What do we do now?
The typical time to order seed is in December or January when the seed catalogs come out. It’s a lovely time to do it. A nice winter evening spent looking through the catalogs makes anyone who likes to garden feel better.
Tomatoes are typically grown from starts.
All that means is that people plant the seed early, indoors, to give the plants a head start on the season.
We do it for several reasons.
One, tomatoes benefit from being transplanted. Unlike many other vegetables, tomatoes can grow roots all along their stems, anywhere. Ever notice those little white roots poking out near the soil line?
Two, tomatoes have a way of petering out and dying very dead in the heat of August. This can vary a bit depending on where you live, but I’m speaking mostly about Kentucky.
Because of this tendency, it is better to get a head start on the season. That means more tomatoes in the end.
Third, little baby tomato plants are little.
See these squash seedlings? See how big they are? Notice the one in the foreground? It has one true leaf (along with the two seed leaves) and has grown enormously from when it sprouted, in a very short period of time.
If you planted that seed directly in the ground, right in the garden, which is what I do, it’s easy to see when it comes up (put a little stake beside it though at first), and it has little trouble pushing the garden soil out of the way as it emerges.
In contrast, here are some tomato seedlings. The flat is the type I use. Those seedlings have two true leaves, which means that they are not newly sprouted. They’ve been up for several days. They are miniscule compared with the squash seedlings.
I have experimented with growing tomato plants by planting the seed right in the ground and not bothering with the whole transplanting thing. I did it mostly because I had a little bit of extra space, a couple of extra stakes and hell, why not? I also wanted to see if it made any difference.
In the first place, it’s hard to find those seedlings in the ground. You think you’re going to know where you planted them, and I marked the place carefully, but I still had trouble. In addition, the organic matter we’d added to the garden meant that our garden soil is sort of rough. There are bits of bark and leaves and stuff like that and for a baby seedling, those are huge things to push out of the way. They struggled.
It was hard to keep them watered properly and if tomato seedlings go dry, they die rapidly. I found myself watering the damn things several times a day, which is way more trouble than keeping a flat damp.
And finally, in spite of the fact that those plants didn’t have to undergo transplantation, they did not do as well or grow as quickly as the ones we’d planted as started plants.
At this point, somebody will tell me about how a tomato plant came up in their compost bin (everyone with a compost bin has probably had this happen) and it was a wonderful tomato plant and grew like crazy. I know that. It’s happened to us. But it was the one tomato that made it out of all the ones you put in the compost bin. It was Super Tomato. All your tomatoes are not going to be Super Tomato.
The moral of the story?
Start the plants indoors well ahead of the season. In this area, that means mid-March at the latest. If they get too big for those little cells in that flat, and they can’t go outside in the ground yet, well, that means you have to transplant them into larger containers.
And when it comes to growing seeds indoors, you need light.
I don’t mean a little light.
I don’t mean put the flat on the window sill and kiss it.
I mean light.
Here’s my lighting setup in our basement. There are four four-foot fluorescent fixtures there. They are fastened to the joists overhead with chains. The cording you see there is where each one is plugged into a power strip so that when it’s in use, I can turn them on and off with a broom handle and I don’t have to get on a ladder.
In the background is our milk refrigerator and to the left of it is one of our chest freezers.
Those fixtures are raised right now, above head level, because they are not in use, but when I use them, we lower them with the chains. I put a long portable table underneath them, and the flats of seedlings sit there. The lights in the beginning at about 1 inch above the soil, no more than two inches.
You read that right.
Seedlings don’t need light until they sprout, but boy golly when they do, they will reach for it rapidly and if you don’t provide it, you get this.
Tomatoes are on the right. Not enough light. The stems just get longer and longer, and this can happen practically overnight.
As the seedlings grow, I raise the light to keep it about an inch above them, perhaps a little higher as they get bigger.
I suspect this business of not providing enough light is the number one mistake made by people new to gardening who are trying to grow starts indoors. If you can’t give them enough light, just go buy seedlings at the nursery. I learned this the hard way. There is nothing I haven’t tried.
Once the weather has moderated enough to start putting the little darlings outside, you have to do it in stages. Not only is there going to be a temperature change; no matter how good my lighting is, they are going to experience light like they cannot imagine, and they are also going to have to contend with air movement (breezes).
So I put them out on the porch, not in direct sunlight, for about an hour the first day. And then for a couple of hours the second day. And so it goes until they are outside all the time.
And then graduation day occurs.
This is our tomato garden. It’s our smaller garden area. My guess is that it’s about 20 feet across by 40 feet in length. The building to the left is the garage. The one straight ahead is our wood shed.
Those are onions in the foreground. They go in the ground early.
This is not this year. We aren’t growing a garden this year because we bit off more than we could chew with all the remodeling we’ve done and we’re old and retired and we don’t have to work ourselves to death.
Anyway, each of those stakes represents a tomato plant. They are babies. You can’t see them very well, but they are there.
We always drive all the stakes into the ground before planting the plants because we’ve killed a plant or two trying to drive in a stake later.
I was trying to count the stakes across, and can’t, but I believe that there are five stakes in each row and if I remember correctly, there were ten rows. Maybe. Something like that. Approximately 50 plants.
In our family, I am the plant crowder. Dave is the more sensible person and spreads stuff out. He also plants straight rows and pulls a line and everything is neat. I don’t bother and have rows that are slanted and curved and it drives him nuts.
But when it comes to crowding, don’t be me. Be Dave.
Tomatoes need to go at least three feet apart in all directions.
Read that again.
Dave likes to have them three feet apart in rows that are four feet apart, so we have some room to get down the rows and don’t have to crawl through foliage.
We have planted 75 plants in that same space and before the season was over, Dave made me promise to never do that again. It was too many plants for the area.
Tomatoes come in two main categories: determinate and indeterminate.
Those are fancy words, but it’s really pretty simple.
Determinate tomatoes grow to a particular height and size and quit growing, sort of like people do. Once they get all grown up, they set all their fruit, ripen it pretty much all at once, and then die deader than a doornail.
Determinate tomatoes grow well in containers because you know how big they’re going to get. They are nice if you’re canning and want two bushels of tomatoes all at once.
Indeterminate tomatoes are more like vines. They just grow and grow and grow and who knows when they quit. And all along that stem that gets longer and longer and that plant that gets bushier and bushier, there are more and more tomatoes being formed, right up until frost finally kills them (if the August heat doesn’t do them in first).
I grow indeterminates because we have plenty of space.
So, if you have a determinate tomato and you know it’s one of those itty bitty “bush” tomatoes, you can put them a bit closer together. “A bit” means two feet apart, maybe, instead of three.
It’s all about roots.
I don’t want to swipe that person’s photos but I want you to see them. Note the little roots forming along the stem of the seedling and notice what they are talking about, planting the plant right on up and choking it (you can’t do that with most other plants, but you can and should with tomatoes).
More importantly, though, look at the roots.
See how they have been crammed into the container? See how they are going around and around in the circle? They are looking for space to spread out.
That’s what they’ll do underground: spread out.
If a tomato plant is four feet tall and two feet wide, then there are roots that you cannot see that are about four feet deep and two feet wide. Yes, they are tiny feeder roots and yes, if you pull up the plant, you won’t see four feet of roots stringing along because they will break off, but they are there nonetheless.
And if you put the next tomato plant one foot away, see what is going to happen?
Not only does the plant get crowded above ground (which makes it more difficult for pollinators to get to the flowers, but also means that air flow is restricted and all kinds of nasty diseases flourish in those conditions), it gets crowded below ground and competes with all its neighbors for nutrients and water.
Spread plants out.
This applies to everything you put in a garden. Spread them out. Thin them. Be ruthless. Give them space. You will get more produce, bigger produce and healthier plants as a result.
If you don’t, be ready to feed the hell out of them and water them a lot.
So, how many tomato plants can you grow in a space that’s, say, five feet by twelve feet?
Maybe six plants.