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Posts Tagged ‘plant tomatoes’

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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Tomato Controversy at Your Small Kitchen Garden

This beauty isn’t quite ready to harvest. Yes, it’s a tomato. I believe it’s of the Andes variety… it’s a paste tomato with very little gel, few seeds, and delicious flesh. Pick a green tomato at your own peril. You can coax a green tomato to ripen, but the results are rarely satisfying.

Vine-ripened tomatoes are NOT better than tomatoes that ripen off the vine. Still, there is such passion for vine-ripening that kitchen gardeners perpetuate the lie; they claim a vine-ripened tomato is noticeably better.

Ripen Tomatoes Well

Last summer, Your Small Kitchen Garden blog challenged the conventional wisdom that store-bought tomatoes are horrible because they ripen off the vine. I argued that store-bought tomatoes are lousy because they are lousy cultivars: ripened on or off the vine, they grow up to be flavorless and wanting in texture.

Then I explained how I harvest, and I insisted that my “picked-pink” tomatoes are just as good as their vine-ripened counterparts… in fact, that picked-pink tomatoes are better because they don’t crack or develop “green shoulders.” Please read the original post here: The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie.

I’ve enjoyed the insights from readers who have shared their opinions. Some are adamant that vine-ripened tomatoes are dramatically tastier than picked-pink tomatoes… and I won’t argue with their experiences. In my experience, if there is a difference, It’s insignificant and I’d be happy to prepare a scientific double-blind taste-test of several varieties of tomatoes both vine-ripened and picked pink. I’m confident that 99% of participants in such a test would not be able to distinguish between the two.

Tomato Nutrition

One person who read my original post on this suspiciously declared that picked-pink tomatoes lack the nutritional qualities of vine-ripened tomatoes. The visitor went by the name “Dr. Tomato,” lending a sense of authority to his or her comments. I conceded that it’s possible there are nutritional differences, and asked Dr. Tomato to provide links to the research that supports the claim.

My first tomato harvest of 2010 is a very large paste tomato that I’ve picked-pink. The tomato has just started to change color, and it will finish on my dining room table. Had I left it on the plant, a rain storm could have caused it to crack… and direct sunlight could have made it develop green shoulders.

Dr. Tomato probably wasn’t listening, because the links never materialized. Then, yesterday another commenter “sided” with Dr. Tomato. This left a bad taste in my mouth: I hate arguing about facts. If something is so, then opinions about it are meaningless. When a yardstick is 36 inches long, you seem a little silly to say, “In my opinion, the ruler is 37 inches long.” A simple measurement can settle the issue, so why take sides? I went in search of facts about tomato nutrition.

What Science Says

Turns out food science enthusiasts have done some research on ripening tomatoes off the vine. I read several (incredibly dull) studies full of science-writing gobbledygook and have reduced the obtuse language to a few simple factual statements:

1. There is no stastically significant nutritional (including vitamin C and Lycopene) difference between vine-ripened and picked-pink tomatoes. (Conclusion of the study Colour of post-harvest ripened and vine ripened tomatoes
(Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) as related to total
antioxidant capacity and chemical composition

At the peak of tomato season and then some, there are hundreds of tomatoes ripening on my dining room table. In this photo, the youngest tomatoes are in back, with the oldest – ready to eat – in front.

2. Some picked-pink tomatoes develop MORE lycopene (the antioxidant) than vine-ripened tomatoes do, others develop LESS lycopene. This seems to depend, in part, on the temperature at which you ripen the picked-pink tomatoes, and, perhaps, on whether you’re growing the tomatoes hydroponically.

3. You can harvest tomatoes well before they become fully ripe without loss of lycopene. (Conclusion of the study Lycopene Content among Organically Grown Tomatoes.)

So, you won’t become malnourished if you eat picked-pink tomatoes. Because there are so many advantages to harvesting tomatoes this way, once again I encourage you to try it and decide for yourself: When a tomato starts to turn from green to red—when it already has pink skin—pick it and set it in your house to finish ripening (I fill bowls with picked-pink tomatoes). When it’s fully-ripe, taste it next to a freshly-picked vine-ripened tomato.

If you taste a difference, is it enough of a difference to make you pass on the advantages of picking pink? Whatever you decide I hope we can still get along… and thanks for considering this heretical suggestion.


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Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf

Before I started this simple project, my larder was a mess: two shelves of canned goods and empty jars jumbled every which-way. The lower shelf, I decided, could hold all the canned goods if I put the empty jars in boxes and stored them out of the way (actually on the very highest shelf where I’d stored several dozen empty jars I’d bought on sale at the close of 2009’s canning season). Once cleared, the upper shelf would become my seed-starting station.

I’m ready to start seeds for my small kitchen garden! I recently posted about my epiphany that I could clear a shelf in my larder and use it to start seeds. Today, I did the heavy lifting: I consolidated the canned goods onto one shelf, packed the empty jars into boxes, and cleared the way for seed planters.

I’m showing the setup to encourage you: you don’t need anything particularly fancy to start your own seeds prior to planting outdoors. I was lucky to have a shelving unit that I could repurpose, but last year I’d used a ping-pong table. There are only three critical issues you must address:

Seedlings Need Plenty of Light

Standard incandescent or fluorescent light sources aren’t adequate unless you can get them very close to your seedlings. Last season I planted tomato seeds in a table-top greenhouse, and positioned fluorescent lights about eight inches above them. The seeds sprouted in only two days (I’d expected it to take a week or more), and almost immediately grew too tall and slender reaching toward the light.

Small Kitchen Garden Larder & Seed Starting Shelf

The lower shelf holds seven gallons of applesauce, five quarts of squash, a quart of red pepper relish, a gallon of salsa, two gallons of tomato sauce, two quarts of halved tomatoes, about three gallons of assorted jams and jellies, a quart of black raspberry syrup, and about two quarts of pickles. When I took the photo, I’d already hung a shop light above the upper shelf. The four-foot by one-and-a-half-foot space will be plenty for the number of seeds I plan to start indoors this winter.

When seedlings emerge, the light should be within three inches of them… and as the seedlings grow taller, you need to maintain the light source just a few inches from the leaf-tops.

If you want to grow large seedlings… or even grow plants that are flowering by the time they can move outdoors… a single light source above the leaves may not be adequate. While the top layer of leaves may get enough light, lower leaves won’t, and the plant could have weak stems, withered leaves, and other growth problems.

For typical seedlings started four-to-six weeks before your area’s last frost, lights a few inches above the plants will be adequate.

Seeds and Seedlings Need Warmth

Small Kitchen Garden Seed Starting Shelf

With one light fixture mounted, my seed-starting shelf could already accommodate three starter trays holding more than 200 seeds. I hung two light fixtures so one can illuminate the shortest seedlings while the other handles taller plants.

This is less intuitive than the light issue, but it’s more important at least until your seeds sprout. Some seeds will sprout when the soil temperature is above 40F degrees while others wait until the temperature is 70F degrees or higher. A tomato seed that takes seven-to-ten days to sprout at 70F degrees may sprout in two days at 85F degrees.

After sprouting, seedlings may not grow robust if the temperature is low. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, originate from warm climates and do best in summer heat. Chances are you don’t keep your house anywhere near as warm as these plants would like; it’s important to compensate on your plants’ behalf.

Last year, I’d used picture-hanging wire to dangle one shop light from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room, and twine to hang a second shop light. It took a few minutes to tie those lights to the frame of one of my larder’s shelves. It will be short work to raise or lower the lights to optimal heights above the seedlings that emerge in March.

Last season, I pushed the ping-pong table against a wall above a baseboard radiator. Warm air from the heater kept my seed planters warm. This year I’ll probably put a heating pad on my seed-starting shelf; I keep my office about 62F degrees, and I don’t want my seedlings to have to meet the world with cold feet.

Seeds and Seedlings Need Moisture

Of course you need to keep the soil moist as a seed puts out roots and then a seedling. It’s also a good idea to keep the air around the seedling moist. The tiny peat pellets or starter pots people typically use to start seeds can dry out very quickly. By keeping them in a moist environment, you reduce your need to water.

I may wrap my seed-starting shelf with plastic to trap in heat from the lights and moisture evaporating from the seedlings. By erecting a tent around the plants and lights, I’ll create a greenhouse environment that should make young seedlings very happy indeed.

Small Kitchen Garden Tomato Starts

With both shop lights mounted, the first four residents of my seed-starting station moved in. A few weeks ago, I decided to test the tomato seeds I harvested last season. I planted four in a single peat pellet and all of them sprouted. I’m determined to keep them alive until I can move them outside… in April or May. The plants are already stressed from being crowded, so I’ll be transplanting them into pots later today or tomorrow.


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Seed-Starting Epiphany for my Small Kitchen Garden

This is where I set up the ping-pong table and started seeds indoors last March. The cardboard boxes and other items are props for an Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team’s upcoming performance. OM is a youth competition in which teams follow detailed instructions to build things, create stories, write scripts, and put on performances… all with no instruction from adults. I love the organization (my kids obviously love participating), but I hate what it does to my basement for three or so months each year.

For every small kitchen garden in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to get organized for the coming growing season. In hardiness zones seven and warmer, you could already have seeds starting indoors, while folks in zones six and colder should at least be getting organized to start seeds.

I’ve been musing about last year’s seed-starting: Last year I set up the ping-pong table and hung shop lights from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room. However, I didn’t start seeds until mid-March… pretty much after the annual Odyssey of the Mind disaster cleared out of the basement.

This year, I want to get seeds going a little earlier. Actually, I already started four tomato plants that are ready for “potting up.” That is: they’ve outgrown the peat pellet in which I planted them (yes, four seeds in a single peat pellet), and they’re ready to go into individual nursery pots. After that, I’d like to start broccoli and cauliflower within the week so I have some well-established plants I can set in the garden when the ground thaws.

My larder is at least as messy as the kids’ play room. However, if I consolidate everything from two shelves onto one, and store all the empty jars in boxes, I can clear a shelf to hold my seed starting planters and some fluorescent lights. I might even wrap the space above the seed-starting shelf with plastic and add a heating pad to create a warm, humid space that will coax tomato and pepper seeds to sprout.

Where to Start my Small Kitchen Garden?

Odyssey of the Mind is in full-swing in the kids’ play room; there’s no chance of setting up the ping-pong table until after March 13th. So, I’ve been musing about where to fit a seed-starting operation into the rest of my messy life.

In the meantime, I continue to create photos and videos that I might some day incorporate into blog posts… and yesterday I took some shots of my larder: there’s a story there about how full my larder was in November, and how empty it has already become in January.

Actually, my larder is no emptier than I expected it would be. I put up dozens of eight-ounce jars of jam and jelly during the growing season, figuring they’d vanish in December as my kids and my wife gave them to teachers and coworkers. That nearly cleared one storage shelf, while our steady consumption of canned tomatoes, apple sauce, syrups, jams, jellies, squash, and pickles has cleared quite a bit more space.

The shelves are messy as I’ve grabbed jars randomly, and put back the empties. But when I was taking pictures of the clutter, I had this epiphany: If I consolidate full jars onto one shelf, and box up the empty jars, I can clear a shelf and start seeds there!

The steel grill shelving of my larder provides plenty of places to tie up four-foot-long fluorescent shop lights. In case you’re looking for a dedicated seed-starting place, I want to emphasize: it’s hard to provide enough light for plants—particularly for plants you hope to eat some day. When sprouts emerge, they should find either full spring sunlight shining on them… or light from a fluorescent bulb or tube mounted within two or three inches of the leaves.

A Kitchen Gardener’s Seed Starting Setup

My canned goods sit on a steel shelving unit. I can hang fluorescent shop lights from one shelf so that I can easily raise them as plants grow tall. I’ll line the shelf under the light with something to catch spills, and set my seed-starting pots and containers there. Setting this up will be very simple, and caring for the seedlings will be convenient as my larder is in my office where I work nearly every day.

I especially like the idea of using my larder shelves for starting seeds because of the continuity it highlights: The shelves become the birthing room for the plants that will eventually provide food I’ll can and store on those same shelves. It’s the circle of life!


More articles about starting seeds

  • GlowPanel 45 LED Grow Light Seed Starting Shelf – I have 8 GlowPanel 45 LED grow lights on this rack (2 per shelf). I’ve been using them to start my seeds in peat pellets, then move them up to my bottomless pipe pots which are sitting on capillary mats, with a water reserver under them …

  • Design*Sponge » Blog Archive » small measures with ashley … – I saw this clever seed starting shelf and thought, ‘I bet ikea has something that would work!’. The addition of bottom heat is essential! …

  • Pure-N-Simple Gardens: Whats Growing On Under Those Lights? – You can view my step by step instructions on how to build a seed starting shelf here. This is a very simple building project that will allow you to easily assemble, and disassemble your shelving unit each year without having to unscrew …

  • Seed Starting 101: Seedling Heat Mats and Inexpensive Alternatives – Whether you buy a seedling heat mat or put together a DIY alternative, I hope you’ll consider adding extra heat to your seed starting shelf this winter. The results will amaze you! For additional information on seed starting, …

  • A Few Seed Starting Tips – I’ve just turned the seed-starting shelf lights on for the first time this season. I would have turned them on yesterday, but with the lack of outlets in my basement, it would have necessitated me emptying out the basement chest freezer …

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Packaging Seeds from my Small Kitchen Garden

I laid out seeds, envelopes, and envelope labels on a table in my billiards room. While I’m giving away Blue Hubbard squash, neck pumpkin, and paste tomato seeds, I also collected seeds from butternut squash, dill weed, and several types of peppers. Most of these will go to The Dinner Garden, a charity that provides seeds to family’s starting gardens in response to economic difficulties.

Two weeks ago, Your Small Kitchen Garden offered up sets of seeds to visitors who asked for them. I’ve been pleased by the response; more than 40 people have left comments requesting seed sets. A complete set includes six seeds of Blue Hubbard squash, six seeds of neck pumpkin, and twenty seeds of chili-pepper-shaped paste tomatoes.

In that post I joked that I’d judge comments on creativity and humor, and I’ve enjoyed the humor in some of the comments. However, the only criteria for receiving seeds are:

  1. Leave a comment explaining which seeds you most want to grow
  2. Complete a “Contact Us” form with your mailing address
  3. Do these things before the seeds run out.

The Small Kitchen Garden Seed Project

I’ve been packaging seeds. To do this, I set up a small table in the corner of my billiards room and laid out all the seeds I saved last season. I designed and printed simple labels and stuck them on coin envelopes. As I started to count out seeds and package them it occurred to me: what if the seeds aren’t viable? I’d feel rotten to learn I’d sent seeds to so many people, and none of those seeds sprouted.

More than a week after planting, one of the three tomato seeds I planted to test viabiity sprouted. By the time I finished this post nearly 2 days later, all three seeds had sprouted. I’m mailing out more than 40 packs of these seeds in the coming week. If you left a comment on my post Free Seeds from Your Small Kitchen Garden, did you also send your mailing address to me via the web site’s Contact Us form? I noticed many visitors overlooked that important step.

So, I test-planted some tomato seeds and waited. Last March, when I started tomato seeds indoors, I had sprouts two days after planting! This January, there were no sprouts for over a week. Finally, on Monday, the first tomato seed sprouted. On Tuesday, two more sprouts appeared. These seeds are viable!

As the cutoff date for my seed giveaway approaches, I’ve packaged up several dozen sets of seeds. I’ve more to package, and I haven’t yet addressed all the envelopes, but I’m confident these seeds will perform when treated properly.

I’m excited to share the seeds; I hope that many of the people who receive them will write once or twice to tell me how their seeds do, and to tell me what they think of the produce they grow.

In the meantime, I’ve already started this year’s small kitchen garden; I’m going to try to keep my tomato seedlings alive indoors until April. I’ll build a tent around them to trap in some moisture and heat, and I’ll flood the tent with light. If things go well, I’ll transplant into larger containers once or twice, so I’ll have very large plants when it’s time to move them outdoors.

By “potting up” the plants this way, I may get a 30-day or better jump on the tomato-growing season. Who knows? Maybe I’ll harvest a few tomatoes in early July this year.



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The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie

From a tiny yellow blossom: a grape-sized tomato, a golf-ball-sized orb, or something the size of a grapefruit? The size of the blossom doesn’t tell you much about the size of the fruit that’s on the way.

Tomatoes are coming on full-force in my small kitchen garden, and I hope you’re having the same kind of luck with yours. I understand that cool and wet weather has challenged many tomato plants from the Midwest into the Northeast. The lucky folks, apparently, have lost some fruit to blossom-end rot. The unlucky ones have seen late blight decimate their plants.

Whether your tomatoes are growing strong, coming ripe, or dying on the vine, you’ve probably been involved in at least one conversation about tomatoes this year. The one I hear repeatedly is about how terrible are the tomatoes you buy in grocery stores. Invariably, everyone in this conversation agrees, and someone offers up that those tomatoes come off the vines green and travel cross-country while ripening… and if it doesn’t ripen on the vine, it’s just no good.

I respectfully submit: That last observation is complete hogwash.

Water regularly, and your tomatoes will likely come out OK. However, one ill-timed rainstorm could cause cracks that lead to rot, insect infestations, and mildew.

Genetics Makes a Lousy Tomato

If you want a tomato that tastes horrible and has lousy texture, start by planting seeds for the “tastes horrible and has lousy texture” tomato. That’s what commercial grocery suppliers do. Plant breeders spent decades developing varieties of tomatoes that hold up incredibly well when stacked and jostled during harvest and transport. They paid no attention to the flavor and textural appeal of these tomatoes.

Hapless grocery store shoppers buy those horrid things because those shoppers have grown up believing real tomatoes taste horrible and have lousy texture. OK… that horrible flavor becomes an acquired taste if it’s the only tomato you ever eat.

If the tomato cracks early, it may try to heal itself. Once healed, it won’t attract insects and disease, but there will be a section you’d rather not chew.

These tomatoes aren’t bad because they’re picked green. They’re bad because they’re a lousy breed. Put a decent tomato on a truck and ship it 3,000 miles, and it’ll be a smooshed tomato at its destination.

Vine-Ripened is Over-Rated

On the flip-side of this discussion is the erroneously perpetuated belief that a tomato must ripen on the vine to be good. I’m confident that the belief exists because no right-minded gardener would pick a tomato before it’s ripe (unless there was threat of frost). Yet, would the right-minded gardeners of the world pick some un-ripened tomatoes for the sake of comparison, they would learn an astonishing and happy truth: vine-ripening is way over-rated.

In fact, vine-ripening tomatoes is one of the most challenging of all gardening tasks… yet experienced gardeners so often suggest tomatoes as the ideal beginner’s crop: Tomatoes are so easy to grow, we say, and they’re so superior to store-bought. But unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls in your small kitchen garden, and how often it falls, growing beautiful ripe tomatoes is a bit of a nail-biting proposition.

This tomato cracked because it got too much water during ripening. The cracks healed, but then the tomato received too much sunshine, so it developed green shoulders. When I slice this up for salad, I’ll probably cut off some of the green stuff, leaving less to eat.

Perfect Tomato Culture

When a tomato first emerges from its tiny yellow tomato flower, it’s hard to visualize the monster it may eventually become. Still, over the course of a month, the little green ball grows larger as it sucks water from the tomato plant. To produce a perfect, ripe tomato, the plant must draw from a steady supply of water. If there is no rain, you should water two or three times a week. Ideally the weekly total will be a full inch of water over the area defined by the outstretched leaves of the plant.

If you can manage that, you may also need to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the individual tomatoes; a tomato that gets excessive direct sun may not ripen evenly.

Cracks and Hard Spots (Green Shoulders)

So, you’re controlling the amount of water and sunlight your tomatoes get, and then it rains. Your tomato plants don’t mind too much of a good thing; they suck up the additional burst of water and the young, green tomatoes get larger. Here’s the rub: tomatoes that have started to ripen aren’t as resilient as younger, greener tomatoes. As they expand under the new load of water, their skins are likely to stretch and tear.

A tomato that gets extra water during its last week or two of growth can develop stretch marks and cracks in the skin. Left to finish ripening, the cracked tomato can attract fruit flies and other sugar-loving insects, fungus and mold, and bacteria that rapidly reduce the tomato’s innards to smelly slime.

Even without the rain storm, sunlight striking the top of a tomato on the vine can prevent ripening there while the bottom and sides of the tomato sweeten, soften, and turn bright red (or whatever other color represents ripe for the varieties you grow). These “green shoulders” detract considerably from the flavor and texture of an otherwise ripe fruit.

This tomato has just started to show pink; I‘ll let it ripen on my dining room table and it will be ready to use in seven-to-fourteen days. It will taste every bit as good as a cracked tomato with green shoulders that ripens on the vine. Actually, it’ll taste better, because it won’t have green shoulders!

So, Don’t Vine-Ripen!

Earlier I said, “…unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls and how often…” You do have such control! Quite simply: don’t let your tomatoes ripen on the vine. When pink first appears on a tomato’s skin, pick the tomato and set it inside out of direct sunlight.

Unless I get busy and miss a few days, I pick each tomato when it starts to change color. Typically, this means that every second day, I harvest anything showing pink. I fill a large stainless steel bowl with the day’s pickings, and set it on my dining room table. About seven-to-ten days later, the tomatoes reach peak ripeness without torn skin and without green shoulders… and every tomato is just as delectable as any tomato I ever let ripen on the vine. In fact, every tomato is nearly perfect… and I could never say that in the days that I left them on the plants.

I picked these tomatoes about two weeks before I photographed them. They ripened on my dining room table, and they are as red, juicy, sweet, and delicious as any vine-ripened tomato.

Oh, Yeah? (an Anecdote)

I visited with a farmer once who managed an impressive kitchen garden. Before touring his garden, his wife and I discussed various gardening techniques. At one point, she insisted: “Oh, we let all our tomatoes ripen on the vine. They’re just not as good if they don’t.”

I countered: “I’ve found if I pick them when they start to ripen, they never split or develop green shoulders… and you can’t taste the difference.”

Her reply: “A farmer can taste the difference… and our tomatoes never crack.”

When we reached the garden, every red tomato on every tomato plant had one or more cracks in its skin. (No, I didn’t comment about it… that would have been rude. But I’d sure like to put my tomatoes up against hers in a taste-test with farmers.)


Here are links to other articles that discuss green shoulders and cracking tomatoes:


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Upside Down Tomatoes: Why, Oh Why?

I bought my homemade upside down tomato planter for 99 cents in a grocery store. It’s no more than a reusable shopping bag with a 2-inch slit cut in the bottom. It will hold five gallons of soil, though I’ve filled it only half way; I’ll add more soil in the next few days to ensure there’s someplace for the roots to go if they decide to grow upward contrary to their geotropic tendencies.

This season, I succumbed to the hype and added upside down tomato planters to my small kitchen garden. As regular readers of my blog might attest: I’m kind of lazy. I’m always looking for gardening shortcuts that still result in decent food-production. The hype about upside down planters has made them seem like a lazy gardener’s dream.

But, while I’m lazy, I’m also cheap… er, budget-conscious. The best price I’d seen for the original Topsy-Turvy upside down planter would have gotten me two for about $17. A knock-off product turned up at Walmart this spring for about the same price. So, I scouted the Internet for ideas on how to make upside down tomato planters without that cash outlay. On somebody’s blog about making a planter using a soda bottle, there was a comment suggesting that you put a hole in the bottom of a reusable shopping bag instead. For 99 cents, I bought a shopping bag and went to work. Here’s where I wrote about my home made upside down tomato planter.

Tomato Sadist

I’m reasonably certain that the person who invented upside down tomato planters actually hates tomato plants. He or she one day decided to plant tomatoes upside down and watch them struggle and overcome the mind-numbing orientation. I’m going to describe the torture my upside down tomatoes are experiencing. It’s not for the squeamish; please forgive me if this discussion becomes too graphic… in fact, if you have a weak stomach, you may want altogether to skip the photos.

Within a day of moving into its upside down planter, my tomato plant bent upward against gravity. Being very small, the plant bumped its head against the bottom of the hanging planter. Being under the planter, the tomato was in constant shade. Being a plant, each morning the tomato tried to grow toward the sun… and it tracked the sun throughout the day.

I used a 3-liter soda bottle to fashion an upside down planter according to instructions on the web site Such a planter adds injury to injury: a tomato plant’s roots will grow into a space holding several gallons of soil—as many as five gallons. A 3-liter soda bottle holds less than a gallon.

A few weeks after hanging the soda bottle torture planter, I also hung some one-gallon milk jug tomato planters. While the sad, abused upside down tomato has struggled to grow up, the upside up tomatoes have simply grown, quickly overtaking the tortured tomato in size and in health.

For several weeks, my poor upside down tomato plant bumped its head on the underside of the planter while trying to find an easy pathway to follow toward sunlight. Finally, it grew big enough to extend from under the planter. Now the poor, tortured plant looks like an untreated victim of scoliosis: its spine twisted into a hideous curve that no bracing or surgery can correct.

I tried to accommodate the upside down craze by designing an alternative planter. For this planter, I put the slit about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the bag, filled the bag with soil, and inserted the tomato plant with its root ball nearly on the surface of the soil. The stem runs diagonally down from the root ball through the soil and out the slit in the side of the bag. I figure the plant would immediately turn and grow upward, but the roots would have the full depth of the bag to grow downward. That’s what has happened so far… eventually, I figure the weight of the plant and the tomatoes that grow on it will pull the stem downward and crack it or break it off, but the weight may come on slowly enough to let the plant sag gently under its own weight. The idea seemed far nobler than setting a plant to grow upside down. In retrospect, I’d fill the bag with soil and plant the tomato through the bag’s top. Let it grow up the way nature intended. You know what plants I’d grow in an upside down or sidewise planter in future growing seasons? NONE! Please don’t you grow any either.

As the plant grows longer and sets fruit, it will inevitably grow heavier. The weight will force the stem down, flexing it unnaturally against the ghastly bend it has grown in effort to right the nasty wrong of living upside down. By the time this weight accumulates, the twisted stem will have “hardened down” meaning that it will be brittle rather than supple; it’s likely to crack or break off unless I provide support for the emerging fruits.

Don’t Grow Tomatoes Upside Down

I implore you: Don’t buy upside down tomato planters. A plant may do well in such a device; it may even thrive. However, upside down is not natural and provides not a single advantage over growing upside up (or upside right, if it pleases you). Contrary to a lie you might hear in a Topsy-Turvy advertisement, gravity in no way helps move water and nutrients down the stems to the leaves and fruit of an upside down plant… this is simply not how plants work.

Other claims made on the Topsy-Turvy web site aren’t quite as preposterous, but they are misleading. Does a greenhouse effect warm the roots in an upside down planter resulting in explosive growth? Is an upside down planter safe from ground fungus, bacteria, and cutworms? Does an upside down planter eliminate digging, weeding, backbreaking work, and the use of pesticides? The answer to each of these questions is: Absolutely no more than an upside up planter would. That’s right: every benefit claimed for an upside down planter comes as well with an upside up planter… but an upside up planter has one additional benefit: it doesn’t torture the tomato plant. If you want your plant to provide a bountiful harvest, why abuse it by forcing it to struggle against such unnatural conditions?

Upside down tomato planters are popular because they’re novel, not because they offer a better way to grow food. My on-line gardening buddy, Amanda Thomsen (see her blog at horticulture magazine) aptly referred to upside down planters as “The snuggies of the plant world.” In my words: A little marketing goes a long w… too far.

So, if you feel the urge to plant tomatoes and vegetables in a novel upside down planter, check yourself. Even if you can stomach the piteous efforts of your plants to right themselves; even if it doesn’t turn your stomach to witness the grotesque contortions of abused plants… consider your neighbors. Consider the children who might see your tortured tomatoes and be forever scarred by the experience.

Please visit Kerry Michaels’s containter gardening site for further discussion about upside down tomatoes.

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Upside Down Tomatoes

In late spring, most of the tomato seedlings at garden stores and nurseries have become leggy: they’ve been stuck too long in tiny pots or in the cells of starter flats. The roots of these seedlings are choking themselves silly; the seedlings haven’t gotten enough nutrition and they’re stretching in hopes of finding healthier environments. If the stems could find soil, they’d put down roots to improve access to water and nutrition.

If your small kitchen garden is ridiculously space-challenged, you must consider hanging some plants. In the past two weeks, I started some tomatoes in containers… specifically in upside down planters that I made myself at bargain prices. This forced me to do a lot of thinking about upside down planters, and I have a few thoughts to share. Along the way, I’ll explain how to make upside down planters at less than a tenth the cost of commercial upside down planters.

Upside Down Planters

Between television infomercials, Internet blog posts, and new products showing up in garden stores and department stores, you’d think Topsy Turvy is the most awesome gardening device invented in the past 50 years. This device is a fabric bag with a hole in the bottom. You stuff a tomato seedling’s root ball into the bag through the hole in the bottom, fill the bag with soil, hang the bag, and add water regularly.

I’ve unpotted hundreds of root-bound tomato plants over the years. Not one had grown roots above the soil. I’m just guessing, but I suspect if the root ball starts at the bottom in an upside down planter, the tomato plant becomes pot bound when the roots spread sideways looking for ways to grow down. If I’m right, the best candidates for upside down planters are long-stemmed “leggy” seedlings.

According to the Topsy Turvy web site, you’ll harvest as many as 30 pounds of tomatoes from the plant. The folks who market this upside down planter claim, among other things, that tomatoes grow better in the planters because gravity pulls water down from the roots to the foliage. They also claim that sun hitting the bag warms the soil and roots so they grow more vigorously.

Yeah, right.

Actual Real Benefits of an Upside Down Tomato Planter

 Here are claims about an upside down planter that are reasonable to believe:

1. It keeps the tomato plant away from soil-borne pests and diseases.

2. It keeps the tomato plant away from ground-dwelling rodents who might chew on tomatoes.

3. It keeps your tomatoes off of the soil without staking and pruning.

4. It provides a way for you to grow tomatoes on a deck, a porch, a patio, a balcony, or in nearly any situation where traditional gardening isn’t possible.

I’m all for these things… so the upside down planter has some appeal. And, I confess that I like the look of the tomato plants that Topsy Turvy shows in their advertisements.

A reusable shopping bag makes a decent hanging planter without modification. To make it an upside down planter, I cut a two-inch slit in the middle of the bottom and smear hot glue along the edges of the slit. To do this, I ran a bead of hot glue, then spread it with the metal handle of my utility knife. The material of the bag doesn’t look as though it will fray, but I added the glue as insurance. I slit the rigid bottom insert and made a thumb-wide hole in the middle, figuring the insert would keep soil from falling out of the hole and reduce sag in the hanging planter.

Really Cheap Upside Down Planters

I decided to add some upside down planters to my own small kitchen garden. Mostly, I wanted to test this idea so I could share my findings with my readers. But my garden budget is way too low to spend $15 or more for what looks like a cloth bag.

When I Googled upside down tomato planters, I found a blog entry that explaines how to make such planters from two-liter or three-liter soda bottles. It’s a cool idea, but a three-liter bottle is less than a fifth the size recommended for a tomato planter. Still, somewhere along the way to that blog post, I read a comment that suggested using a reusable shopping bag as an upside down planter. This I could afford!

The photos in this post reveal how I turned a reusable grocery bag into an upside down planter. The bag cost 99 cents at the grocery store, and is strong enough to carry three or four gallons of milk or orange juice. I measured and calculated and determined that this bag can hold about five gallons; gardeners recommend five-gallon containers as the appropriate size for a single tomato plant.

The biggest hassle in all of this is planting a tomato seedling in the hanging planter. It might help to hang the planter off the back of a chair, but I was able to wrestle it together while holding it. I actually worked the leaves and stem of the plant through the slit in the bag from the inside. As I added soil, I held the root ball up so just a few inches of stem and leaves protruded beneath the bag. Eventually, I half-filled the bag, figuring to add more soil as the plant grows. I looped the bag’s handles over boards on the kids’ play set; the bag hangs on the outside of the set with full southern exposure.

The Early Verdict

Making the upside down planter was simple. Planting a tomato seedling in it was a minor bother—but honestly less work than preparing a spot in the garden and planting one there. Still, all the time I was planting and hanging this thing, my brain was rolling its eyes:

Phototropism—this is the tendency of plants to grow toward light. A tomato plant pointing down out of a planter must want to turn and grow upward. Actually, there must be some geotropism involved in this urge as well (see below). For a seedling, this will be a hassle because the planter will be in the way. As the plant grows larger, it won’t be able to support its own weight anyway, so the hanging part isn’t bad thing… but why start it upside down?

Only a day after hanging, the tomato seedling is bending upward toward light… and, perhaps, against gravity (I believe a light-seeking plant grows up even in the absence of light). It would be silly to assume the roots haven’t noticed that they’ve changed orientation relative to “down.” I’m sure they’ve started growing toward the Earth’s core.

Geotropism—this is the tendency of plant roots to grow downward (and for foliage in darkness to grow upward as it searches for light). Any sane tomato root wants to be geotropic. While planting my seedlings, I wished they were “leggy” meaning they had spent too long in a small pot and had grown tall without growing thick. Then I could put the root balls deep into the bag—or close to the surface of the soil, and they’d be able to grow down to take advantage of the large space. If the root ball starts near the bottom of the bag, I expect roots will grow down, hit the bottom of the bag, and try to grow horizontally, looking for places they can grown down some more. Eventually, I think, the plants will become root-bound without having used the full bag of soil above them. I won’t know if I’m right until I dig into the bag when the tomato plant dies in the fall.

Gravity flow from roots to leaves—give me a break. If gravity helped move water and nutrition through plants, I imagine we’d see a lot of plants capitalize on this free assist. Even bromeliads that root in trees grow upward. If gravity helps, then evolution should have favored bromeliads that droop, and these would be the dominant species. For that matter, why aren’t there more plants that grow downhill on hillsides and mountainsides? Do your tomato plants a favor and make it easy for them to grow the way they want to.

Small Kitchen Garden Planters

So, I’ve installed some upside down planters, and will enjoy the experiment. However, in the interest of exploring best practices, I offer this: a reusable shopping bag is easy to hang, and you could let a tomato plant grow out of the top. My fear with that is that the weight a mature plant will strain and quite likely crush the stem where it curves over the top of the bag and hangs downward.

More Container Gardening

Visit my friend Kerry Michaels’ blog to learn what she has done with reusable grocery bags and to read a lot more about small kitchen gardens in containers: Container Gardening

I suggest, and am about to create, a hanging planter where the root ball of the tomato seedling goes into the side of the bag just a few inches below the soil line. The stem and leaves of the plant should angle downward diagonally out of the hole in the bag. With this scheme, the roots start near the top of the soil and have all five gallons to fill before they start growing sidewise. The plant begins serious growth with the stem pointing along the path it would eventually follow anyway. As the stem thickens, the weight of the growing plant will bend it downward less abruptly, so it’s less likely to crimp or crack.

I’ll put one together like this, and post a photo soon. In the meantime, check out those reusable shopping bags. They make terrific planters whether you hang them, or just set them on your deck, patio, balcony, rooftop, walkway, play set…


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Tomato-Planting Tips

These tomato seedlings are about two months old. In March, I planted seeds indoors from tomatoes a neighbor gave me last autumn. The plants should produce large, pepper-shaped tomatoes that are mostly meat; I found only about 40 seeds in each of them. I’ll cook these tomatoes into sauce.

If you think of planting a small kitchen garden as a horse race, then most of us are on the home stretch. Despite the unusually cold spring, our cool weather crops are maturing, and we’ve been setting out seedlings of vegetables that thrive in summer heat. For many in hardiness zone 5, planting tomatoes in April or May led to some aggravation this season: frost hit well into May, and we were out in our small kitchen gardens repeatedly, covering our plants with tarps, bed sheets, buckets, flower pots, cloches, or mulch to protect them from the cold. If you were cautious, you might not yet have planted summer crops. That’s OK. There is still plenty of good growing season to come, and now is a great time to finish up your planting.

Plant Tomatoes Now

If you haven’t planted tomatoes, do it as soon as you possibly can. Many varieties of tomatoes require as many as 100 days to mature—from the time you set seedlings in the garden. But I am talking about seedlings. By this I mean plants that are growing in small pots or flats, that are about four to six weeks old, and that haven’t started to flower or grow suckers.

In preparation for planting, I used a “low-till” approach: I removed weeds across a two-foot swath of the planting bed, stretched some yarn to mark the row, and set my potted plants along the row where I intended to plant them. I explained the steps I use to prepare soil in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2… but in reviewing that post just now I realize I exaggerated: When planting seedlings, I don’t turn over all the soil in a row; I remove the weeds, then dig individual holes for the seedlings. I turn all the soil in a row only if I’m planting seeds. Crazily, I set seedlings one foot apart in this row – I’ve never planted tomatoes so close, but I’ve seen it done. I hope it doesn’t cause problems.

If you follow planting instructions that come with your plants and seeds, you need to measure two-foot, three-foot, and 18-inch gaps constantly. You can mess with a tape measure, mark up the handles of your gardening tools, use your body parts as guides, or follow my mom’s lead and carve a measuring stick. This is a three-foot-long apple branch. I carved rings in the bark a foot from each end and at the center, making it easy to measure standard plant and row spacings.

In late spring, nurseries might offer older, more developed plants that may be flowering or setting fruit. You can start these in the garden and expect production many weeks earlier than you’ll see with seedlings. I wrote about these concerns in my preceding post How to Plant Tomatoes in Raised Beds. Please look it over for more thoughts about what to look for when shopping for tomato seedlings.

My tomato seedlings are about eight inches tall and the root balls add another three inches. I don’t want to dig foot-deep holes, so I plant my seedlings on their sides. I dig each hole about eight inches deep, and, perhaps, a foot or two across.

Tomato-Planting Tips

If you’re buying seedlings, select ones with short, thick stems. In late spring, your only choices may have skinny, tall stems, but don’t be discouraged; you can compensate for the “legginess.”

This late in the spring (unless you have very long summers), select varieties that mature quickly. Many varieties list 65 or 75 days to maturity; they’ll have more days to provide fruit than varieties needing 100 or more days to mature.

You can plant a seedling still packed in its peat pot, but don’t. Roots wrap around inside the pot and only slowly grow through the peat. To remove a pot – peat or plastic – gently squeeze the pot repeatedly from all sides. Then grasp the tomato plant’s stem and pull the root ball out. If the plant doesn’t leave a peat pot easily, moisten the pot and then tear it off of the root ball. If the roots are cramped, use your thumbs to separate them a smidge; you might tear some, but loosening them will help them adapt quickly to their new home in the garden. Note that I’m adding a scoop of compost to half-fill the hole before I set the seedling in it.

Have you selected determinate or indeterminate varieties? The answer may influence whether you stake your plants, use cages, or let your plants free-range (grow along the ground as they choose). If the tag that comes with the tomato plant doesn’t identify it as determinate or indeterminate, the person selling it should be able to tell you. See the box, What’s Determinate? for an explanation of the differences.

Lay the root ball at one side of the hole and angle the plant’s stem across the bottom of the hole. Bend the stem up so the top three leaves of the plant will be above ground when you fill the hole with soil. Don’t fill the hole even with the level of the garden bed; leave it a smidge low so water will pool around the plant during rain or when you water the garden. Immediately after you plant a seedling this way, it may look unhappy, but it should pep up very quickly.

Consider how you’ll manage your plants. If they’ll grow “free-range,” they’ll need a lot of ground space; a tomato plant might stretch eight or nine feet along the ground, and spread four-to-eight feet from side-to-side. Indeterminate tomatoes lend themselves well to staking. Determinate varieties might do best in cages. Will you tie them to stakes? Will you support them with strings that dangle from overhead wires, pipes, or other trellises? Will you surround them with cages? Read more about managing tomato plants in my post, Are You a Sucker-Plucker?

Let your tomatoes free-range only as a last resort. A free-range tomato plant requires virtually no attention to do well. However, fruits on free-range plants are especially vulnerable. In dry summers, rodents may snack on tomatoes that are close to the ground. And, a tomato resting on the ground invites insects and disease; you’ll get much healthier fruit if you stake or cage your plants to keep the fruits off the ground. I let only my cherry tomatoes and my “volunteers” (plants that grow from seed left in random places by last year’s crop) free-range.

Though planted less than 24 hours earlier with its crown lying on the ground, this tomato seedling has already picked itself up and pointed toward the sky. If I’m staking my tomato plants, I like to get the stakes planted within a week of planting the seedlings. I pound eight-foot stakes about a foot deep, and indeterminate plants always outgrow them.

Tomato plants are a lot like weeds: it’s very hard to destroy them by accident. I once accidentally bent a young tomato stem so it broke about half way through. I tied the plant against a tomato stake, and it grew to maturity, matching its neighboring uninjured plants.

Tomato plants root easily at any point along their stems. So, if your plant hangs down onto the soil, it may put down roots. More importantly: if a seedling is “leggy” you can get it under control by planting most of its stem underground. When you plant younger seedlings, leave only the top three leaves above the surface. The photos in the post demonstrate how to plant a leggy tomato plant without having to dig a deep hole.

Tomato plants are heavy drinkers. They shouldn’t live in soaking wet soil, but they welcome daily deep watering.

Tomato plants do not require daily deep watering. In fact, they grow very well even in arid situations. However, when tomatoes are developing, they’ll come out best when your plants receive regular watering: daily, every other day, every third day… whatever you can handle as long as it’s consistent.

What’s Determinate?

Many varieties of tomatoes continue to grow until an outside influence kills them. For those of us in temperate zones, the outside influence is usually frost. Hypothetically, these indeterminate tomato plants will continue growing indefinitely as long as the conditions are favorable.

A determinate tomato plant has a built-in off switch. It simply stops growing at some point during the season.

Tomato enthusiasts promote all kinds of watering schemes; they’re all good. I know a grower who punched holes in #10-sized cans, and buried a can next to each tomato he planted… buried it with the can’s open top at soil level. Each day, he filled the can to the top with water; it was “The perfect amount of water for a tomato.” Poke around on the web, and I’m sure you’ll find other such watering schemes. Photo captions in this post explain my very simple watering scheme; a fine solution for a lazy garden.

Vine-ripened, shmine-ripened! Ancient farmers have told me, “A farmer can tell whether a tomato ripened on the vine.” Without scientific investigation, I can authoritatively report: HOGWASH. I wrote a post titled, Are Your Tomatoes a Mess? It explains how to harvest tomatoes with incredibly reliable results, and I stand by it. I’ve harvested tomatoes this way for ten years, and am still awed at how consistently better they are than vine-ripened tomatoes.

Before You Plant Tomatoes

Your Small Kitchen Garden has presented several posts that explain how to prepare garden beds for planting. The first of these articles explains the benefits of preparing soil. The second and third provide step-by-step instructions for preparing traditional planting beds using traditional methods, and using the “minimal till” approach that I use in my garden. The fourth article suggests one approach to preparing soil in a raised planting bed. Links appear at the bottom of this box.

The instructions in this post for planting tomatoes assume that you’ve prepared your soil and have marked a row awaiting seedlings.

1. Prepare to plant

2. Soil Preparation 1

3. Soil Preparation 2

4. Soil Preparation 3


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How to Plant Tomatoes in Raised Beds

If you’re still shopping for tomato seedlings for your small kitchen garden, consider buying large plants that are already flowering or setting fruit. If a seedling is over six inches tall, it should have a fairly tick stem at the base—perhaps as thick as your pinky finger. If the plant is setting fruit, the stem should be even thicker. This three-foot tall tomato cost $20 and came with a pot and a tomato cage: everything you’d need to manage it on your patio or deck. For around $5, I could buy a two-foot tall plant ready to transplant into my garden.

If your small kitchen garden is in raised garden beds, you shouldn’t have to work real hard to plant in the spring. Soil in a raised planting bed gets little or no foot traffic. This means it shouldn’t get compressed, and it shouldn’t require deep tilling to make life easy on plant roots.

That said, you really need to get moving if you haven’t yet planted your small kitchen garden. At this point, cold-weather crops should be well under way; perhaps you’re even eating spinach and lettuce, and there are flowers on your pea plants. If you’re growing tomatoes, you’d have done very well to keep them indoors under lights until now; April and some of May have been the coldest I remember in 14 years of kitchen gardening in hardiness zone 5/6.

As of the first of June, I can hope to see four solid months before any threat of frost; that’s 100 days for the slowest-growing plants to mature, and only twenty days of tomato harvest. Of course, I should get a much better harvest if I plant tomato varieties that mature quickly; some claim 65 days to maturity, which would provide 55 days of tomato harvest.

Prepare a raised bed by weeding, spreading three inches of compost or manure, and marking off planting zones. I set potted tomato seedlings on the soil to evaluate their spacing in the bed.

Plant Tomatoes Now

If you want to ensure your best harvest from slow-growing tomatoes, buy large plants. At garden stores and nurseries in late spring, you can usually find plants so mature that they are already flowering… and maybe even setting fruit. Such plants are pricey, but if you can plant them this week, and start harvesting within a month, they’ll easily pay for themselves.

To plant a seedling—tomato or otherwise—in a small kitchen garden raised bed, dig a hole through the compost layer into the soil. Pile the soil you remove from the hole to one side, and dig deep enough to set the root ball of the seedling completely under ground.

Use the soil you removed to make the hole to back-fill around the root ball. This combines soil and compost, providing a rich mix for the seedling. Other photos below illustrate appropriate planting depths for tomatoes and for nearly all other produce seedlings.

Look for leafy plants with thick stems—perhaps as thick as your index finger (or your thumb) where they emerge from the soil. Don’t buy a large tomato plant that has long, skinny stems between leaves. Chances are it hasn’t received enough light or it’s severely pot-bound, or both.

If you still have time to get in 120 or more frost-free growing days, you can plant four-to-six-week-old tomatoes from flats. Again, be cautious: by late spring, garden stores may be selling off the last of the year’s seedling inventory. If you have a choice between tall, slender plants with few leaves, or short, thick-stemmed plants with lots of leaves, buy the short ones. But if your only choice is tall, slender plants (many gardeners call them “leggy”), that’s OK. Under your expert care, they’ll fatten up and produce beautifully (it’s a simple trick I’ll explain in an upcoming post).

When your seedling is in a peat pot, you can plant the pot along with the seedling. I encourage you, however, to tear off the pot. Though roots can grow through the peat, as you see here they tend to wrap around inside the pot and slow the plant’s growth. I buy tomatoes in flats which are usually plastic. To remove one for planting, gently squeeze the cell it’s in a few times, then pull up on the stem of the seedling.

How to Make the Bed

That sub-head is metaphorical, referring not to the actual building of a raised bed, but rather to adjusting the pillows, sheets, and blankets to make a bed look tidy after you get up in the morning. I wrote several posts about preparing soil for planting, the last of which described one method for preparing a raised bed: remove weeds and other debris and then cover the bed with three inches of compost or manure. Please read the entire post here: Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation

With the organic layer in place, planting a seedling is a snap: dig a hole large enough to fit the root ball, insert plant, back-fill with compost and soil. The photos in this post illustrate how to plant a tomato seedling in a raised bed. In an upcoming post, I’ll explain some characteristics of tomato plants that make them easy to grow. I’ll also explain how to deal with problem tomato seedlings to get the best possible results from them.

Planting Depth in a Small Kitchen Garden

Most kitchen garden plants will rot and die if you plant their stems too deeply. Tomatoes, on the other hand, benefit from having a lot of stem underground. As a rule, plant according to the photo on the left below. When planting tomato seedlings, plant according to the photo on the right.

For nearly every type of seedling you might plant in a small kitchen garden, set the top of the seedling’s potting soil even with the soil of the garden bed. The green line on the photo to the left emphasizes that the top of the root ball of the pepper plant will sit even with the soil of the container in which I’m planting it. Plant tomatoes deep. The stem of the six-inch tomato seedling I’ve planted on the right was already hardening off and would not have thickened as the plant grew. So, I’ve buried the root ball deep enough that only the top three leaves of the seedling are above soil (the green line shows the path of the stem from the roots to the surface). Roots will sprout along the buried stem, and new growth above ground will thicken out, making a strong plant.

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