Friday, August 29, 2014

HOW TO GROW: Tomatoes (Lycopersicon Esculentum)

We've saved the best for last! All week long, we've been discussing how to process and preserve our tomato harvests. If you enjoy the idea of making your own delicious "from scratch" meals from homegrown tomatoes, why not try growing your own? It's a lot easier than you might think! Here is a beginner's guide to starting, growing, and saving seed from your own plants!




Tomatoes are annual plants all over the United States, meaning they do not over winter and grow back the next year. They are usually started indoors and planted out a week  after the last frost date in your USDA Hardiness Zone.

Most home gardeners these days purchase started plants from a local nursery or home improvement chain store. But, did you know there is a huge variety of tomatoes available out there that may be easily grown from seed! From yellow cherry tomatoes, to pink paste tomatoes, to white slicing tomatoes, there is a plethora of choices out there!

HOW TO  START SEED:

Starting tomatoes from seed is actually relatively easy. They should be started indoors about 8 weeks before the last frost date in your USDA Hardiness Zone. For example, here in South East Michigan, ours is around May 10th. Click HERE to find yours by zip code.

First and foremost, start with quality seeds. A good packet of seeds should have at least an 80% germination rate, or perhaps even higher depending on what type of vegetable it is. That is, 4 of 5 seeds you plant should begin to grow. Lil Raisin Acres grows open pollinated heirloom varieties only, from which we can reliably save seed and expect a similar tomato plant to come up next year. We recommend purchasing seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. They have an impressive catalog of interesting choices.

After purchasing your seeds, you will need a container with a transparent lid and some type of "soil" to grow them in. Any plastic container with a transparent lid will do. For a first time seed starter, or someone starting only a few dozen seeds or so, I would recommend a seed starting kit. We often use Jiffy Seed Starter kits, readily available at home improvement or chain department stores like Lowes or Meijer for around $7. They consist of a tray with transparent lid and "peat pellets" made from Canadian sphagnum peat moss , which expand upon contact with water. You can purchase replacement pellets or mix your own seed starting medium and reuse them year after year!
Various seed starting containers including Jiffy kits,
Dollar Tree Mini Greenhouses and Instant Soup Containers
Once we have our containers prepared as directed, it's time to plant seeds! For tomatoes, we generally put 2-3 seeds in each pellet/cell to be sure we get at least 1 viable plant in each one. Plant the seeds about 1/4" deep and cover well with soil. After dispersing your seeds, immediately put the lid on and tape it shut.

Place your seed containers in a sunny, south-facing window. They should get all the sunlight they need there. If you do not have a sunny south-facing window, you can put them in an eastern window, but they may not fare as well long-term. Another solution would be to hang "grow lights" above the mini greenhouses. There's a great tutorial HERE

Optimal germination temperatures for tomato seeds is around 80 degrees. Somewhere between 7 to 10 days later, you should see tiny tomato plants start coming up. The mini greenhouse lids should NOT be removed until several of the seeds have sprouted to keep in moisture and warmth. Once the majority of your seeds have sprouted, remove the lid. The soil should be kept slightly damp, but NOT wet. We use a spray bottle to lightly mist the soil surfaces each morning. Over watering leads to unwanted fungi growth that can kill your seedlings. 

Once the first true leaves appear (the second set of leaves the plant gets after emerging) you may begin to fertilize your seedlings with diluted fish emulsion fertilizer. 1 part fish emulsion to 20 parts water, once per week. (Be warned! It has a stench worse than death, but is the best there is out there for use on organically grown seedlings in my opinion.) Over fertilizing may result in "burning" and killing the seedlings.

After your plants have gained their second set of true leaves, you will need to thin them down to one plant per pellet/cell. Choose the seedling with the strongest looking stem, not necessarily the tallest one. Use a pair of scissors to carefully clip them at the soil line. Do NOT pull them up, as it may damage the root system of the seedling you've chosen to keep!

HOW TO GROW:

As your seedlings mature, they will require more water. If your plants look a little "droopy" it's a sure sign they're not getting enough. You may also begin to fertilize them with a little stronger blend of  1 part fish emulsion to 10 parts water. As the plants get taller, raise your grow lights if you're using them. For optimum growth, you will need to transplant them into larger containers, such as recycled cottage cheese containers, cut off milk jugs, or even red solo cups!

About 2 weeks before your last frost date, begin setting your young plants outdoors for "hardening off". Start with only one hour per day and work your way up by adding an hour per day to 10 hours. Bring them in at night, as there is still danger of frost which will definitely kill off tender tomato plants. Also, bring them indoors in case of high winds or heavy rain. Continue to fertilize them weekly.

A week past your last frost date, it's time to plant them outdoors. We always wait an extra week to be absolutely sure there's ZERO chance of a freak frost (although with recent obscure weather patterns, it's anyone's guess...). The soil where you will plant them should be well worked, and may be dressed with well aged manure for fertilization.

Plant the tomatoes in FULL SUN, 36" apart in rows 36" apart. If  you live in a dry area, plant them in a shallow depression so that rain may pool near the roots. Water heavily after transplanting. You may also wish to mulch around your plants to prevent weed growth and retain moisture. Tomatoes grow best if they are secured to a stake or caged. As they begin to grow taller and set fruit, the stems can potentially break, killing the plant or at least severely limiting your tomato harvest.

Continue watering your plants as needed. A good soaking twice a week is a good rule of thumb, whether by rain or by watering can. You will want to remove any "suckers", which are secondary branches that begin growing in the crotches of the main branches and the stem. About 8 weeks after you plant them out, you will notice tiny yellow flowers growing on your plants. Each of these buds, assuming they are all pollinated, will become a tomato! Don't remove or otherwise disturb them!

As buds begin to develop into tiny tomatoes, you will want to begin watering them more often, as tomatoes are about 95% water! If you see a heavily laden branch beginning to bend as though it will break, you can secure it to the cage or an additional stake.

HOW TO HARVEST:

Anywhere between 65 and 90 days, depending on the varieties of tomato you planted, you will have ripening tomatoes on your plants. Use heavy duty scissors or pruning shears to cut the tomatoes from the plants, as you do not want to damage the plant if there are other tomatoes still growing on it. Store your tomatoes at room temperature. They should keep for about a week or so, depending on variety. Paste and cherry tomatoes last longest in my experience. For optimum flavor, they should be processed as soon as possible after harvesting if you intend to can, freeze or dehydrate your harvest.

Tomatoes are interesting in that you can harvest them a few days before full maturity, and they will continue to mature indoors! I recommend this method if you're in an area where varmints or nuisance insects are a problem (we harvest early here due to rabbits and grasshoppers).


HARVESTING SEED:

Only save seed from fully mature fruits of healthy plants. You should choose the best tasting and nice sized tomatoes for seed saving. In order to save tomato seed, you must first "wet-process" ferment them to remove the gelatinous sac surrounding them.

Simply slice in half and squeeze/seeds into a transparent glass mason jar. Add a enough water to just cover them. Use a piece of cheese cloth or other light, breathable fabric and fasten it in place with a jar lid ring or rubber band. Place the jar of seeds in a sunny window. Each evening, remove the cloth and stir the contents. It will admittedly gain a "funky" odor as part of the fermentation process. The process is complete when you see a good layer of "scum" on the surface of the water.

Carefully remove the layer of scum from the surface. There may be a few seeds, too. Discard those, they are "dead" and will not reproduce. Pour remaining contents in a fine mesh strainer and thoroughly rinse the seeds of all debris.

Spread seeds out on a piece of wax paper in a single layer in a well ventilated area for roughly a week, stirring them up every couple days to ensure even drying. They should slide across the wax paper easily when they are completely dry.

Store your dry seeds in a labeled envelope in an air-tight container (I use a Rubbermaid shoe box) in a dark, cool, dry place. They should remain viable for several years under proper storage conditions.



And that is all there is to it! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below!