Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Starting Tomato Seeds Inside and Transplanting Tips (with "Easy Chili" recipe)

            I started my tomato seeds yesterday – February 28.  The last frost date for my zone 5 is about May 10th.  So that means I am starting my seeds about 10 weeks early, even though the tomato packet says to start them about 6-8 weeks before last frost date.  I started them 10 weeks early last year and ended up with huge transplants that produced tomatoes 2 weeks earlier than I ever got them - July 14th.  So I figured, "Why not do it again!" 

            [The first ones to produce – for the second year in a row - were Summer Snack, Red Currant, and Early Treat.  But I am not doing Red Currant again this year.  The fruit is so small that it’s more work to pick them than they’re worth.  And the variety that was the first one to get baby green tomatoes was Lunchmate.]


            Here is the list of tomato plants I am trying this year:

            Grape/Cherry type – Black Cherry, Summer Snack, Chadwick Cherry, Tigerella
(about the size of a golf-ball), Super Sweet 100

            Early Ones – Early Treat, Good ‘N Early, Early Girl

            Slicers – Cherokee Purple, Big Boy, Beefsteak, Orange Slice, Box Car Willie

            And I am trying a San Marzano paste-type in a half-barrel.  

            (My co-gardener is growing some of these, plus Big Pink.  So I will be able to see how that one grows in my garden by looking at her plants.)

            I have been trying different varieties every year to find the most reliable ones for my area and garden, which only gets about 5-6 hours of sun.  (Sad!)  I would prefer to grow the large heirlooms, but I don’t get enough sun for that.  So I need to grow smaller, quicker ones (less than 80 days) and the hybrids which are more reliable than heirlooms. 
            So far, my list of “most reliable tomatoes” or “favorite ones” includes Black Cherry, Summer Snack, Juliet, Tigerella, Bradley, Early Girl, Celebrity, Caspian Pink, possibly Early Treat, possibly Brandymaster, Bistro, Beefsteak
            And I really love the flavor of Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Black Krim.  So I occasionally try to grow one of those in the sunniest spot I have.


Seed Starting:
My preferred method of starting tomato seedlings indoors is this:

            1.  Poke holes in the bottom of a clear plastic cup.

            2.  Fill cup about halfway with reconstituted coconut fiber.  These are sold in dry, condensed blocks.  (I might mix in a little seed-starting mix, too.) 

            3.  Plant 3 tomato seeds per cup, writing the variety on the outside of the cup in permanent marker.

            4.  Put cups on a tray (with some old plastic grocery bags nestled between them to keep them from tipping) and cover with plastic wrap to hold in the moisture until they sprout.  Set these trays in a small greenhouse by a window. 

            5.  Once they sprout, take off the plastic wrap and turn on the grow lights.

            6.  As the tomato plants get taller, add more of the coconut fiber/seed-starting soil.

            7.  Rotate the trays so that they all get some sun from the window and some light from the grow lights

            8.  Gently brush the plants periodically with my hand (and gently shake the trays back and forth when rotating them) to make the stems nice and strong.  This mimics the effect of the wind if they were planted outside.  Failing to do this will lead to weak, brittle stems.

            9.  They can sit in these cups for up to 10 weeks.  (But I planted my father-in-law’s garden 12 weeks after I started the tomatoes inside, and they did fine.  But they were huge and were languishing near the end, so they needed to be fed.)  

            10.  If – when they get big -- they start to look a little starved, pale, or weak (especially those started really early), add a tiny sprinkle of natural fertilizer to the cup or water them with some compost tea.  Not too much, though, because you don’t want them growing too crazily in their cups.  Add just enough to give them the food they are crying for.

Transplanting Time:
When it’s time to transplant, this is what I do:

            1.  Dig a long trench for each transplant about 5-6 inches deep.  Make sure that it’s long enough to bury up to 80% of the tomato seedling.  (Roots will sprout from the stem that is buried.)  For my huge transplants, I end up burying about 10 inches of stem.

            2.  Add a banana peel (which I have saved in the freezer) and a sprinkle of Epsom salts to the trench and cover with a little soil.  (The banana peel will provide nutrients and moisture right away to the plant, and it will bring in the worms.  The Epsom salt helps with root formation.)

            3.  Gently lay the tomato plant in the trench so that most of the stem will be buried, leaving the most bushy top-part above the soil.  Bury the stem with soil.  (Don’t worry if the top-part is a little angled.  It will straighten itself out and turn upwards as it grows.)  The reason for a more horizontal trench instead of a dug-straight-down hole is so that the buried stem will be up near the warmer soil instead of going down into the deep, cold soil below.

            4.  Sprinkle some compost and a little natural fertilizer on top of the soil around the plant.  (And when I was afraid that the level of calcium in the soil was too low – leading to blossom end rot – I would crush up a couple Tums and sprinkle that around the plant, too.  I preferred the peppermint kind because there was no artificial colors or flavors in it and because the mint would help repel pests.  At least, I hope it did.)

            5.  Put up a support by the transplant now so that you don’t damage the roots later.  But be careful to not chop into the stem you just buried.  In the beginning, I used those store-bought wire tomato cages, but I think they are worthless because they tip over too easily.  And then for the last couple years, I simply stuck a 5-foot-tall garden post in the ground and tied up the plant as it grew.  This is an okay method, but it takes some diligence and leads to stems flopping all over.  So this year, I bought a 50-foot-roll of garden fence that I have cut up and made into “tomato rings” (next post).  I am going to attach each ring to a garden post, and put one around each tomato.  This should help contain the lanky stems better and give it more support.

            6.  This is really hard to do (and it will make you feel like a demented, heartless criminal), but pinch off any blossoms that are on the plant when you plant it.  This will help the plant devote its energy to root formation, which will pay off later when it’s trying to grow bunches of tomatoes.  (Less root = less fruit)

            7.  As the plant grows, pinch any suckers that grow.  Those are the little leaves/stems that start to grow at the joint of the main “trunk” and the side branches.  I once let all the suckers grow, just to see what happens . . . and I got tons of green branches (a jungle of them) but very little fruit.

            8.  Keep an eye out for pests.  Tomato hornworms will get in there and strip a quarter of the plant before you ever notice them.  In fact, I only know they are there when I see a stripped-bare branch and a half-eaten tomato dangling there, looking all sad and pathetic.  And then I search and search to find the culprit.  And, sure enough, there it is - a hornworm the size of a thick finger, hanging lazily on a branch on the other side of the plant.  (They get around quickly.  Look for the dark poop-speckles on the leaves below it.) 
            I cannot bring myself to kill these caterpillars because they are so big and fleshy.  And pretty.  Almost like a tiny pet.  And they turn into hummingbird moths, which I love.  So if there are only one or two of them, I leave them.  Or if there are a bunch, I might toss them deep into the woodsy area behind our yard so that a bird can find them.  At least I don’t have to see them die.  I just can’t squish them.  It makes me sad.  Maybe this year I'll plant something to move them to, such as a potato plant or petunias.  [After a drought years ago, we lost most of our butterflies, and they have been struggling to come back.  So I can't bear to destroy a perfectly good hummingbird moth.  And I am also planning to plant some extra dill and parsley and maybe parsnip (which we won't eat - yuck) away from the garden for the black swallowtail caterpillars that I find in my herbs.]                 

            9.  Keep an eye out for diseases. 
            In the first tomatoes that form, check periodically for blossom end rot.  It makes me crazy to let beautiful tomatoes grow and grow . . . only to find out that they have sunken black bottoms when I pick them.  All that time wasted, growing rotten tomatoes.  Keep an eye out for any baby tomatoes that are showing signs of this so that you can pick them right away.  Then the plant can devote energy to new, better tomatoes.  (Usually, the later ones are fine.)
            And watch for signs of blight.  These past couple years, we had early blight and late blight.  There isn’t too much you can do for these (that I know of), but I did solarize the soil and make a spray to spritz on the leaves to try to keep the blight from getting too bad. 

            Pest- and Disease-Spray for the Garden:
            In a spray bottle, mix 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1-2 teaspoons olive oil, 5 drops Lavender essential oil, 5 drops Tea Tree oil, and a dash of liquid soap (I use Dr. Bronner’s). 
            Then just shake and spray on the plant leaves or on the soil around the plant.  But do not spray on baby plants that have delicate leaves or on leaves that you eat, like lettuce or kale.  And be careful because this may burn some plant leaves, like it did my roses (but that was a blend with more essential oils than I have here).  It gave them weird, speckly marks all over.  I wonder if it was the essential oil droplets burning the leaves or causing the sunlight to concentrate like tiny magnifying glasses.  You may want to start with less essential oil until you know how your plants will react. 
            I don’t know how well this works because I do not have a “control group” to compare it against, but I did try this during the past two years that we had blight.  And the second year, the blight was “less worse” than the year before.  This year will be the third year after the really bad blight year.  So we’ll see. 
            My co-gardener read about simply using diluted Dr. Bronner’s in the garden.  I am going to look into this sometime.  It might be a simple solution.  And I have recently read that you can help repel blight by adding Epsom salts and powdered milk to the planting hole and by spraying the plant with a "baking soda spray" (1 Tablespoon baking soda diluted in a gallon of water) and by wrapping the stem in tin foil, from 2 inches below ground to 2 inches above ground.  I may try these.  They might not help, but they couldn't hurt.
            Also, make sure to clean up any diseased leaves and to throw them out.  Do not compost them.  If we had blight that year, I will throw out the whole plant at the end of the year, too, instead of composting it.  And I do not compost store-bought tomatoes, which can carry blight spores (or peppers or potatoes, which are in the same family).  I know this sounds a little extreme, but get blight a couple years in a row and you’ll know why I do it.
            One very discouraging disease is verticillium wilt.  It strikes perfectly-healthy tomato plants overnight.  Literally!  One day, they are strong and lush.  And the next day, you find them lying on the ground.  At first, you’ll think an animal knocked them over.  But if you look at the stem at ground-level, you’ll see that it looks pinched and sucked-dry, like it dehydrated right at the soil line.  That’s verticillium wilt.  And the only way to handle it (that I know of) is to not plant tomatoes in that spot for a few years, hoping that it doesn’t spread. 

            These are the tomatoes that I lost periodically to verticillium wilt over the years:  Yellow Pear, Sungold, Brandy Boy, Crimson Cushion, Caspian Pink, Box Car Willie, Green Envy, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, and Celebrity.
            And the ones that got blight the worst were Black Krim, Black Carbon, and Pruden’s Purple.  (The ones that seemed to do okay-ish in spite of blight were Early Girl, Good ‘N Early, and Early Treat.)   

            [This is a possible “help” for sick plants or potentially-sick plants: lavender.  Lavender is supposed to be a healing plant.  And I read somewhere that planting lavender by sick plants will help the sick plants get healthier, but I can’t remember where I read it.  Since lavender doesn’t grow well in my shadier garden, what I did was drip a couple drops of lavender essential oil (or spritz some lavender oil diluted in water) around the sick plants, right on the soil.  This may be worth trying in the spots where diseases have been found.]

            10.  Pick ripe tomatoes and eat!  If you have extra, give them away to grateful neighbors or preserve them by canning or freezing or dehydrating. 
            If you freeze them whole, just run the frozen tomato under hot water and rub the skins off.  Then thaw and use in soups or stews.  My neighbor did this for a minestrone, and it turned out wonderful. 
            I like to slice tomatoes about a quarter-inch thick and dehydrate them in a dehydrator until they are completely dry.  Then I store them in a plastic container and use them all winter in soups or stews or chilis.  They take up less space this way and I don’t have to waste freezer-space on them or take the time to can them.  Someday, I’ll learn to can them, but not yet.  (FYI, I do not dehydrate yellow tomatoes.  They do not dry as well.  And if it’s a really juicy tomato that is full of seed cavities, it will just fall apart in the dehydrator or when you try to lift them.  Make sure they are meaty tomatoes that will hold their shape.) 
            Then just chop or tear the dry pieces right into the soups . . . or rehydrate them with a little hot water (pour hot water on, cover, and leave for a few minutes) and add them to whatever you’re making.  Or process them with the soaking water in a food processor to make a “sauce.”  Or whatever.  I might try to make a “salsa” with rehydrated-then-run-through-a-food-processor tomatoes sometime soon.  I bet it will work alright.  Especially since we don’t like chunky salsa.
            But for now, here is a recipe for an easy, tasty chili that uses dehydrated tomatoes.

            Easy Chili with Dehydrated Tomatoes:

            (This is what I do for a family of six.  It makes leftovers.)

            1.  Take a handful of dehydrated tomatoes and tear or cut them into pieces.  Pour enough hot water on to cover them and put some plastic wrap on top.  Let them sit while you prepare the rest of this recipe.

            2.  Brown two pounds of ground turkey or beef.  Once it’s thoroughly cooked, put it in a giant stock pot or a slow-cooker. 

            3.  Add two cans of black beans (drained) and some chopped carrots, onions, and/or garlic (or whatever veggie you would normally add).  You can blend the veggies in a processor (later with the tomatoes) if you don’t want it chunky. 

            4.  Dilute two 6-ounce cans of tomato paste with about 7-10 cups of water or so, depending on how thick you want it (or just use tomato sauce), and whisk in 2 packets of Lawry’s chili seasoning.  (For me, it has to be Lawry’s – for chili seasoning and taco seasoning.  It’s the only good one!)  Add this to the pot.

            5.  Put the rehydrated tomatoes with the soaking water (and onions, garlic, and/or carrots, if you are blending them) into a food processor and blend them until they are the consistency you want them.  (Add more water, if necessary.)  Add this to the chili. 

            6.  Then just let it simmer for hours, stirring occasionally.  (If it’s too thick, add more water.  If it’s too thin, leave the cover off while it simmers.)

            7.  To serve, ladle it onto cooked rice and top with cheddar cheese and sour cream.  And serve with warm, buttered cornbread on the side.  Wonderful on a cold winter’s night!

            Well, that’s about all I can think of right now for starting tomato seedlings and transplanting them into the garden.  You have just enough time to start planning your garden for this summer.  Have fun!  (If you don’t have yard space, try growing a few of the smaller-fruited tomatoes in large pots.  You can get a handful of them this way!) 


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