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Today apparently a reader found this blog by typing the question “tomato shoots have come up now what?”  into a search engine.  It’s a really good question, so I’ll answer it as a follow-up to my Little Green Shoots post.  My knowledge on planting tomatoes comes from learning from my grandfather, from reading, and from my own experience.  The summer that my grandparents had to give up their place, Granddaddy planted his tomatoes in April and then hurt his back in early May.  By early June, my grandparents were living out of state. I did the last clean-up on the house in late August.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Despite months of complete neglect, Granddaddy’s tomato plants were all full of big, juicy, ripe tomatoes, some of the biggest, most flavorful I’ve ever seen.  I’ve included some of his techniques here.

Once you’ve successfully started tomato plants, you’ll need to make sure that they have three–okay, maybe four–things:  strong light, room to grow, and adequate water (but not too much!).  They also need wind to make them strong.

Let’s start with your light source. If you live in a warmer climate (so that the temperatures are at least 70 degrees F during the day), you can put your seedlings first in dappled sunlight and then gradually in full sunlight during the day.  If your climate is a bit cooler, you’ll either need grow lights or a greenhouse or grow tent.  Grow lights should be full spectrum lights designed specifically for growing plants, and you need to make sure that the light source is no more than about 2 inches from the tops of the plants.  Otherwise the seedlings will be leggy–tall and spindly.  Grow tents or a greenhouses should be warm–around 75 to 80 degrees F but not much warmer than 90 degrees F–and should have southern exposure.

When I say tomatoes need room to grow, I mean their roots.  Tomatoes rely on big root systems to feed lots of fruits at once with lots of liquified nutrients.  The root system helps them do that.  As soon as your tomatoes get their real leaves (the second pair of leaves), plant them in a bigger container–at least the size of a pint milk carton.  I use old plant pots I got with nursery plants, plastic cups with holes cut in the bottom:  you name it.  If you can drain it, you can use it.  And every year I end up giving some plants more room than others.  The ones with more room always grow better.

Seedlings need constant but light moisture.  Too much water and you’ll get damping off, where the stem shrinks and withers and the seedling dies.  Too little water and, of course, the seedling will die.  Always water from the bottom to avoid leaf problems. I use old salad containers for my saucers.  Seedlings have everything they need to start, so you only need a tiny bit of light fertilizing (like fish emulsion) every two weeks or so after your seedlings are a few weeks old.  If you are using a potting soil with fertilizer already included (yes, you can get organic mixes this way), you won’t even need to add fertilizer with water.  Over-fertilizing can also kill your plants.

The only problem with using grow tents or green houses for seedlings is wind.  A light breeze pushing on the stem will help it grow sturdier.  If you don’t have wind available, make some using a fan.

What if you do get spindly, leggy seedlings?  Re-pot them deeper.  Tomatoes and other nightshade plants like peppers and eggplants have a remarkable ability to grow extra roots along their stem.  Some plants suffocate if you plant them deeper than they were originally, but not tomatoes and their close cousins.  Just be sure to gently strip off any leaves that will be under soil, as un-stripped leaves can rot and kill the plant ultimately.

Finally, when your daytime temperatures are in the 70s and nighttime temperatures are in the 50s, you can plant out your seedlings.  If you are able to plant now and live in warm area, by all means plant!  Dig a very deep hole–at least eighteen inches–and fill it with peat, organic compost, manure, blood and bone meal, and soil. (Your county extension agent most likely offers free soil analysis; he or she can tell you specifically what you need to add.) Now strip off all of the leaves except the top two splits of leaves. Plant your tomato so that only the top two splits of leaves are showing and everything else is underground.  Your plant will develop a very strong root system that will let it survive dry spells without your watering much.  Fashion a collar to go 2 inches above and 2 inches below the soil around the plant.  This collar will protect against cut worms. (I use half-gallon paper milk cartons cut in half.) Next, plant a marigold or two next to each tomato plant. Marigolds secrete a substance that confuses tomato parasites like cut worms–and the flowers are pretty!

Happy harvesting!

Do you have favorite methods for planting tomatoes?  Share!  Do you have questions?  Feel free to ask them here, and I’ll do my best to answer.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  Short excerpts with full URL and attribution to Ozarkhomesteader are welcome. Please ask for permission to use photographs.

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As each new tomato seedling pushes its tiny head through the soil and unfurls its tiny leaves, I rejoice in the thought of eating tomatoes from the plant it will become.  Sometimes people ask me how I choose what tomatoes to grow.  I choose varieties based on taste, texture, and need.  You may like certain varieties because you have children in your family, and the colors or flavors appeal to them.  Maybe you’re selected tomatoes with higher nutrient contents–yes, some are bred for their health attributes!  I’ve grown as many as twenty-six varieties in one season, trying to compare flavors and meet our needs for fresh tomatoes as well as canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, juice, marinara, and salsa.

I think it’s safe to say that tomatoes fall into four basic categories:  (1) cherry, (2) fresh eating, (3) paste or Roma, and (4) drying.  The first two categories tend to be juicy.  The latter two tend to have more flesh and less juice and therefore need less processing to turn into sauce or other non-perishable products.  Tomatoes can also be hybrids (for which you have to buy seed each year) or open-pollinated (for which you can save seed from year to year yourself).  Some tomatoes are heirlooms, meaning they’ve been around for at least fifty years.  Tomatoes are also classified as determinate (growing in a bush) or indeterminate (continuing to grow in vines that must be trained, or else they’ll turn into something from “Little Shop of Horrors”).  I’ll list a few of my favorites here, according to the first four categories I gave.

Cherry Tomatoes

I’m a fan of traditional red cherry tomatoes.  I’ve tried as many as seven different colors at one time, and I confess that some of the black cherry tomatoes and orange cherry tomatoes just don’t grow that well or taste that good to me.  Instead, I opt for a traditional variety like Camp Joy, which produces large cherries in clusters like grapes.

Fresh Eating Full-Sized Tomatoes

I can’t resist having tomatoes as early as possible, so often I plant one or two Early Girls or Fourth of July tomatoes.  These are round, red tomatoes in the size of a tennis ball:  nothing spectacular except for being ready to eat in June in the Ozarks.  Ready a little later are Arkansas travelers.  I’ve started growing Arkansas travelers since I moved to Arkansas.  These are a medium-sized pink tomato with a good flavor and beautiful color in the garden.

My Georgia grandfather planted Better Boys, so to me these mid and late season beefsteak (bigger) tomatoes always taste like tomatoes ought to taste.  I usually plant a half dozen.

I like color in the garden, and after experimenting with lots of tomatoes that aren’t strictly red, I’ve found some favorites.  I always plant a few Lemon Boys (and sometimes Jubilee) tomatoes to add that zingy yellow to summer salads.  Yellow tomatoes tend to be lower in acid than red tomatoes, so I feed them to friends and relatives who don’t like reds so much either.  Yellow tomatoes like these are also nice paired with delicate fish.

Mr. Stripey is a fun hybrid with carnival stripes of red and yellow.  The tomatoes are big, and the color is stunning.  The flavor is pretty darn good too.  I love to layer slices of yellows, reds, and Mr. Stripey in fresh tomato salads.  One Mr. Stripey is enough for my garden.

Other colored tomatoes I’ve tried include Cherokee Purple, Prudence Purple, and Black Krim.  I liked the rich flavor of all of them, but so did the stink bugs in my garden, and often the top and bottom of the tomatoes would ripen at different times.  Furthermore, all three of these tomatoes had a really high proportion of seeds to flesh.  Therefore, I limit them in my garden–and I can almost guarantee that I’ll get protests in the comments for saying that.

Paste Tomatoes (also known  as Roma or sauce tomatoes)

Since we want tomatoes for sauce, I grow a lot of paste tomatoes.  For this year, I selected Amish paste, Pompeii, San Marzano, and Opalka.  Amish pastes are consistent.  They are not terribly exciting, but they have an oblong shape that’s easy to peel and process, and they are fairly sturdy.  The others have better flavor (in my opinion) but less disease resistance and somewhat less consistent shapes, making processing a bit more difficult.

Sun-Drying Tomatoes

Last year I started to grow sun-drying tomatoes for the first time.  Between a storm that wreaked havoc on my seedlings and the blight I referenced in a previous blog post, I did not get any tomatoes.  This year I’m planting Principe Borghese again.  I’ll let you know the results.  I can tell you this:  the average vegetable drier will burn out its motor before it dries seven trays of standard tomatoes (and, yes, I learned the hard way).  If you want home-grown sun-dried tomatoes, grow tomatoes that are meant to be dried.

What are your favorite tomato varieties?  Do you have more success growing certain varieties?  Which variety do you like best for fresh eating?  Which do you like best for sauces and salsas?  Are you interested in seed and plant sources for some of the varieties I grow?  Let me know in the comments section.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  Short excerpts with full URL and attribution 
to Ozarkhomesteader are welcome.

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Although family needs out of town prevented me from starting my tomato seeds in early January like I’d hoped, a seed-starting heat mat still got my seedlings going pretty fast this week.  I planted on Monday.  By Thursday I had Camp Joy seedlings, and within hours several other varieties started poking their pretty green heads out of the seed-starting mix.

I was absolutely determined to have no nursery-purchased plants this year, after the nightmare of the Bonnie plants last year.  In case you missed the news (and don’t want to click the link), a major nursery supplier, Bonnie Plants in Alabama, shipped thousands and thousands of plants that had been contaminated with blight (the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine).  Given the extraordinarily wet weather last summer, the blight spread like a wildfire through gardens in the eastern half of the US as well as places a bit further west like Arkansas.  We only had a few Bonnie plants, but that was enough to wipe out our entire tomato planting.  Blight is especially scary for organic growers because organic controls do not work that well on blight, and blight can remain in the soil for years to come.  Your best bet is to abandon the land for tomato growing and any other nightshade plants (potatoes, eggplants ) for several years.

You can also avoid contamination in the first place by starting your own seedlings at home, using a seedling heat mat (if you keep your house as cold in the winter as we do), grow lights, and mini-greenhouses, like shown in these links to Burpee products.  I’m not advocating that you buy all of these things from Burpee, by the way.  My seedling heat mat did come from Burpee, but the rest of my growing kit came from the hardware store.  I reuse my starter pots every year, taking time to thoroughly clean them, including using bleach. Although I ordinarily do not use bleach, I do use it to disinfect all of my garden pots.  Getting seed-starting equipment will set you back a bit, but your cost of producing plants from that point forward will be much less expensive, and you’ll be able to grow greater variety.  That makes starting seeds at home frugal in the long run.

Have you started your seedlings and aren’t sure what to do next?  Read here for my next installment in growing tomatoes.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  Short excerpts with a full link to this site 
and attribution to Ozarkhomesteader are welcome.  Please contact me for 
permission to use photographs.

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Okay, I’ll admit it.  When I have a hankering for a  summer-fresh tomato in December, it can be hard sticking to a pledge to eating locally and in season.  Darn those June photos of tomatoes!

I reassure myself two ways.  First, I know that any tomato I buy anywhere near here in December will taste nothing like home-grown summer tomatoes. Second, it’s time to start tomato seed.  By mid-February, I’ll be putting plants in the ground, protected by Wall-o-waters, and by June (or maybe late May?!?), I’ll be picking tomatoes.

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