Tomato seed should be sown no sooner than four to six weeks before the last spring frost.
Plant the seed thinly, covering with a soilless mix to a depth of one-quarter inch, and use a mild fertilizer of one level teaspoon of 20 20 20 dissolved in two gallons of water at each watering. Keep the soil slightly moist at room temperature until the seeds germinate, usually within five to seven days. Grow the seedlings at normal room temperature during the day and 10 lower at night. Seedling tomatoes should receive 16 hours of daylight and eight hours of darkness.
Fluorescent grow lights work well for tomatoes and they should be three inches above the top of the seedlings. Transplant the seedlings into larger individual pots after the seedlings develop their first true set of leaves – usually within one week after germination. Use a soil mix consisting of one-third soil, one-third well-aged compost, and one-third mix of peat moss and pearlite. Plant the seedlings deep, to just below the leaves, then press the soil down to avoid air pockets. Sprinkle one teaspoon of 14 14 14 slow-release fertilizer onto the surface of each pot. Continue watering with the 20 20 20 dissolvable fertilizer, allowing the soil to become dry between waterings. This develops strong stems. Within a few weeks, transplant once more, into six-inch pots.
After the garden soil warms and danger of frosts are over, both indeterminate (staking tomatoes) and determinate (bush tomatoes) can be planted into the garden or into large tubs and staked or simply allowed to sprawl on the ground.
Tall plants risk the chance of being broken by strong winds, so gouging out a long, slanted, horizontal trench in the garden is a good idea. Prairie winds often blow in from the north and west so put the plant in the trench with the top facing south or east and cover the plant with only the top exposed. A strong new root system will develop along the stem by absorbing the sun’s warmth close to the earth’s surface. Within one week the top will turn upright to the light, becoming a strong plant. It can be staked, but is not necessary.
Fertilize at each watering with dissolvable 20 20 20 at a ratio of one teaspoon per gallon of water and an application according to directions of slow-release fertilizer for each plant.
Cutworms can become a problem, especially when generous amounts of well-aged manure are applied to the soil. A simple deterrent of 3×6-inch pieces of newspaper wrapped half below and the other half above soil level around the tomato stem should help keep them away. Biodegradable newspaper will break down in the moist soil after the main cutworm season is over. For maximum growth on tomatoes do not wrap the stems with tinfoil, tin cans or lids.
Lack of calcium and irregular watering is the main cause of blossom end rot. Apply one-half cup of slow-release 14 14 14 fertilizer and one-quarter cup of calcium around each plant around the beginning of July, as well as a generous 15-cm (six-inch) mulch of wheat straw. Mulch keeps the soil evenly moist benefiting the plants’ roots during dry spells.
Bush-type tomatoes can be staked, although I prefer to allow them to settle onto the straw. They do not need pruning, however, if you would like larger and less fruit on each plant, remove several blossoms. I often leave some varieties of indeterminate (staking) types to simply fall and sprawl as well. In very hot, dry summers the tomatoes will not scald as easily plus the fruit stays clean hidden in the straw.
Suckers develop in the leaf axels as buds, quickly forming a new stem, repeating all season. If many new branches and never-ending new clusters of tomatoes are allowed to grow, the end product is usually of lesser quality with smaller fruit. By pinching most of these new suckers off, the plant becomes more manageable.
To avoid having late green tomatoes, clip off all remaining blossoms one month before the first fall frost. This practice gives the plant extra energy to ripen the remaining fruit. Another approach to encourage fruit to ripen earlier is to score all the way through the roots with a shovel on two sides of the plant. This puts stress on the plant, and matures the remaining tomatoes.
Fresh, ripe tomatoes can be used in so many ways, and what could be more satisfying than a tomato sandwich made from a tomato you nurtured all summer?
– Lillian Deedman writes from Killarney, Manitoba