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? 

Garden journal

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What you can’t see in this photo: seeds for scallions, peas, tomatoes, and basil, all just below the surface of the dirt. The tomato and basil seeds are under this mini-greenhouse-thingy. The green plant that is visible is a raspberry bush. It will get bigger. I hope. 

Today I planted seeds for spinach; scallions; chives; the first batch of tomatoes, and basil. The tomatoes are an experiment. I’m not one for transplanting, so I’m starting the seeds under this row shelter. It’s a sort of lightweight portable greenhouse, designed to keep the air and soil within it warmer than they would be otherwise – and thus, I hope, encourage the tomatoes to grow. I don’t know if it will work. I’m hopeful but not confident.

This brings my total number of garden-beds-planted out to two – the two smallest, out of six total, but still. It feels like progress. I’d already planted peas, and they’ve started to sprout; and two years ago I put in strawberries, which being perennials, remain right where they are and just keep on producing. I pulled back the bindweed from the raspberries, and they are starting to send out runners from main plant & generally expand, so I’m optimistic about that as well.

Dirt is wonderful.

I am not, I would say, an experienced gardener. The six beds I’m planting out now will be my first full-scale vegetable garden. Previously, I had the strawberries, and I grew peas last year, and for several years I’ve bought tomato plants at the nursery and put them in, with mixed success (sometime I get the tomatoes, sometimes the squirrels do) – and I have thyme and oregano and rosemary, all of which are pretty much plant ‘em and forget ‘em types of herbs. But this year …

This year is different.

When work-from-home / shelter-in-place / buy-groceries-only-every-two-weeks began, the first thing I did was buy a frying pan. The second thing I did was think I am only growing things to eat. Then I bought seeds. It wasn’t a well thought out plan. It felt more like instinct, a do this now urge that, while imperative, didn’t come with a lot of background knowledge or detailed instructions. I didn’t know how many of any kind of plant I would want, or even how many would fit in the space I have. I didn’t know how long things would take to produce, or what to do about fertilizer, or how far apart to plant things.

I figured it was better to have too many seeds than too few, so I bought more seeds than I needed. I focused on things I like to eat, that are best eaten uncooked (spinach, kale, tomatoes, herbs to brighten up canned goods or casseroles), that I just love and want lots of access to (corn, snap peas, more tomatoes, melon, zucchini), that seem like really handy things to eat that I might not want to get from a store (green beans, scallions, dill, chili peppers).

Then I started clearing weeds.

Then I made a spreadsheet.

I don’t have a lot of experience, but I am very very good at online research of the how-to variety, and I am very very good at structuring information. My spreadsheet lists the seeds I’m planting down one side, and across the top has months, broken down into half-months. Based on looking up when to plant, how long things take to grow and mature, and when to harvest, I now have a diagram showing what the seed producers + the collective wisdom of the internet think I should plant when, and how soon I can expect to see it sprout, and how soon I can expect to eat it.

My plan is to take notes as I go, and see what works. I do want to eat all this goodness this year; but I also want to learn, and I’m enough of a realist to suspect that some things I’ve planted will work out better than others.

So. Today I planted out the first two beds.

By the end of the week….

Really easy gardening (in pots! in not much space!)

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Baby snap pea plant. Gardening makes things better!

A few friends who are sheltering in place in apartments (or houses with not much outdoor space) have asked about growing herbs and veggies in containers, and how to get started.

This is totally do-able! You just need pots; potting soil; and seeds. It can be sort of intimidating to figure out which, though, so if you want an easy way to get started, here’s a list:

Pots and dirt

I’m linking to Home Depot because they’re open, and offer delivery. Your local garden store might be open too! If so, just ask them for three or four large-ish pots and the equivalent amount of potting mix.

Self-watering planter, 1 (or 2 if adding a tomato plant)

Rectangular deck box, 2 (or 3 if adding basil)

Potting soil, 2 bags (or 3, if you get an additional planter and/or deck box)

Seeds

I’m listing seeds that are easy to grow; don’t need transplanting, staking, or other special stuff; grow quickly; and are a reasonable size to grow in containers.

I’m linking to KitchenGardenSeeds.com because I’ve ordered from them before, and they’re open and shipping. I also like RedwoodSeeds.net and ReneesGarden.com.

Snap peas: Sugar Ann

Arugula: Runaway Arugula

Spinach: Bordeaux Red-Stemmed Spinach

Parsley: Gigante d’Italia

Cilantro: Caribe

If you have a sunny spot, you can also do:

Tomatoes: Cherry Falls (doesn’t need a tomato cage!)

Basil: Bonazza

Planting

The seed packets will have planting instructions. In general, all these seeds should be planted just below the surface, about 1/4” to 1/2” deep.

Peas: plant them in the self-watering pot.

Arugula & spinach: plant in one of the rectangular boxes; use half the box for each one.

Parsley & cilantro: plant in the other rectangular box; use half the box for each one.

Tomato: plant in the other self-watering pot.

Basil: plant in half the other rectangular box; use the other half for whichever other type of seed you like best.

Tomatoes like warmth, so if you have space, start by keeping the pot indoors and move it outside only once the seedlings are 5”-6” tall. If you don’t have space indoors, find a sunny spot for the tomato – in front of a wall that gets sun reflected off it is a good choice.

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