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Gardening with Jack: Early Tomatoes

We are into the hottest month of the year yet it is time to start tomatoes from seed and tomatoes do not like heat. Warmth, yes, but not heat. Experienced gardeners will be able to cope with the conditions and less experienced practitioners will learn along the way what works and what does not.

Just about every gardener grows tomatoes and it is by our tomatoes we are judged. The productive season is from December to June but you can only get ripe tomatoes in late November or early December if you plant seeds during August. The reason is that tomato flowers only set fruit when nighttime temperatures drop to about 68 degrees F. This generally occurs in late October so we need to have out tomato vines healthy and flowering by this time.

The best type of tomato to grow for the first crop is a hybrid with medium sized fruits. Expert gardener Lowell Albury swears by Burpee’s Fourth of July. I will be growing Bushsteak Hybrid that has compact vine size and medium but tasty fruits that turn a yellowish colour just before developing to ripe pink. The yellow gives us an extra indication that the ripening process is well under way. In late September you can start growing your favourite tomatoes – heirlooms and such – knowing that their cultivation will be much easier and more reliable.

Sow your seeds around the middle of August in a tray or seed box containing good quality potting mix with nutrients. Dampen the mix with water then sow the seeds a quarter inch deep about 4 inches apart in all directions. The seedlings will appear within two weeks. Move your tray to a location where it receives morning and/or evening sun but is shaded to a degree during the afternoon when the sun is at its hottest. Water lightly every day.

When your seedlings are sturdy and about 6 inches tall, carefully transplant them individually to one gallon pots containing fresh potting mix. I find using my bare hands to perform the transplant is kinder to the seedling’s roots than using a trowel. A week after transplanting you can move the pots gradually to where they receive a little more sun every day until they are in full sun, a process that may take between one and two weeks. When you see flower stems developing it is time – at last – to get your tomato plants into the garden or a 5-gallon pot.

Prepare the location for your tomatoes about two weeks before the final transplant. Lightly fertilize the complete area with 6-6-6 and water well to dissolve nutrients. Remove your vines from their pots and set them into the ground at least 2 feet apart and deep enough to cover part of the main stem. A week after the transplant you can add a circle of 6-6-6 around each vine and an extra tablespoon or so dug lightly into the ground between the vines where the roots of more than one plant will be feeding. Water moderately and regularly. Blossom end rot is usually caused by erratic watering schedules.

In the absence of hurricanes you should be picking your first ripe tomatoes at the end of November or beginning of December; definitely by Christmas. The quality of summer tomatoes in our food stores has improved significantly over the past few years but there is still nothing like enjoying your own freshly picked from the vine.

This technique of transplanting your tomatoes at the budding stage guarantees you will get tomatoes even if your soil is riddled with predatory nematodes. Grow your second set of tomatoes for the season in a separate location, the third – in January or March – in another area again.

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