Bringing up baby tomatoes

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Baby tomatoes just a few days after germination.

I’ve grown tomatoes before, and sometimes with great success. The first year that we expanded our garden from its original round shape (cleverly divided into a pentagram) to a 100 square foot rectangle we fertilized heavily with composted horse manure and were rewarded with two tomato bushes that grew so vigorously they overtook their end of the rectangle, reaching a combined height and width of six feet by ten feet, swamping and ultimately killing the nearby cucumbers. (Although the first year we expanded to our current almost 900 square foot plot we didn’t get a single tomato because the soil was so sandy we couldn’t keep the ground moist if we watered an hour a day.) But this is the first year that I have grown tomatoes from seed.

Tomatoes are among the easiest seeds to save (right after legumes) so I got open-pollinated varieties in hopes of saving their seed to replant next year. Open-pollinated plants are non-hybrids and come true to seed, which means what you plant will be the same kind of plant that gave you the seed without any unpleasant surprises. After reading every description of the hundreds available (not hyperbole for once) and narrowing them down to my desired characteristics, I further narrowed my selections down based on the flowery catalog descriptions until I had picked one variety for canning and one variety for fresh use. The canning tomato I picked, Saucy, is a determinate variety, which means that most of the fruit will ripen at the same time, so I can get them all processed in a few massive canning sessions rather than in fits and spurts throughout the season. The slicing tomato I picked, Stupice, is on the small side and indeterminate, which means that it will continue to grow and ripen until frost. I’m planting a lot more canning tomatoes (5) than table tomatoes (2) because most of our tomato use is of the preserved kind (diced, stewed, paste, sauce, dried) and as much as I love a home-grown tomato, I can only consume so many tomato salads.

The advice in my many guidebooks was to start my tomatoes indoors 6-8 weeks prior to the date I’ll be planting them out. Having figured out the most likely last spring frost date for our area (like so) I counted forward two weeks for the date it would be safe to plant them out and then back again 8 weeks to find out when I should sow the seeds. I planted about three times as many as I want to end up with in case some don’t make it. I kept the pots in plastic baggies until they germinated so that I wouldn’t have to water them again and risk floating the seeds right out of the soil.

Everything went swimmingly at first. The seeds germinated right on time and I removed the baggies. The pots are under the plant light in the corner of the dining room and I’ve been leaving the ceiling fan on (lowest setting) almost 24 hours a day because I have read that the lack of a breeze indoors can cause plants to become weak and leggy since they don’t have to work against the wind and that poor air flow can lead to diseases like damping off (the strange name for the second most common killer of seedlings). What I ended up with wasn’t damping off’ it was mold. About 4 weeks into my tomatoes’ short lives the surface of their “soil” began to sprout white mold. One or two seedlings died. I scraped it all off with a fork, but it came right back in a week. (Damn spores.) After a little think I decided that it must be coming from the “soil.” I planted the seeds in reused pots which I washed in hot soapy water, but I also used a soilless planting medium (See why I keep calling it “soil”?) that I’ve had for three years or more in a zip-top bag in the tool shed. Because the bag had been opened and imperfectly resealed it may have become “infected.” So I sort of started over.

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I emptied the last of the soilless planting medium into a microwave-safe bowl, moistened it, and microwaved it to sterility per the instructions of Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. (I had potato bread on the rise and chocolate chip cookies were going to be baked after that and I wasn’t risking either food coming out tasting like dirt.) It steamed for about half an hour after its short nuking. When it had cooled down, I used it to fill a whole new set of carefully washed pots. I pulled up my starts, rinsed all the dirty dirt off their roots, and replanted them into the clean “soil.” Tomatoes can root adventitiously, which means that the little hairs on their stems become roots when they come into contact with moist soil, so I planted them all about half as deep as they were tall. Theoretically, they will grow roots right up to the soil level which will allow them to suck up more moisture and nutrients from the soil. I also put them up on a stack of encyclopedias and boxes to get them closer to the light source, which is another trick that is supposed to prevent legginess. You’d think that putting them as close as 6” away from the light bulb would burn them to a crisp, but apparently having them farther away makes them race up to meet it, growing a spindly little stem that is all quantity and no quality and will eventually collapse.

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All this done, they should thrive with a little luck and if I can resist the urge to overwater. I have been watering them from the bottom – placing the pots in a shallow tray of water until the top of the “soil” feels damp to the touch – and adding the merest trace of fertilizer to that water since the soilless medium has no nutrients whatsoever, but I need to learn to hold off until the soil actually feels dry. Overwatering, my books tell me, is the number one cause of seedling death.

— Amanda

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