Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Tyranny of the Tomato
a gardening paradigm exposed

Everyone around me is falling like melting icicles in the high February sun to the winter blues so I thought I'd write a Tomato Tuesday post.

When it comes to vegetable gardening, few plants are as seductive as the tomato. We've all heard the stories of converts who out of wimsy decided to pick up a six pack of slicer seedlings or grabbed a patio pot of cherries and exclaimed several harvests later that 'those were the best tomatoes I'd ever had! I'll never eat store brought again!" Once the novice gardener has tasted the sun ripened tomato, they begin to wonder what other flavour surprises are waiting in home grown vegetables. So it begins, a lifetime love affair with edible gardening. If you are near the start of your journey, let me tell you something you probably already knew.

Bowl of garden grown globes of goodness.

Not everything grows like a tomato. Here is an elaboration:

1. Seed Starting:

Tomatoes are started indoors, under lights, 6-8 weeks before last frost or around the beginning of April here.

Other plants need to be started anywhere from autumn for stratification (chilling period) to 10-12 weeks before last frost to the middle of summer. In fact, I am sowing seeds every month of the year. Seed packets should give you an idea of when to start them but be aware that occasionally it will say something like 4-6 weeks before setting out which may not correspond with the frost date. In other words, you might be setting out those plants before frost or a few weeks after. Violas, onions and strawberries are just a few plants that need a much earlier start.

Stores: Seeds are often not available until February. Some varieties are then sold out by mid summer. This is part of the reason I get most of my seed by trade or mail order so I can start it at the right time under the right conditions.

2. Growing Seedlings:

Tomato seeds should be surface sown or lightly buried and kept moist and warm until germination. The seedlings emerge quickly, around the same time. Keep them under strong light either in a southern window, or better yet, under plant lights.

The rule of thumb is that small seeds should not be buried much if at all. The larger the seed, the more you can poke it into the soil but the requirements for germination will vary. Some special germination requirements may include: Light, dark, cold, heat, oscillating temperatures, scarification (scratching the seed coat), fire, etc... Keeping the soil warm will prevent germination of some plants.

Seedlings of many herbs and most wild plants will emerge over several weeks not all at the same time. Parsley is notorious for taking ages to germinate. There are some plants that need to be kept in the nursery bed for years before they will finally show their green heads.

Also, it is unnecessary to start most vegetables inside. Legumes, greens and vining crops can all be started in the ground. I start only very early cropping brassicas, solanums (peppers, tomatoes etc...), celeriac and the odd veggie or new perennial that I am trying to establish.

Stores: Try and get a descent sized amount of soilless mix in January. I was told these aren't available until April in most places. Plan accordingly.

3. Growing Season

As tomatoes are a frost tender perennial, they must be planted after danger of last frost. If there is a surprise cold spell, they should be covered. The first frost in fall will usually finish them off. This gives you a growing season from frost to frost or in Ottawa about 120 days.

However, other plants, such as peas and parsnips, should be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. Some will bolt in hot weather so are sown to mature in the cooler weather of spring and fall such as cauliflower, and many greens. This changes the growing season from snow to snow or from April to November, about 240 days. If you have a polytunnel or coldframe, you can add another two months to that.

Stores: The box stores usually provide all their veggie starts at the same time even if some should have been planted a few weeks ago and if other should not yet be planted for another few weeks.

4. Growing Location

Tomato plants need prime real estate in at least 6 hours of sun per day, in a warm, sheltered spot with medium moisture. Actually, tomatoes can be grown in more droughted situations if warm, moist ground is mulched and they are left to sprawl.

The truth is that there is not a corner of the garden that can't grow edibles with the possible exception of a concrete driveway though I've seen some pretty tenacious dandelions make their homes in the smallest crevices. Lots of vegetables will grow in part or dappled shade, a typical situation in an urban lot. Think greens and understory plants for the most success. You can even try mushrooms in deep shade. Equally, lots of herbs are adapted to dry, hot gardens. Even a wet spot or pond will supply food. If you are lucky enough to have a bunch of cattails growing in clean water, then you have easy access to an important wild edible.

Store: It's hard to find some of the coolest edibles, especially perennial ones.

5. Saving Seeds

Tomato fruits should be gathered when ripe. The seed needs to be cleaned by fermination or a weak bleach solution and then dried very well before storing and labelling. Though you can save from one plant, it is better to save from several of the same variety to preserve genetic diversity.

With the exception of labelling, not all seeds will require the same treatment. Many wild plants with short viability will do better if moist packed or sown immediately. Also, there are different techniques for excluding pests during storage. Weavils can be dealt with by freezing very dry seed for several days.

Also because plants have evolved strategies for dispersing seed such as exploding them out of their pods like Impatiens, we have to diligent about collecting before all the seed has escaped. I know my magenta spreen is ripe when I see the birds pecking at it.

Tomatoes are inbreeders and with the exception of a few oddballs such as currant tomatoes, double flowers and some heritage types, will not cross so your seed will be true.

Other plants can be inbreeders or outbreeders or self incompatible or only have one sex per plant so they require larger populations to produce good seed. Some might produce true seed in one area but not in another because of insect activity. Always err on the side of more plants when saving seed and embrace diversity if you don't want to actively exclude pollen from a different variety.

Also, some plants can only be propogated vegetatively as they don't produce seed or produce seedlings that are very different and perhaps less desirable than their parents. Egyptian onion is propagated by topsets rather than seeds. Many fruits trees are grafted. The top is a desired variety and the rootstock is chosen for its own special characteristics such as being dwarf, hardy or disease resistant. This doesn't mean that you can't grow fruit from seed just that each time will be a surprise. Depending on the fruit type or seed source, it might be quite like the parent or very different.

6. Garden Cleanup

To prevent disease, remove all tomato vines and dropped fruit in the fall. Ruthlessly cull all volunteers in the spring too.

I do know gardeners who let some of their tomato volunteers live (haven't we all just once?). I suppose it would depend on the level of disease you had. Rather than rip out all the plants in the fall, most healthy debris can be left to protect the ground and spread their seeds for next year. You can incorporate it into the soil next year if this is your inclination, plant into it, or topdress with a soil/compost to start beds for small seed that would not be able to struggle through the debris. Leaving some lettuce 'trees' to spread around their seeds gives you a head start on the green season.

7. Edible Gardening

Free from the tyranny of the tomato growing paradigm, you can grow sun phobic, bog friendly, perennial edibles. Start seed in November! Eat weeds! The edible gardening horizon is wide. But don't forget to grow lots of tomatoes too.

Remember this? For those that don't live around here, this is a photo from the Great Snow Year not this year.


Ottawa Gardener admits that the first year she gardened, she started regular shelling peas indoors in February. How has the tomato paradigm affected your gardening life?


Robert said...

I don't know what your climate is like, but I suspect the springs are warmer than ours. If I planted peas and parsnips as soon as I could work the ground (ie now), most of them would rot. Round-seeded peas and the old field peas might survive - I've never tried - but they wouldn't do anything for weeks yet.

Ottawa Gardener said...

Your in the UK right? Yeah, the recommendation is a common one in gardening books - ie, it's not mine but what's normally suggested. In the UK, I could work the ground almost all year which meant for a very different gardening style. Here, they mean when the soil is making the right kind of clumps and yes our springs are warmer when spring actually starts! :)

meemsnyc said...

This is a great write up! Thanks for all the information!

Daphne said...

I guess I knew about gardening growing up so never planted my peas indoors. The funny thing is that I never remember learning anything from my mother about the garden, but I must have learned something. All I really remember is having to weed on occasion and picking strawberries. I remember more about the turkeys and ducks than the garden.