I hear voices then I work in my garden. Usually it’s my mom, Erika’s, voice saying things like “the best time to prune that is right after it’s done blooming,” or “make sure that gets enough water – it has a shallow root ball.” She taught me almost everything I know about gardening, and I continue to learn from her.
But when it comes to tomatoes, I hear my old nextdoor neighbor, Mr. B. He’s been gone quite a while now, but once I shared a fence with this sweet, friendly old gentleman. His vegetable garden was his pride and joy, and his tomatoes were his claim to fame.
He raised his tomatoes from seeds on his dining room windowsill and babied them along, even making sure that the tap water he gave them was not too cold.
Tough Love For His Babies
One day, Mr. B gave me one of his little baby tomato plants, an Early Girl. He told me to take off some of the bottom leaves and plant the tomato deep into the soil. He pointed to a leaf about halfway up the trunk of the little plant and said in his soft, shaky voice, “everything under this leaf can go.”
I couldn’t believe he would want me to do this to his baby. Sensing my confusion, and probably not completely trusting me with his baby, he guided me through finding the right container and soil, making sure everything was clean, and then planting the tomato deep, burying a fair amount of its trunk in the soil.
And by “guided me,” I really mean that he did all the work while I watched. Because to Mr. B, this process was something of a ritual. One of his babies was taking its next step.
Following Mr. B’s Advice – Sort of
Mr. B only had a dining room windowsill on which to raise his fabulous tomatoes. But this year I started my tomatoes, sweet little Minibels, which only get about a foot tall, from seeds in my new greenhouse.
And we recently got some other tomato starts at our favorite annual plant sale. Like Mr. B, we don’t usually go in for fancy plants, just the tried-and-true standards. Chris always wants his Sun Gold plants, and I always get an Early Girl in Mr. B’s honor.
But this year I did get an ornamental tomato plant, which Mr. B. probably wouldn’t approve of, called a Silver Fir Tree.
This plant and the others we bought were in small pots and probably becoming root bound. They needed to be moved to larger pots right away.
I pruned off the bottom leaves of the plant, almost up to the center of the trunk.
I wanted to make sure also that, when I planted it, the lowest leaf was high enough above the soil not to touch it. This way, pests and mildews will have a harder time accessing the plant.
I planted it deep in a large container. It always seems strange to bury some of the plant’s trunk, but I have since heard from experts other than Mr. B that it’s a good way to go.
Now I have a small plant in a big container. And it already looks happier.
Burying the plant deep encourages more root development and a hardier plant.
More Tips from Mr. B.
Everyone has their own way of growing tomatoes. I’m not saying Mr. B had all the answers, but I thought I would share some of his other tips. If you are a seasoned tomato gardener, you probably already know most of these.
Plant Tomatoes in Large, Well-Drained Containers
Mr. B. always planted his tomatoes in plastic containers, never directly into the ground. And he never used anything smaller than a 5-gallon container. The larger the plant was expected to grow, the larger the container he used.
Make Sure the Container is Perfectly Clean and Use New Soil
This help keep pests, creeps and mildews to a minimum. Never re-use last year’s soil or use a container that isn’t clean.
Water Tomatoes Only at the Base
This is not a plant to water with an overhead sprinkler. Water on a tomato plant’s leaves could result in mildew, rot, disfigurement, and even early death.
If possible, it’s even a good idea to protect it from rain while still making sure it gets enough sunlight.
The tomato should be watered regularly at the base and kept evenly moist.
Water in the Morning as Opposed to Evening
Pests, creeps and cooties know they are disgusting so they are more likely to come out at night. And they are usually attracted by moisture.
Mildew also takes hold and spreads with moisture. So if you water your tomato in the morning, by evening the moisture on and around the plant will be at a minimum, making it less of a creep magnet.
Don’t Put Your Tomatoes Out Too Early
Of course, this depends entirely on where you live. But in Mr. B’s Pacific Northwest garden, he often didn’t bring his tomatoes outside until almost July. By then the days and nights were warming up and the rain (hopefully) was tapering off. Tomatoes like heat.
My tomatoes will spend their nights in the greenhouse – days too if the weather is cool – for at least a couple more weeks before they are put outdoors for the season. At that point, I may move the indeterminate plants to larger containers.
Before I had a greenhouse, I would put cages around the tomatoes and wrap them with heavy-mil plastic until the weather warmed up. That worked well too.
Don’t Use Twine to Tie Up Your Tomatoes
Tomato trunks are easily damaged, so instead use plant tape, which is softer and more flexible than twine. Mr. B also used old shoelaces or fabric cut into strips when he wanted to tie his tomatoes to a stake or any other support.
In Late Season, Pinch Back New Growth
As tomato season winds down, look to see if there are any new flowers forming on the plant. These flowers probably won’t develop into fruit and ripen before the season ends. By pinching this new growth off, the plant can concentrate its energy into more efficiently growing the existing fruit.
Enjoy Your Bounty
Mr. B grew enough vegetables to keep all his friends and neighbors happy. And that made him happy.
Lucky for me, he shared his knowledge as well as his vegetables. And so his advice lives on, even though he probably thought I wasn’t listening.
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