Now is a good time to start your tomato plants even though in the northern latitudes it is still to cold for them to grow naturally. I start to grow my seeds in a plug tray or cells. The reason for this is that the ones I use are fairly small so I can grow a lot of seeds in a small space and the other is that once the seedling starts to develop the root grows into the small amount of compost and binds this together. The seeds will need a temperature of 15C or more to get a good start and I just grow these in my kitchen on the windowsill. I do grow them in a propagator but they will grow in a normally heated house.
When the seedling is large enough I then pot this on into an individual plant pot. As I have grown these in a small cell then I just pop this out from the bottom of the tray and plant the whole seedling with the root ball intact. This does not disturb any roots and will not give your tomatoes a check to their growth. Handle the seedling by the leaves or root ball. Never touch the stem as in a developing seedling it is very easy to crush the stem and you end up killing the plant
When growing plants for use in my greenhouse, I always use a new clean plant pot. I do this because I do not want the possibility of introducing disease from an old plant pot into the compost surrounding the root. I will reuse the pots again, but only for plants I will be growing outside. As I only grow about 20 plants in my greenhouse, (tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers), it is not expensive to buy new pots for this small number of plants and it is worth it for the peace of mind in trying to keep my greenhouse disease free.
Once you have potted the seedling up you need to let it develop and grow on and during this period the temperature can be lower. My plants are currently in my greenhouse and the temperature in there is now 34F. I do have my plants in an electric propagator and the soil temperature in this is 46F, but I could just as easily grow them on, on a windowsill in my house. I just think the light is better in the greenhouse.
Before you put your plants in their final position it is better to let them get stressed in their pots and start to think they have problems. They will use up most of the food in the pots you are growing them in and this will trigger their survival instinct. This is to make seeds which will carry on in the future. In other words, it will start to develop tomatoes, well start to flower. This is the best time to plant your tomatoes. You should wait until the first truss, (a set of flowers), starts to set. This happens when you notice your first tiny tomatoes, even as small as a match head. Plant them earlier than this and the plants will just grow bulky at the expense of starting to fruit and fruit is what you grow tomato plants for.
I grow my plants on in large pots, (washed, cleaned and sterilized), which contain a multi purpose compost and I stand these on a bed of coir which I replace every year. Again, I am trying to minimize the possibility of disease in the greenhouse by using everything new every year. I do not do anything special to the plant pots and find the roots grow through the holes in the base and into the coir which acts like a sponge, retaining moisture and nutrients. When planting into pots, if your tomatoes are too long, just plant them deep. Snip off any excess leaves and the stem you bury will put out feeding roots and help develop a better and stronger plant.
I then grow the tomato plant up canes, tying the plants loosely to the cane. I use a natural string for this as if I drop any it will decompose naturally over time. A plastic string will not decompose and you may well be picking this out of your compost for years to come. Eventually your plants will reach the top of the canes and at this time I nip off the growing tip. This stops the plant growing any more and your tomato plant then puts all its energies into developing fruit. I also use special plastic covered metal canes. The reason, I can wash them and wipe them down with a disinfectant to help prevent disease.. I cannot easily do this with a traditional cane.
Watering needs to be carried out properly. Not so much water that the soil becomes waterlogged and not too little so that it dries out. There is no right and wrong answer as to how much water, but just aim for not too much and not too little. It usually depends on the sun. . Too much water and your growing tomatoes run the risk of getting something called blossom end rot. This is where the end of the tomato blackens and the flesh of the tomato rots and dies. The tomato usually continues to develop but there is a large blackish blemish on the end of it which is unsightly. You can cut this off when eating the tomato but it is better to avoid it in the first place. Not enough water should be obvious; your tomato plant will die without sufficient water. If you do find that you have let your tomato plants dry out too much do not soak the plants in loads of water. You need to rewet the soil gradually otherwise you will find that your tomatoes will gorge themselves, take up too much water and split. If a split happens, I harvest the tomatoes run a sharp knife on either side of the split in a v shape to remove the split and then either cook with them or chop and freeze. I will use the frozen tomato in some cooked meal later on such as a tomato soup. I will post a tomato soup recipe later.
One of the other things you need to do is feed your tomatoes. Feeding tomatoes is just as important as feeding yourself. You would not last very long with out food and your tomato plants will not last too long without food. There are loads of different foods you can buy and I have chosen to use a powdered specialist tomato food as this works well with my feeding system but you choose what suits you best. Just remember though to choose a food developed especially for tomato plants as these will contain magnesium which is essential to tomato plant development. They will also contain the other essential nutrients which your tomato plants need. Liquid feed or powdered feed is up to you but just remember to feed your tomato plants.
I am sure I do not need to go into detail about harvesting. Eat your tomatoes when they are ready. Many of my visitors to my house ask me why I grow my own tomatoes when they are readily available in the supermarkets and cheap as well. I just suggest they go into the greenhouse, pick one and eat it before they come back to the house. They never ask again because they know why I bother to grow them after that and I recommend you grow your own tomato plants to get your own harvest.
You can learn more about High Density Gardening and growing tomatoes by checking out www.highdensitygardening.com/home.html which also has free downloadable worksheets on building hotbox compost bins.
Ric Wiley is an internet writer and gardener. His website about High Density Gardening can be found at http://www.highdensitygardening.com/home.html and his latest ebook is High Density Gardening.
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