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Posts Tagged ‘plant tomatoes’

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 www.ohcripes.com. 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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Frost Emergency in a Small Kitchen Garden

I planted tomatoes when it was clear there was no further danger of frost. That afternoon, the weather service issued a frost advisory, and we’re facing at least two more nights of unseasonal cold. My tomato babies are not happy with me.

Have you planted your small kitchen garden? More importantly, have you planted it earlier than you should have? Apparently, I have. I started setting my tomato seedlings in the garden during the past weekend; I’ve planted 34 seedlings in my small kitchen garden.

Then, guess what? Canada generously sent some fresh air this direction. My small kitchen garden found itself at the southern edge of a wall of cold air, and meteorologists warned that there would be “pockets of frost” in my area.

Frost kills tomato plants. So, despite having been planted at the average last frost date for my area (which varies, depending on who you ask), my tomatoes faced possible doom on the same day they first felt the touch of garden soil.

Frost Emergency Countermeasures

A late spring frost is usually very light. Because the ground has warmed well above freezing, a light frost isn’t likely to settle on it. However, leaves that hang free a few inches above the soil may become cold enough to freeze through. You can protect such leaves simply by surrounding them with heat captured from the soil.

I rigged a simple tent to protect my tomato plants. As the plants are in three adjacent rows of the garden, I pounded wooden uprights into the ground at regular intervals between the rows; eight uprights in all standing about 18 inches above the ground. Then I pulled our 20’ by 14’ camping tarp from the shed and draped it over the uprights. Finally, I weighted the tarp with bricks and pieces of broken cinder blocks in case a wind comes up. (Photos at end of this post.)

The tarp will hold in plenty of heat coming off the soil. Even if the air temperature drops below freezing my young tomato plants will stay warm. Aside from tomatoes, I have onions, peas, lettuce, spinach, and carrots already sprouted in my garden. None of those will mind a light frost; only the tomatoes needed cover.

If you’ve planted cold-sensitive plants during this period when so many regions are passing their last frost dates, pay attention to frost alerts in your newspapers, on TV, and in on-line weather reports. If the forecast is for temperatures of 40F degrees or lower, take your potted plants inside, and rig some kind of cover for the ones you’ve already set in the ground.

I’m fortunate to have a giant tarp that we bought on a camping trip where the rain never stopped. Supported by wooden uprights I installed between the rows, this tarp will trap in heat and keep my newly-planted tomato seedlings from freezing if frost descends on the garden. If you don’t have a tarp, you can drape annuals with bed sheets to protect them from frost. Remember to remove such covers after frost melts in the morning.

 

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