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Gardening with Jack: Here we Go Again

August is the true true beginning of the hurricane season for Abaconians. The Weather Channel will soon be our number one channel to catch first thing in the morning and our attention will be on named systems floating across the Atlantic from Africa.

August is also a kind of forced beginning to the vegetable season. The facts of life are that tomatoes from seed to fruit take about four months. They are self-pollinating but can only do so when the temperature is about or below 68 degrees at night. That type of temperature occurs around the end of October and beginning of November. If we raise tomatoes so they will be flowering at that time we need to have the seeds in soil by the middle of this month.

The problem is, of course, that this is a dreadful time to be growing virtually any vegetable. We have heat and humidity, fungi and insects – and the possibility of a hurricane. The odds of success are against us, but if we are to have ripe tomatoes by the beginning of December we must give it a try.

The selection of tomato type is important. No matter what we grow later in the season our first tomatoes should be strong and vigorous hybrids. You can start several varieties if you wish but I will be mainly dependent on Celebrity, a hybrid tomato that had medium size fruits and resistance to nematodes. These are available from Pinewood Nursery, of course.

Try starting your seeds in 4-inch pots filled with good potting mix. I prefer this to a seed bed because the seeds and young plants are separate from each other. You can transfer individual pots to a more shaded area if that becomes necessary. Once the seeds are planted the pots can placed be in a location where they receive early and late sunlight but are sheltered from direct sunshine through the midday hours.

After planting the seeds a mere ¼ inch deep it is wise to spray the surface of the soil with a fungicide to prevent damping off, a disease that can wipe out your whole crop overnight. Once the seedlings are above ground you can spray them again, just to be sure.

Do not fertilize your plants in any way for the first three weeks, then add a sprinkling of Osmocote or other time-release fertilizer designed for potted plants. At the same time give a light spray of Miracle-Gro tomato special liquid fertilizer and repeat at weekly intervals.

Do not put all of your eggs into one basket. As soon as your first tomatoes break ground, plant a new set. Plant another two sets during September. If you find you have too many tomatoes by mid-October you can bring them to me.

Once you see roots appearing through the drainage holes of the small pots it is time to transfer your young plants to one-gallon containers. This is the ideal size for transplanting purposes. Do not be in a hurry to get your tomatoes into the garden. If a hurricane comes you can save potted plants but not those growing in the garden.

When the vines are about 2-3 feet tall and their roots have filled the gallon pot, it is time to transplant to a prepared area in your garden. This is likely to occur in mid-October. Stake or frame your vines to keep fruits off the ground. Water the transplants well for several days and then apply a small handful of granular 6-6-6 fertilizer around each, about 6 inches from the stem. Work the fertilizer an inch or so into the ground. Repeat the fertilizing monthly. Apply Miracle-Gro tomato special every two weeks.

Do not rush your juvenile tomato plants at each stage. Your reward will be vine-ripe tomatoes in your Christmas salad. 

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