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Tomatoes Under Lights

First tomato sprout of 2015

It took just over four days for my first tomato seedling of 2015 to emerge.

Saturday and Sunday, March 21st and 22nd, I planted 73 tomato seeds in five planters. The planters are under lights in my office.

The 73 seeds represent 18 varieties of tomatoes – six varieties I brought back from last year’s garden, and 12 I bought from seed companies this spring. The first seedling emerged on March 26, just five (or four) days after planting. I snapped photos but here it is about 36 hours later and I’m just creating a post.

A lot happens in 36 hours! At last count, 67 seeds had sprouted. My planters have gone from bare to heavily-forested in just a day-and-a-half. I’m very excited to set the seedlings into my garden, but that won’t happen until June (unless the weather forecast is excessively rosy in May).

I love starting my garden indoors under lights!

Tomato jungle under lights

In about six days, all but six of the tomato seeds I planted in containers have sprouted. Unfortunately, only one out of four Great White seeds is up, so I may do a second planting of that variety. Those leafy things way in the back on the right are cardoon and artichoke plants. I started artichokes about February 10th, and cardoon about March 5th.


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Amazing Green Sausage Heirloom Tomatoes

Four month old Green Sausage heirloom paste tomatoes

For at least four months after harvest, these tomatoes got moved around in our dining room until I noticed they’d started to wrinkle. These are Green Sausage tomatoes—an heirloom paste tomato that remains green when it ripens. It also, apparently, creates a hermetic barrier between its innards and the rest of the universe.

In late January, I ate a fresh homegrown heirloom tomato harvested from my outdoor garden. This is remarkable because by early October of last year, those of my tomato plants that hadn’t been killed by blight had been frozen by an early frost.

Green Sausage, the variety of tomato in question, had proven particularly susceptible to blight and I had pulled four apparently unripe fruits from the desiccated plants in mid-to-late September. These went to the ripening table in the dining room but I wasn’t convinced they’d ripened by the time I folded up the table at season’s end.

So, four Green Sausage tomatoes spent at least four months “ripening” in our dining room. Finally, in mid January, I noticed they had started to wrinkle. They weren’t soft or blemished as a spoiling tomato gets. They were simply wrinkling.

What’s a garden blogger to do? I took pictures, I made video, and I cut open one of those 4+ month old fruits. I was dismayed at what I found. The photos tell the story; the video captures my reaction “live.”

Sliced four month old Green Sausage heirloom paste tomato

When I cut open one of these well-aged tomatoes, it looked fresh and juicy inside.

Inside a four month old Green Sausage heirloom paste tomato

Cut lengthwise, the 4-month-old Green Sausage tomato (an heirloom variety) revealed plenty of juicy flesh. It begged me to taste it; my reaction is in the video.


Tomato Fruitworm in my Small Kitchen Garden

I wanted this to be a Beet Armyworm, but from what I could find online, Beet Armyworms won’t make it through the winter. So… this is probably a Tomato Fruitworm – more destructive than a Beet Armyworm

My small kitchen garden keeps me on my toes. It’s not enough that certain tasks must happen within a few calendar days each season. There are also diseases such as rust and blight, nutritional issues such as low nitrogen or high acid in the soil, watering challenges having to do with drought or excessive rain or both, weed issues, and insect imbalances—either too few pollinators or too many fruit- and vegetable-eaters.

I recently shared a story of Tobacco Hornworms and a Cardinal. This post isn’t so much a story as it is a “look!” I discovered a tomato pest of which I had known nothing until this past week when I found it in my small kitchen garden.

Pests my Kitchen Garden Doesn’t Need

As you can see in the photo, this worm chewed a hole through the skin of a tomato, then chewed a strip of skin down from the first hole and started on a second, deeper hole. That’s when I caught it in action.

I’ve seen this kind of damage on tomatoes in the past, but had never spotted the culprit. From casual research, I’ve decided this is a Tomato Fruitworm though it eats more like a Beet Armyworm does (from what I read here). Beet Armyworms aren’t supposed to range as far north as I live, so I’ll blame this worm’s behavior on timing: had I not found it when I did, it might have taken residence inside the tomato it was sampling.

I moved the worm into the meadow across the street but I suspect there is at least one other Tomato Fruitworm enjoying my tomato patch. Several fruits on one of my volunteer plants at the opposite end of the garden from this tomato have round holes in their skins. Ugh.


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Twisting Tomato Support in my Small Kitchen Garden

Because I pluck suckers from my tomato plants, the plants tend to grow very tall. I build trellises that support the plants up to about seven feet, and invariably the plants grow three or more feet above them. That last three feet of foliage rarely produces ripe tomatoes though there may be flowers and later green tomatoes before frost kills the plants. Having seven foot plants in July suggests they may pass 11 or 12 feet before the season ends.

I grow a lot of tomato plants in my small kitchen garden. Just over a month ago, I posted about how I’m maintaining this year’s tomato grove and I embedded a video there that shows how to pluck tomato suckers and start young tomato plants on hang string trellises. Find the post at Tomato Plant Maintenance in My Small Kitchen Garden.

I planned to post a second video a week later to demonstrate how to twist a tomato plant together with a hanging string and provide support for the plant. Seems things got away from me. Many of my plants have already grown above the tops of my trellises which are about seven feet tall. I can no longer twist those together with the hanging strings.

On the other hand, I created the promised video a week after I posted the first. It’s embedded below. Please have a look to see how to manage growing tomato plants on a hanging string trellis. Find information about how I assembled my hanging string trellises, at my blog post titled Tomato Supports in Your Small Kitchen Garden.

Maintain a Tomato Plant on a String Trellis


Tomato Plant Maintenance in My Small Kitchen Garden

I’m not used to seeing so many tomatoes forming in early July! These may take another month or longer to ripen but they’re off to a great start. Notice the scar in the stem near the bottom-right of the photo. That’s where I removed a sucker from the plant. Also, you can see the string that spirals around the plant’s stem to provide support.

I cram tomato plants into my raised vegetable bed. This year, in a space that is 10 feet by 14 feet, I set 76 tomato plants and wrote about it in June in a post titled Tomato Spacing in My Small Kitchen Garden.

To manage so many plants in such a small space, I borrow methods from blogs (sadly, things I read before it occurred to me to keep track of the sources), Cooperative Extension documents, and Dad.

Hanging String Tomato Trellis

From a blog, I learned the hanging string trellis method—something I’d seen years before in a book about growing vegetables vertically. My trellis resembles the one I saw in a blog only in that strings hang down to support the tomato plants; the structure supporting the strings is my own concoction. I described the trellises in a post titled Tomato Supports in Your Small Kitchen Garden.

By late June I’d built the trellises for my tomatoes and hung strings for most of the plants. The video embedded in this blog post shows how to start a tomato plant on a hanging string trellis and how to pluck suckers to keep the plants growing up instead of out.

Early Blight and Late Blight

From Cooperative Extension I learned more about blight than could possibly be useful to me. The most influential tidbit is that in a test plot using half a dozen organic blight preventatives, only copper-based chemical applications (considered organic) prevented blight on tomato plants. ALL other organic methods of control failed.

Early blight apparently isn’t as nasty as late blight, but the best treatment for both blights is to use preventive measures. In other words, do what you can to prevent your plants from getting sick.

With my plants so crowded, blight is a great concern: If even one plant develops blight, the others are likely to do the same. So, I’m treating my plants with a copper-based fungicide. If it rains, I treat the plants once they’re dry. Without rain, I treat them every two weeks.

Why So Many Tomato Plants?

In a comment on one of my earlier posts about tomato trellises ( a reader asked, “Why so many plants?” Admittedly, 76 does seem like a lot. The first time I set a dozen tomato plants, it was a tad overwhelming. But from a dozen plants I was able to cook down two vats of tomato sauce for canning. That totaled about 18 pints.

Turned out we consume 18 pints of tomato sauce in two or three months—and that’s just sauce. We also consume canned diced tomatoes and canned whole tomatoes. Oh, and it’s nice to have chili sauce made according to Mom’s recipe.

I’ve canned 48 pints of sauce and nearly as many pints of diced tomatoes in a season but have run out of both mid-winter. This means buying commercially-canned tomato products for close to seven months of the year. I hope to can more than 52 pints of sauce and 52 pints of diced tomatoes this year. Probably won’t get me through till next tomato season, but it should come a lot closer than in past years.

Preserve Your Produce

I wrote a book called Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too published by Cool Springs Press. In it, I teach how to preserve produce you harvest from your kitchen garden or buy from a farm stand or supermarket. I included a whole bunch of full-color photos (from my own kitchen) and step-by-step instructions for all kinds of projects including several recipes that use home-preserved produce. Pick up a copy now and put up your own goodies to extend your growing season. (Mom’s chili sauce recipe is in the book.)

Yes, copper can build up in the soil, and that’s a bad thing. So, I use the lowest recommended concentration of fungicide and I expect not to reuse this particular garden space for tomatoes for at least two growing seasons. If my prophylactic blight treatments fail, you’ll be able to hear me crying about it in my blog later this year.

Tomato Suckers

From Dad I learned to pluck suckers. Plucking suckers isn’t necessary to maintain healthy tomato plants. However, if you want to fit a lot of plants into a little space, plucking suckers helps. Training tomato vines up a string (or a stake) is quite easy when there is a single main stem. I wrote about plucking suckers in a post titled Tomatoes: Are You a Sucker Plucker?

Video Demonstration of Tomato Plant Management

I recently captured a video of myself plucking suckers from a tomato plant and then stringing up the plant on a hanging string trellis. This shows how I get a plant started on the trellis once the plant is about 18 inches tall. I’ll create another video in a week or so to demonstrate how I manage a plant when it grows beyond the highest loop of string around its stem. The video is three minutes long:

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Tomato Spacing in My Small Kitchen Garden

By the time I planted tomatoes weeks earlier than usual, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower (to the right in the photograph) had a good start in my small kitchen garden and we were already harvesting lettuce (at the top-left in the photo).

I set tomato seedlings in my small kitchen garden starting in mid May this year… fully two weeks earlier than central Pennsylvania’s “last frost date.” Given the lack of winter, some uncomfortably hot weather, and more than 14 consecutive frost-free days leading up to mid-May I felt pretty safe putting in summer vegetables so early.

Tomatoes in Small Planting Beds

I’m frustrated by the lack of gardening space in my yard. The house came with a modest raised garden bed that I doubled in size one season. I also took over the kids’ sandbox for gardening when they stopped using it, and I’ve more than doubled the area it covers. Finally, I maintain several planters on my deck and on the kids’ otherwise unused play set.

I’ve prepped a double row for my tomato seedlings. Holes are one foot apart (from the center of one to the center of the next), and the gap between the rows is a foot wide. After digging the holes and before setting in the seedlings, I filled each hole halfway with compost, sprinkled in crushed egg shells and Epsom salt, and tossed it together with soil.

If you click the photo to zoom in, you can make out egg shells in the holes and also spot freshly-planted and watered tomato seedlings to the right of the prepared holes.

With all that, my vegetables don’t fit. To plant with the spacing recommended by seed retailers, gardening books, and the USDA, I’d need more than double the planting beds I already have. So, I “plant intensively.”

The vast, inverted, underground tree that is a tomato plant’s root system will spread through the soil evading impenetrable objects. What difference can it make if some of those objects happen to be roots from other tomato plants? Sure, the roots will compete for water and nutrients, so key to success with intensive planting is to provide adequate amounts of both.

How Close to Space Tomato Plants?

For the past several seasons, I’ve left just twelve inches from one tomato plant to the next within rows, and I’ve created rows in pairs twelve inches apart. From one pair of rows to another I leave a 30 inch wide gap which is just shy of comfortable for working among the plants once they reach the tops of the trellises (about seven feet).

  • Growing tomato plants so close together simplifies maintenance.
  • I can reach past plants near a walking corridor to tend plants in the “back rows” (less moving about).
  • I use far less mulch per plant.
  • Water and fertilizer for any one plant benefits several.
  • It’s short work to apply antifungal powder or solution.
  • The walls of plants provide shade that reduces the occurrence of green shoulders on ripening fruit.
  • Trellising requires far fewer materials.

The downside of spacing tomato plants so closely is that diseases and insects can pass among them easily. Wider spacing can buy you time to protect unaffected plants if you discover problems with any plants.

The photos tell the story of this spring’s planting effort. There are six rows, each of which holds 12, 13, or 14 plants for a total of 76. Varieties include Black Krim, Beefsteak, Nebraska Wedding, White Queen, Nyagous, Valencia, Noonglow, Manyel, Cream Sausage, Jonatta Banana, and the unidentified paste variety I’ve grown for many seasons.

I’ve written several posts about growing tomatoes over the years. Here’s a list of articles and links to them:


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