Solanum lycopersicum, Tomatoes

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Posted by John Minton | Posted in Plants | Last Updated March 3, 2014

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Red Tomatoes

Growing Tomatoes is one of the most common and rewarding plants to grow in a home garden. Until you have some home grown Tomatoes, you simply have not had a real Tomato. My favorite Tomatoes are the Yellow Pear Tomatoes, Cherry Tomatoes, Roma Tomatoes and the big and juicy Beefsteak Tomatoes! These are safe to start with if you aren’t sure what you are after – they are all about the same to grow and all have varying flavors and fruit sizes!

Beefsteak Tomatoes

You can start Tomatoes in doors as early as January and as late as May, but you want to start your Tomatoes sooner rather than later to increase your harvest over the season! It doesn’t take much to grow Tomatoes indoors, you’ll need:

  • A place to grow (a laundry room or empty bed room)
  • A grow light (at least 200watts).
  • Seed trays (Little 1 or 2 inch peat moss pots, about 30 pots in a tray)
  • Soil (If you can, compost mixed with dirt from the backyard is excellent! wood chips in store bought soils cause me problems some times.)
  • Seeds
  • Preferably some sort of watering device that provides a mist.

This year I will be growing a simple salsa garden, which includes Tomatoes, Jalapenos, Onion, Cilantro, Garlic, Tomatillo and Lemon! I don’t like the store bought salsa’s too much, they taste strange to me, but if you can imagine a nice bowl of fresh Pico De Gallo (say from Chevy ‘s) that’s what I like! Although salsa needs to taste good it isn’t just about flavor, it has to smell right, and finally it has to look good! It’s the color of the salsa that brings us back to Tomatoes: with so many different colors to choose from, we have a good reason to plant a few different varieties of Tomato. Yellows and Reds look nice together, I like to use the Yellow Pear Tomatoes for their color and their sweet taste.

Roma TomatoesI use seed trays that hold about 30 plants each, and a 400watt grow light attached to the ceiling (make sure to screw it into a stud and not just the sheetrock!). I have limited room and I’m not allowed to attach anything to the ceiling, so I attached my light to an old CD rack, the problem is the light comes from the side instead of straight above the plants, so seedlings grow towards the light and end up laying on their sides, they need to be turned 180 degrees each day to keep them off the ground. If you have light coming from the side, or notice your seedlings growing to one side make sure to turn them! I can start around 9 trays of seeds – that’s some 270 seedlings, but I grow more than Tomatoes (like the Peppers and stuff for salsa). I’ll do about 2 or 3 trays of Tomatoes this year (I expect some seedlings not to make it, it’s better to have extra than not enough!). I run the light on a timer that starts at 6am every morning. I shut it off in the middle of the day since some light comes through the windows, then I turn it back on around 5 when the sun dies down and I’m home from work. I turn it off again around 10 pm. I water in the mornings because the heat from the light causes water to evaporate and increases the humidity in my tiny laundry room – so far this has done WONDERS for the volunteer Tomato plant that sprang up and I am certain this would do good for the peppers too. A few times a week I water at night too just for the sake of keeping the humidity up!

Tomato SeedlingsFill your seed tray(s) with soil. Plant your Tomato seeds. I usually only plant one seed per pot, but if you like, you can plant 2 seeds per pot in case one of the seeds doesn’t grow. You may have to thin them out carefully after they germinate. Water in your seeds and keep in a warm place. You can use warming mats (usually they heat around 80-85°F), or a room in the house that’s heated – I try to keep the temperature at least 64 degrees in my house – but the laundry room where I grow is nearly 70°F because of the grow light. You might even try a heater in a room or makeshift green house, but be careful, you can burn or dry out the seedlings very easily with a heater! Do not point the heater directly at the plants, it’s best to put it in the room in a corner away from the plants so as to just keep the room warm.  Keep the Tomato seedlings warm and watered until it’s time to put them outside! Do not let them sit in old water as this can peat moss pots or the soil to rot, and it will ruin the Tomato plants roots. If their is standing water you can dump it, or find a way to keep it off the bottom of the plants / pots. If this is an issue for you, perhaps you could try finding a way to get the water exposed to the light and use it for adding more humidity to the air.

Tomato SeedlingsYou’ve seen someone plant Tomatoes in a pot, and they grow these huge plants with great looking fruit, yet you planted in the ground – even added manure and compost – and are having a hard time competing with the potted plants. The answer isn’t in the soil, it’s the soil temperature. The ground takes a lot of sun light to heat it up, and at night not only do cooler ambient temperatures take away from soil heat but deeper within the earth the temperatures are consistently cooler. If your soil does not have full sun, even before you plant, you may have a small issue. The potted plants, being above the ground, get heated up all day. At night it gets cold out, but air is a poor conductor of heat, and so the potted plant doesn’t loose a lot of heat. It is important for the Tomatoes’ soil temperature to be warmer in the day and cooler at night, this daily cycle stimulates the plants fruit production and can be as important as soil nutrients! If you don’t have the right ground to plant, you can always use pots! Black pots are better as they absorb and retain more heat from the sun!

I once read a study that claimed mature Tomato plants flower, fruit and pollination production is highly dependent on cooler ambient night time temperatures. It also effects the size, quality and taste of the fruit. The temperatures of the air should be warmer in the day, and cooler at night, just like the soil. Having a heated green house during fruit production could be extremely counter productive. Night time temps around 50 should be quite alright. Though I have not yet the ability to study this further myself, it is something to take into consideration when planning your Tomatoes. I will be persuing this further and I will share what I find!

Also, for greenhouse growers, with cooler temperatures your humidity will start to condense, and as night comes in the humidity can condense on the leaves of your plants. This can cause mold or rot problems. Tomatoes will suffer from this too. The trick is to make sure you open your greenhouse and let it breathe at the end of the day before is get’s too cold – you want the humidity to escape, which will bring some heat with it, but the warmth of the soil will bring some heat back and help keep ambient temperatures warm. Then again, if it’s warm outside at night then there may not be a need to ever close the greenhouse!

Tobacco HornwormWhen your Tomato plants are at least 3 inches tall, you can move them outside, uncovered into a semi sunny spot for about a week to get them used to the heat of the sun, you can expect to water at least twice a day. The Tomato plants could very well dry up which could ruin them, so sufficient water is very important. After they are accustom to the outside you can start planting a few at a time for a couple days, see how they do, and if they are surviving, go ahead and plant the rest!

Now, watering is good for Tomatoes because they need it, obviously. BUT your water could be doing some harm that, if you found a way around it, could really increase your fruit production! First, your water from the tap is cold, and it will take heat out of the soil. This can be a problem, like I mentioned above, soil temperature are very important. Second, tap water contains chlorine.

What’s wrong with Chlorine
In nature, when it rains in the Winter months, the water hits the ground and all kinds of microbiology, like bacteria, yeast & fungus, starts to come alive. These micro-organisms eat organic materials that are not fully rotted and produce many of the essential nutrients that plants need. With wine making, it’s very similar, except we use very specific known types of yeast that produce alcohol as well as other things that give wine its flavor. When we add compost to our soil, we aren’t just adding nutrients, we are adding food for the micro-organisms that further break down the compost and provide the plants with the food they need. Chlorine is used to kill micro-organisms living in our water. If we add that to our soil, we kill the microbiology that are feeding our plants!

There isn’t very many options for most people to get around this. I don’t like spending money at all – it kind of defeats the purpose of gardening in some sense. I mean, if I had the money, why not just buy food from the store, right? But there are a few options you may have access to that can help.

  • Use creek water or NID water, if available. NID water is from local lakes, rivers and canals and is chlorine free! This is your best choice for good garden / farm water!
  • If you already have a whole house water filter you should be good to go!
  • Brita filter, boiling water, placing water in a clear container in the sun for a few hours….tedious!
  • You can buy garden water filters that attach to hoses, or sprinkler systems.

If you are interested in finding a garden chlorine filter, Amazon has some that range from around $30 up to $100. Checkout chlorine filters on Amazon.

Tomato Horn Worm LarveIf you can’t do any of these, it’s OK. You can still grow Tomatoes with chlorinated water like I did last year, but keep it in the back of your mind that you might be able to get a better harvest without chlorinated water!

Weather you fertilize or use compost or manure, Tomatoes need to get their Nitrogen! I like chicken Manure, it’s what my Great grandparents used, and it’s what my grandparents use! It will add nitrogen and other essential nutrients to your soil upon being broken down by microbiology. Most people just want to plant Tomatoes and not get to in depth with science stuff, but there are a few things to keep an eye out for:

  • Too many yellow leaves means you need to add iron to your soil, this is a vital nutrient to most plants. Most chicken feed is high in zinc, iron and copper, and therefore is found in their manure!
  • Watch out for Tomato worms, sometimes called horn worms. There are few different variety of these guys, but this matters little. They eat Tomato leaves, stems, and fruit. They live in the dirt until about Tomato season, they crawl out of the ground and can destroy your entire Tomato crops. I don’t like to spray my plants, so I inspect my plants daily for signs of these critters. I pretty much just look for eaten leaves. If you have them will notice that they like the new growth, the baby leaves, more than anything else. If you see newly eaten leaves, start there and follow the branches back. Earlier in the day they can be found munching away, later towards 5pm or so they can be found along a branch or stem just chilling. My grandfather looks for green or black droppings and usually the worms are right above them. When you find them just pull them off, and either feed them to your pet snake, lizard, or chickens! I often smash them under my heel. If you don’t kill them they will find their way back to your garden!  Before maturity still as caterpillars they lay little white eggs which they typically carry around on their body, sometime later they turn into moths. If you have many birds in your garden, they may very well be the best natural defense against these guys!
  • Trimming your Tomato plants is very important! Remove lower leaves that touch the ground, they can rot or get disease that can cause trouble to the whole plant. You should remove lower leaves and branches that aren’t out getting sunlight because they take energy from the plant that could otherwise go to fruit bearing branches.
  • If your leaves are drooping or saggy, you should check for over watering, or more likely under watering. Plants without enough water have hard time because much of the time the leaves die and they have to grow new leaves to continue where it left off. Make sure the soil is damp a couple inches in, but not muddy or anything like that, and make sure it’s not dry.
  • Encourage bees and other insects to visit your Tomatoes to pollinate to the flowers. Without pollination you get no fruit! Most Tomatoes can self pollinate, meaning, the same plant can pollinate it’s own flowers provided it has at least 2 flowers. In a sense, Tomatoes are A-sexual. When To Plant.Com has some tips on pollinating Tomatoes.
  • Spiders, lizards, snakes, praying mantis and predatory insects are beneficial and help remove unwanted insects that could harm your plants.
  • Keep dirt from splashing on your Tomato plants the best you can, soil is the source of disease for plants. Normally this isn’t an issue, but when we water our plants the soil splashes onto the leaves and that is what causes most disease. You can help prevent this by placing mulch on your garden beds. Do not mix any kind of wood chips or anything into the soil as this can suck up nitrogen in the wood decomposition process. But place some cedar or red wood bark or chips on top of the soil. Any kind of woods chips work, though redwood not only smell awesome but resist breaking down and can be used for more than one year. Also, mulching helps keep soil insulated and helps keep water from evaporating, so it looses heat slower at night and you can water less often!

I think that about raps up growing Tomatoes. There isn’t much to it, but there are a number of things that could go wrong. Start seeds indoors with proper heat and a good light source. And grow them outside with good water, chicken manure, pruning as needed, watching out for those pesky tomato worms and mulching! Enjoy those Tomatoes!

And for those who are interested in my salsa recipe, I play it by ear so it’s nothing exact, just make it to taste:

  • 5 lbs of my favorite Tomatoes
  • 1 large Jalapeno pepper
  • 3 or 4 large bunches of Cilantro
  • 1 Clove of Garlic
  • 1 large purple Onion
  • 1 Lemon worth of juice (DO NOT buy store bought lemon juice, it’s soo much better with a real lemon fresh squeezed!)

Chop all ingredients and mix together in a large mixing bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and about 20-30 ounces of Valentina Salsa Picante. Mix it all together, adjust to taste. Should serves 4-6 people.

Valentina Salsa PicanteThe Valentina Salsa Picante sauce is about $1 for a large bottle of it. It’s cheap and it really makes the Salsa come to life!

Share your favorite home made Salsa Recipes  in the comments!





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