4 November 2008

Growing tomatoes from seed

I picked a swag of tomatoes the other day. They're still green, a few are starting to turn red, but basically they're green tomatoes. That is how I always pick my tomatoes and I believe it makes no difference to ripen them on the vine. Over the years, those that have ripened in the garden have had the same taste as those ripened in the kitchen.

I pick them green to encourage new flowers to form, and therefore increase the yield. We also have a variety of insect pests here and picking green takes the temptation of a juicy ripe tomato away. Picking green gives us more tomatoes. In a perfect world tomatoes would ripen on the vine but my world is far from perfect, so green tomatoes it is. I have to say that I love seeing ripening tomatoes in the kitchen. It gives me the sense that things are growing well, even if they're not.

But lets get back to the beginning and talk about planting tomatoes. While there are many different ways to get the best from those seeds you have, this is how I grow tomatoes.

Prepare a clean and sterilised single cell tray or single small pots. They can be sterilised for this purpose by soaking clean pots or trays in a bucket of water to which a tablespoon of liquid bleach has been added. Allow to soak overnight or for a couple of hours. Rinse under clean water and allow to drain. Fill the trays or pots with a good potting mix, place one seed in each cell or pot and cover with fine seed raising mix. Water gently with a spray bottle or very fine hose spray. Don't let the water be too forceful or it will dislodge the seeds. Set in a protected area out of the sun and water every day.

When the seedlings are about 8 to 10 cm or 3 or 4 inches tall, transfer to a slightly larger pot. Transplant each plant to a new pot but instead of planting up to the level it grew in the previous pot, bury it deeper. Remove the lower leaves and plant a bit deeper than that level. New roots will come from the node you removed the leaves from and you'll have a stronger plant. Place these plants in a sheltered but sunny spot and continue to water them. Being in the sun will allow them to toughen up a bit before being planted in the garden. When you see signs of new growth, it's time to plant them in the garden.

Don't plant your tomatoes where tomatoes, chillies, eggplants or potatoes have been growing in the previous couple of years. This will encourage wilt disease. Prepare your garden bed about two weeks before you plant. Tomatoes like a rich soil so add lots of compost, a little blood and bone or other organic fertiliser and a sprinkle of potash in each plant hole. Be careful not to add to much nitrogen to your bed as that will make the tomato form a lot of green leaves at the expense of the tomatoes. Water this bed well and keep it slightly moist until you plant.

Most tomatoes need some form of growing support so before you plant your tomatoes, select enough stakes for every plant you have and hammer them into the garden - spaced far enough apart so each plant can grow well without touching the next plant. If you live in a humid climate, this is particularly important. You want good air flow around your plants. Once you have your stakes in, plant out your seedlings, again removing the lower leaves and placing them lower than they were growing in the pot. Water in well using a weak solution of seaweed extract, making sure you don't water the foliage. Your aim here is to increase the amount of root on each plant. The more roots you have the better your tomato will grow. Most plants will not have to be tied up at this point. Let them settle in for a week or so and then tie them to their stake.

If you have any soil diseases, you will increase the likelihood of your tomatoes being infected if you water in a way that splashes soil onto the lower leaves. If you have to cut off the lower leaves to avoid this, do it. Consistent watering is essential if you are to avoid Blossom End Rot. This is a calcium deficiency brought on by inconsistent watering that stops the plant drawing necessary calcium from the soil.

Once your tomatoes are planted and watered, mulch heavily with straw and mound the mulch up around the stem of the plant. It is fine to do this and it will encourage more roots to grow from the stem into the mulch. Then it's just a matter of time. If you've added potash to the planting holes, it will encourage flowers to form. Keep watering according to your climate, making sure the plants are well hydrated. For example, we water here every second day. It is better to water deeply to encourage the roots to go deep rather than watering every day which will keep the roots closer to the surface. Once every two weeks, apply a weak solution of seaweed. If you notice the plants aren't growing well, apply a weak solution of an organic nitrogen fertiliser. But if you've planted in a well prepared bed, this probably won't be necessary.

When you tomatoes start growing, look at them every day. You'll probably be watching for the heliothis grub - photo here and birds. If you notice a few grubs it's best to just pick those fruit off and kill the grub. If you know you will have a lot of grubs, you can spray with a bio spray called Dipel. I rarely spray for anything, preferring instead to closely observe what is happening in the garden and removing the offenders early by hand.

As I stated earlier, it's okay to pick green tomatoes, they will riped on your kitchen bench or in a bowl on the kitchen table.

If you want to save seeds for your next crop. Choose the best tomato from lower down on the bush. You want to choose the best fruit because they will be the qualities you will pass on to the next crop. Pick the tomato and let it sit in the shade until it is overripe. Cut the tomato in two and scoop out the seeds with a clean spoon. Place the seeds in a clean glass with three tablespoons of water added. You need the seeds to ferment, so place the glass in a warm window sill and let them sit for a week. You'll notice scum forming when the seeds ferment. That is good. When you're sure the seeds have fermented, pour them into a strainer and wash them thoroughly but gently, removing the flesh surrounding the seeds. Then place on a paper towel or newspaper and allow to dry thoroughly. When they're completely dry - after a day or so, store them in a sealed and labelled container.

And that is how I grow tomatoes - a very important crop here in my home. If you eat a lot of tomatoes and you only have room for one or two plants, let those plants be tomatoes because home grown tomatoes are entirely different to store bought ones.

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