant this by pruning off excess branches. Around late August. Use pruning shears, or a razor knife (carefully). Cut the branch right next to where it meets the main stem. Don’t break or tear it off. Cut neatly.

It’s like a haircut. Some here; some there. Try to be uniform. Leave more foliage on branches with tomatoes on them. Pruning allows more light and air into the interior of the plant, where there will likely be clusters of green fruit. Passage of air will decrease the likelihood of fungus infection. And whatever energy was spent in maintaining all that extra foliage, you have now redirected to what’s left, mainly green tomatoes in need of fattening and ripening.

How much to cut? I usually take off a quarter to a third at a time. A week or two later, another quarter or third. By the time it’s getting really fallish, the plant is pretty much stripped of everything except stems and ripening fruit.

When do we eat?

Pick fruit when it looks and feels ripe. There will always be more flowers and small green fruit coming along, and at some point you might decide it’s getting more fallish all the time, and you don’t care for more fruit, you just want to develop what’s there already. And you might figure there isn’t time to develop all those little tomatoes anyways. Feel free to prune off flowers and/or little green tomatoes whenever the mood strikes you. It’s a judgement call.  And a free country.

In my opinion, there’s like a total weight or volume of fruit that the plant will produce. You can take that in a smaller number of larger tomatoes, or a greater number of smaller ones. Within reason, of course, and limited by the variety. But the point is that there will come a time when you’ll think maybe I’ll start cutting flowers off now. And maybe I’ll pluck off that little green one, and that one, and that one, and just concentrate on ripening what’s left. The point is that a tomato plant needs managing.

Bring ‘em inside

Final point. When frost is threatening because we’re that far into fall, take off any leaves left on the plant, and bring it into the basement. The fruit will continue ripening one by one, and you’ll keep eating your own tomatoes. I’ve had them in the basement in the pot of soil, and I’ve also cut the plants at soil level and hung them up from beams. Not much difference.

Whew. Okay. Plant, water, feed, support, pollinate, prune, eat. That should do it.

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