The tomato that shouldn’t exist

This is a Chadwick Cherry tomato, planted from seed I bought early in the pandemic from RedwoodSeeds.net. Isn’t it doing nicely? Look at those blossoms! That sturdy stem! The equally nice little basil plants to either side! (Ignore the weeds. Nothing to see there. Focus on the basil!)

This tomato plant is, I think, looking good. And by all expectations, it shouldn’t exist. 

When I planted it, I did everything wrong, as far as standard gardening advice goes. I planted seed directly in the ground on April 9. April 9 is too early to plant tomatoes, and planting seeds directly is not recommended in any source I’ve found. The recommended approach is to either buy seedlings from a nursery, or else start seeds indoors, carefully sheltered in a warm spot, preferably with grow lights and a heat mat. Either of these methods gives the tomato seedlings a chance to start earlier, because tomatoes take a long time to produce fruit, and in warmer conditions, because tomatoes love heat. And there were so many things I didn’t know! I didn’t know how much variability different kinds of tomatoes have in terms of cold tolerance, and heat needs, and days to produce tomatoes. I didn’t know that tomatoes need night time temperatures over fifty degrees in order to set fruit (can this really be true?! I’m still incredulous about this.) I did know that “days to maturity” on a seed packet means “approximately how long it will take to get tomatoes,” but I didn’t realize that for tomatoes, the clock starts when you plant a seedling, not when you plant seeds

So in other words, I had no idea what I was doing! I planted this tomato both too early and too late, and in far-from-ideal conditions. About the only thing I did to give it a fighting chance was hope, figure “how hard can it be?” in a naive and uninformed fashion, and cover the seeds with a floating shelter to keep a bit of heat in. 

(Why did I do it this way? Partly laziness reality-based planning. I’m in the middle of a house remodel and it was the beginning of the pandemic. I wasn’t about to figure out where to buy seedling trays and potting soil, start seedlings indoors, figure out about a heat source, move a bunch of bay plants around out of the way of construction, deal with transplanting, etc. I do not need more fuss or chaos. And partly, optimism resulting from lack of knowledge. If I’d known that days-to-maturity thing, I might have thought this wouldn’t work at all, and not bothered/given up. Ignorance occasionally leads to a good outcome!) 

Yet here it is. 

It hasn’t yet produced tomatoes, but June is early for that, and meanwhile it is every bit as big and healthy-looking as the three seedlings I bought later from a nursery, and which I planted at the recommended time. 

One of the most interesting things I’m realizing about gardening is the science-experiment nature of it all. At the same time I planted this Chadwick Cherry, I also planted two other varieties in similarly non-ideal conditions: Brad’s Atomic Grape, and Thessaloniki, both also from seed, and both also directly in the ground under shelters. Similar conditions, similar approach, but neither of those are doing anywhere near as well in terms of either size, sturdiness, or blossoms. 

So – next year, which varieties of tomatoes will I plant, and how will I go about it? It depends in part on how all these tomatoes do over the summer. Is the Chadwick Cherry tasty? Does it produce fruit in addition to these blossoms? Do the other currently-unimpressive seedlings catch up? How do all those compare to the nursery seedlings? I’m hoping that some of these direct-seeded plants do well enough for that to seems reasonable again next year – if so, I might experiment with more traditional / improv style shelters (ie, empty plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut out!), and see how those compare to the row covers. And now that I know more about varieties, and what to look for in seed-packet descriptions (“early” seems to be key, and maybe “cold hardy” or similar; cherry tomatoes are likely to set the most fruit, and in prior years were less prone to squirrel depredations), I might stick with whatever works this year, and then branch out to a few new varieties too.  

Mostly I’m hoping for more tomatoes than I can realistically eat* – but looking further out, I’m aiming to figure out which varieties of tomato I can grow, lazily but successfully, in my own particular garden. 

*Admittedly, I have not yet found the limit on that, but there must be one. Right? 

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