Early Tomatoes


Anemic-looking tomato plants in greenhouse
I wouldn’t have done it without some kind of protection, but last weekend, I started planting tomatoes in the garden. I’m three weeks late – at least by my own gardening calendar.  Here on the Upper Eastern Shore Mother’s Day is the rule of thumb for planting tomatoes, but I try to get big healthy plants in by late April. To do this, you need to protect them well. I use Walls o’ Water. These channeled plastic rings act as mini in-situ greenhouses and let me harvest a handful of cherry tomatoes in early June. (Many of our neighbors vie to bring in the first slicer by the 4thof July, but I want Greek salad in June. Competitive gardening is cutthroat over here.).
There have been tomato plants in our local garden center since about mid-April. That’s really much too early for them to go out unprotected, and some were a little cold-browned at the edges. But garden centers have been pushed to get things in earlier and earlier both by competing big box stores that haul in truckloads of tender annuals earlier than is sensible garden-wise (unless you’re putting them in a pot you that you bring inside or protect during late frosts and cold nights), and by their customers, who are champing at the bit to get something in the ground. But I digress. Kinda.
Flattened Walls o’ Water to be filled

Though I tempt Fate, I’m usually proud of my tomato plants (however, more than once I’ve been humbled by a ham-fisted storm that seems like a personally-directed act of God — take THAT, you tomato-proud woman, you!). This year, however, I wasn’t proud of my babies. I started them later than usual plus they were anemic-looking. Although I keep the greenhouse at 55F at night, the organic potting soil that I have been using this year is sodden and chilly, which could mean phosphorous deprivation. (Cold inhibits a plant’s ability to use phosphorous, though you’d think if that were the problem, it would be solved by now). It looks as though they also lack nitrogen, despite the bag’s promise that the organic potting soil will feed for 6-8 weeks. I wondered if the dampness of the potting soil promoted nitrogen leak. Every bag I’ve come across this year is sodden, as though it had been salvaged from a flooded warehouse in Poughkeepsie. Nitrogen is water-soluble, so was it washed out of the mix? Additionally, the stuff in the bottom of the bag smelled faintly sulfurous — some weird though not visible fungus? (I’ve had one Fish pepper die of damping off, rare in my experience, though the rest look fine so far).  I fed everything, which has kinda helped, but I thought the tomatoes especially needed a change of venue.
Buckets in center make it easier to fill channels with water
Last weekend, I prepped a couple of beds, filled the aforementioned Walls o’ Water, and planted nine plants – tough Sungold and Black Pearl cherry tomatoes, plus Big Rainbow, Gold Medal, a couple of Big Mamas, a Supersauce, and a Steakhouse hybrid – then put a Wall o’ Water over each. I left the ground around the plants inside the wall bare, so the brown earth would stay warmer than if mulched, then mulched with straw on the outside of the wall.  Then cages for better stability. Fingers crossed. Despite everything being about three weeks later than usual this year, I’m still hoping for tomatoes in June. Unless there’s an act of God.
Buckets gone. Walls in place around plants. Garden dog on watch.

2 Comments on “Early Tomatoes

  1. Seed starting mix, whether you are using a commercial soilless mix or some form of organic mix needs to be sterile when seeds are planted. Sterility can be compromised if the seed starting mix has been allowed to sit out in the elements and gotten wet. So, when buying seed starting mix, make sure that it is stored in a dry area. If a bag or bale of mix feels heavier than usual, ask for another bag.

  2. I buy the 3 cub ft of Pro Mix, it it totally dry, add water when needen

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