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Grow amazing juicy tomatoes every year

If you want to consistently grow juicy, full-flavored tomatoes every year, try these growing tips used by top tomato growers:

1. Choose a bright spot with good air circulation.

Plant your tomatoes in a spot that will receive at least 10 hours of light during the summer. Ensure that there is room between plants for air to circulate.

2. Practice crop rotation.

Alternating your tomato beds between even just two spots will diminish the chance of soil borne diseases such as early blight and bacterial spot.

3. Plant tomatoes deep.

Plant your tomato seedlings up to the first true leaves. New roots will quickly sprout on the stems. This makes your tomato plants establish a much larger root ball and gives you a higher yield.

4. Keep plants warm.

Temperatures cooler than 50 deg. F (13 deg. C) slow tomato plant growth and prevent fruit from setting. Protect them with heavyweight row covers or cloches to shield them from chilly nights until the nights are naturally warm enough.

5. Feed the soil appropriately.   

A common mistake one should avoid is over-feeding the soil. Tomatoes thrive in soil that is rich in humus for extensive, well-developed root systems and potassium for strong stems. Adding too much nitrogen will produce overly lush plants with little fruit.

Homemade compost will typically supply all the necessary phosphorus the tomatoes need for good flowering and fruiting. A weekly spraying of liquid kelp or seaweed extract will increase the health and yield of your tomato plants.

6. Grow them up.

Tomato vines that are left to sprawl over the soil are more prone to attacks by pests and diseases than ones that have been staked or caged.

7. Choose indeterminate varieties.

Indeterminate tomato varieties tend to produce more fruit but require more space to grow, so make sure everything is in place and that you have enough room.

8.  Water deeply but infrequently.

Tomato plants that are established in the soil have their roots spread deep inside the soil and as a result require deep watering less frequent than those growing in containers. Soak your tomato bed once a week, or every five days at the height of summer. Water evenly and consistently and water directly on the soil and not on the leaves to help avoid blossom end rot, fruit splitting and other tomato problems brought on by uneven watering.

9. Pluck, prune and trim.

Many tomato growers pull off the first flowers, so that the plant does not devote energy to forming fruit before its roots and foliage have filled out. Pinch off the sucker (non-fruiting branches) too to direct the plant’s energy into growing bigger, better fruit.

As your tomato plants grow, remove the bottom leaves as these are the oldest leaves and are usually the first to develop fungal problems. Go easy on pruning the rest of the plants though, as it’s the leaves that are photosynthesizing and creating the sugars that give flavor to your tomatoes.

10. Mulch.

Many organic gardeners rely on plastic mulch to warm up the soil in the start of spring and prevent weeds from sprouting up. Study after study has shown that beds covered in black plastic in spring produce tomatoes earlier and in abundance all season long. Infra-red transmitting plastic mulch is very effective researchers have found, as it reflects just the kind of light that plants need.

All natural mulches also help tomatoes grow. Surround your plants with a layer of straw, leaves, dried grass clippings or pine needles to prevent weeds from growing and retain moisture in the soil. Natural mulches keep the soil cool, so don’t apply them until the soil warms to a minimum of 65 deg. F (18 deg. C).

Nothing beats the taste of freshly picked ripened homegrown tomatoes which are, without a doubt, superior to store-bought produce. However, as the end of the season nears and temperatures start to decline there are invariably plenty of green tomatoes left on plants that didn’t quite make the cut.

Cardboard method of ripening green tomatoes.

Cardboard method of ripening green tomatoes.

What to do with all of those unripe tomatoes that were left on the plant, you must be pondering! These, too, will ripen over the next few months if stored properly. They won’t be as tasty or juicy as the ones you’ve been enjoying all season long, but they will be real tomatoes from your own garden, and still way better than anything you can buy in a supermarket from November through May.

What makes tomatoes ripen?

Contrary to popular belief, windowsills aren’t the best place for ripening tomatoes. If you’ve noticed, your tomatoes often start to ripen on the side opposite to the side exposed to sunlight although not all varieties show this nature. So, a good amount of light is not required for ripening, furthermore it is known to harden the fruits’ skin.

On the other hand, temperature is an important factor. The warmer the temperature the quicker a tomato fruit will ripen. Hence, ripening can be slowed down by placing tomatoes in a cool area or sped up by placing in moderate warmth.

Another factor that is crucial in the ripening of tomatoes is ethylene gas. Ethylene is actually naturally released by ripening fruits such as bananas, apples and tomatoes. So, placing a ripe banana or apple among green tomatoes helps speed up the ripening process.

Creative use of a rack to ripen green tomatoes.

Creative use of a rack to ripen green tomatoes.

Different methods

Here are several techniques you can employ to ripen tomatoes:

1. Jar method: Place a ripening banana along with your green tomatoes in a glass, ceramic or plastic jar. Do not overfill the jar, or the tomatoes might get bruised. Screw the lid tightly and leave it in a warm, semi-humid environment, out of direct sunlight.

2. Cardboard box method: Line a cardboard box with newspaper and place the green tomatoes on top in a single layer with a little space in between. Placing ripening bananas along is optional. Cover with another layer of newspaper and place the box out of direct sunlight, in a warm and low humid environment such as a basement, insulated garage, or enclosed porch.

3. Paper or plastic bag method: Put 5-10 green tomatoes in a paper or plastic bag with a ripening tomato, banana or apple and place in a warm, low-humid place. Punch in a few air circulation holes in each plastic bag being used. Paper bags are naturally semi-permeable (meaning they allow to an extent air to diffuse through them).

4. Hang the whole plant method: This method is useful at the end of the season when a frost is forecast as frost is damaging to tomatoes making them turn dark green and unable to ripen. Gently pull up the whole tomato plant and hang it upside down in a garage or cellar where temperatures remain above freezing. This method supposedly gives better tasting tomatoes than the other methods.

Tomatoes ripen from the bottom up and the inside out, so don’t put tomatoes on a windowsill to ripen because they will only turn red, but not ripe. They will remain green inside.

The best results are got when the tomatoes are already showing a yellow-orange tinge which indicates that they are ready to ripen. You can be successful with turning fully green tomatoes into ripe ones but they will take longer and may not be so flavorsome.

It takes about 3-4 weeks for ripening at lower temperatures 10-15 deg. C (50-60 deg. F) whereas it can take just 2 weeks at 18-21 deg. C (65-70 deg. F).

Watch out for:

Diseased or damaged fruit is the biggest problem when ripening tomatoes indoors. Avoid piling them up to prevent and protect them from being bruised or squashed. Ensuring adequate air circulation will prevent molds from forming.

Every day or two check up on them and remove anything suspect. Select only the very best tomatoes for ripening as any lower grade tomatoes may be suffering from a disease such as blight.

We got an interesting “Ask Bryan” question today from Nick, a gardener in New York, who wrote this:

In looking to be more of a gardener and less of a consumer/dependent on
grocery stores, I started gardening. And over the last 3 years I have
gotten the knack down for what to do and how to do it better yet I know
I’m nowhere near knowing it all. So I come to you. Can I, with success,
create an indoor garden in my basement for over the winter? I live in NY
and the reason I ask this is I would love to buy heirloom seeds from you,
plant them and grow them over the winter and thus capture the best of the
best seeds from that harvest to use for that upcoming spring. Am I able to
pollinate a plant indoors without insects? What would I need to keep a 2
tomato plants and 2 pepper plants alive, vibrant and super healthy to make
it through a winter in NY?

So, here’s our answer!

Nick,

Here’s a link to an article on our blog about growing seedlings indoors.

How To Plant Seeds and Grow Starts Indoors

To grow your seedlings to the food stage indoors, we’re going to tweak the
above a little bit. Here goes: First of all, to grow successful tomato and
pepper crops indoors your temps inside where the plants are growing need
to optimally stay between 68-72 degrees. They can vary slightly on the low
side of those temps (no lower than 50 degrees), and can go up to 88
degrees for short periods; however, 68-72 degrees is optimal and will
ensure that your pollen is most potent.

In terms of pollinating without insects, no problem since both of these
plants are self-pollinating. However, shaking the blooms a little by
tapping the vines where there are blooms lightly before 11:00 in the
morning every day will ensure proper pollination.

Follow the raising and lowering of the lights exactly how it’s explained
in the seedling article; however, mature plants are going to need a rest
period. So, once the plants are approximately 2-3 months old and you can
see they are wanting to bloom (or start prior to 2-3 months if you start
to see any blooms). At this point, shut off the lights for 8 hours or so a
day to fool the plant into thinking it’s going through a night. This will
promote blooming.

Now, we have to address the soil issue, because in the seedling article
you are growing in a soilless mix, which is ideal for seedlings but
doesn’t provide enough nutrients for a plant to produce full-size,
flavorful fruit. So, what we need to do is transplant your seedlings at
around 10 weeks into containers that are at least 3 gallons or larger.
Add some organic potting soil to the bottom, then add some MegaBone or
MegaStart into the pot, add your plant, then fill to the top of the soil
line with more organic potting soil.

Here’s a helpful hint: If you choose 3 different cherry size tomatoes,
then you can transplant all 3 into one container. For larger varieties,
then just one transplant per container. Here is a large sampling of heirloom tomato seeds if you want to check it out. Same with heirloom pepper seeds. If you go with a few elongated, smaller-type frying peppers then you can get away with 3
varieties per container (like Sweet Banana, Jimmy Nardello, Super
Shepherd, Garden Salsa, etc. But only plant sweets with sweet, and hots
with hot).

In terms of organic soil amendments and feeding your plant, spray the leaves of your plants each week with
MegaSea, and rootfeed with MegaFish every 2 weeks. Use MegaPepe and
MegaMator as a soil side dress each week as well to ensure you can really
pull off a good crop indoors.

Keep us posted on how it goes, Nick! And send us some photos. What a fabulous idea!

Bryan and Kim

When planting seeds indoors, you want to start with a good quality organic seed starting mix. Many of the commercial potting mixes, especially the ones you find at the box stores, consist of recycled nursery soil that often contains chemicals, pathogens and disease. But even if they aren’t created from old soil, they may still contain chemicals, so if you are a die-hard organic gardener (like we are!), we think it’s best to make it yourself.

Some mixes use perlite, which is fine, but I personally don’t like the amount of energy that is needed to explode the soaked cinder sand in the kilm. Besides, all the minerals and water-holding capacity is lost through this horrible process.

To make a good organic starting mix yourself, take 2 parts peat moss and 1 part black cinder sand, and mix very, very thoroughly. If you cannot find the black cinder, washed sand will work. We use a piece of equipment to do this mixing for us, but doing it by hand is fine as long as you do it thoroughly to where the pieces of peat are really small and the sand is incorporated throughout.

This soil-less mix is great to use to start seeds and when plants are very young and can be at risk for dampering off, which is a soil-bearing pathogen that can be difficult to fend off organically. (It CAN be done though, so write me if this happens). So, to minimize any risks of failure, use a soil-less mix to start your seeds.

(Note: because we have an organic nursery, we transplant our starts after 2 true leaves form into 6 packs that have organic soil, but it’s not necessary to transplant yours until 12 weeks. At 12 weeks though at that most, you should definitely transplant them into regular organic soil so that the microbes can benefit the plant and it can access a broader spectrum of nutrients.)

THE MOST IMPORTANT VARIABLES

Other than your soil, the most important things to ensure success in growing seedlings indoors is proper light, temperature, and moisture — along with one secret weapon: seaweed.

LIGHT

So how much light does a tomato, for instance, need to grow a sturdy healthy plant and not the spindly wimpy things that so many of my costumers have grown (I won’t name names ha ha ha)? The answer is: 8 to 10 hours of very direct light is ideal, but they can grow healthy in as little as 6 hours if they are placed in direct light and they are not getting a draft or cold blast from a leaking window. If your windows allow air through, you can put up a cold shield of clear plastic from the hardware store or simply some food wrap, but make sure you’re not cutting off the light.

OK, let’s say you don’t have a window that will work well (facing south is ideal), or that your wife will kill you if you get water on the windowsill or carpet. Don’t give up hope! I have a very easy and inexpensive way to pull this off. All you need is a wood bar like the one in your closest. I’m not saying you should use the one you have, but I did that years ago when I was a bachelor. (If you are married, I would suggest you purchase one from the hardware store instead of using the one holding your wife’s clothes!). Anyway, get your wooden bar and set it up in the heated garage or laundry room or wherever (before I had greenhouses, I grew anywhere I could).

Now, head down to the hardware store and buy one of those shop florescent lights that already have a plug attached. They are generally about $10.00, but find one you can tie some rope to. Place the rope around the wood bar so you can adjust the light up and down. There is only one spectrum of light that’s missing between shop florescent lights and the $100+ grow lights, and the plants don’t know the difference. Besides, in the case of tomato and pepper plants, which require a longer amount of time to grow successful starts than most other vegetables, they are only going to be under the light for 10 to 12 weeks. So, in this case, count backwards on your calendar 10 to 12 weeks from your last frost date and this will keep them at a minimum under artificial light.  OK, this is the secret! Keep your florescent light bulbs only 2 to 3 inches away from the tops of the plants. As the plant grows, just keep moving the rope so the light is always at the right distance. I should caution you about electricity and water, so be careful that you don’t shock yourself when watering and use common sense when moving the light and tying it off when you have the height you want.

This method will keep the seedlings strong and sturdy and prevent a spindly plant.

TEMPERATURE

In terms of temperature, the most ideal temperature for growing seedlings indoors is 70-85 degrees (this is especially true with pepper seeds, as they will need very warm soil to germinate). An electric heater below the windowsill — or in close proximity to wherever you choose to grow — can also help with providing heat if needed.

MOISTURE

I plant my seed only 1/8 inches deep, just barely covering them, and then I mix one teaspoon or one cap per gallon of MegaSea and water it in. This will act as a pre-soak and will help promote germination. Continue to water with the seaweed solution, always making sure to not let the soil dry out completely but don’t overwater either, until the seed has sprouted. Once it has sprouted, water with regular water (as needed) for the next 6 days, and then with MegaSea again on the 7th day. Continuing water with this method each week. Basically, you want to give it seaweed every 7 days, and then water in between as needed, when it’s almost dry but not completely dried out.

There is so much to say about seaweed that I could (and will) write an entire article about it, but basically as it relates to sprouting seed, it is a really effective SECRET WEAPON! It is a wonderful, 100% organic product that not only helps improve germination, but also has a natural growth hormone in it that promotes rapid root growth. It will also help offset some less-than-ideal variables with watering and temperature, and it works very well on old or hard-to-sprout seed.

ONGOING AMENDING AND FERTILIZING

As far as soil amendments go, don’t fertilize until at least two true leaves are forming, which in the case of tomatoes and peppers, will generally be 4-5 weeks after planting.

One common misconception is that seeds should be fertilized immediately; however, Mother Nature did a wonderful thing by putting everything that the seed needs to prosper inside the seed itself. Further, nitrogen can actually help set up a situation for pathogens to breed, so by NOT fertilizing in the very beginning, you are actually helping the plant and giving it the chance to reach infancy.

Earlier I said to use seaweed immediately, so wanted to clarify that seaweed is low in nitrogen, and the growth properties it has offsets any of the risks. Plus, it is actually a disease-preventer because it will raise the sugars to help fight off disease and pathogens. And again, it promotes rapid root growth and that’s what you are really after.

So, again, it’s unnecessary to fertilize until two true leaves form. At that point, it’s past the most critical time and they are old enough that you can safely give them some fish emulsion, which will supply them with the nitrogen they need. I only use fish emulsion that is a hydrolyzed type like Sweet Garden Organic’s MegaFish or Neptune’s Harvest brand. Most other brands have the protein removed to make animal feed and the oil to make makeup, and they are really inferior products.

DO NOT USE CHEMICALS, as this will weaken your plant and destroy your soil, especially if you are planning to grow organically. If you do, it’s like you’re setting up a death zone in your garden. This is the main reason I started to grow my own starts. It just didn’t make any sense to me to buy a chemically-grown store bought seedling that would end up ruining hard work and time and money that I had put into building my organic soil.

The other advantage of growing your own starts is that the skies are the limit on what you can grow! There are thousands of heirloom and other wonderful varieties you can grow that you will never find in nurseries as seedlings.

I hope this information was helpful. If I can be of any help, please call me at Sweet Corn Organic Nursery, or visit www.sweetcornorganicnursery.com, click on the “Ask Bryan” button to send me your question, and I will get back to you shortly.

God Bless and Happy Gardening. And remember to “Feed The Soil, Not The Plants.”

Bryan

(Note: when this article references 10-12 weeks, we are using tomato and pepper plants as the example, since they are some of the longest vegetable plants to sprout and grow. Timing could be less than 10-12 weeks for tomatoes and peppers if soil temperature is increased with an electric grow propagation system or heating mat, which could decrease the total time to 6-8 weeks. Also, while these growing instructions apply to most vegetable and herb seeds of any kind, timing will obviously vary depending on what is grown. We will be writing more on this in the future).

tomatoes-01HOW TO GROW TOMATOES:

There is nothing in the world like home-grown tomatoes right off the vine. And once you’ve tried them, you’ll never want to go back to store-bought. Tomato plants are relatively easy to grow too, with just a few tricks.

SOIL PREPARATION:

One of biggest keys to success in organic gardening is the condition of the soil. There needs to be adequate organic matter to hold moisture and nutrients. And at the same time, the soil needs to be loose enough for good aeration and drainage, which will help promote strong root development.

Tomatoes are easy to grow if your soil has the proper nutrients. People always assume their soil is average, but unless you have a soil test it is just a guess. More often than not, it is necessary to amend the soil to achieve optimum pH balances, as well as the proper levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Testing your soil is ideal, and we recommend a soil test every two to three years to check your phosphorus and pH, as well as nitrate and potassium levels, to ensure the best crop possible. It is very important that your phosphorous to

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