Well it’s almost that time again . . . I’m still eating the canned tomatoes of last summer and already I need to start thinking about planting the seeds for this year. If you’ve read any of our earlier posts you’ll know I’m completely bananas for tomatoes. On our 33 x 108 foot urban lot, in amongst the gazillion other veggies, we planted 50 tomato plants last year, 12 varieties in all.
a baby potato-leaf variety we call "Ed's" after the neighbour who gave us the seeds
The neighbours thought we were crazy at first, but when the fruit started to ripen their comments stopped and suddenly they “conveniently” had plastic bags in their pockets on their evening walks, eager to inquire if I had a few tomatoes to spare! The cheek! I kept the old gal on the corner in steady supply of tomatoes for most of August, and introduced my newly-immigrated Chinese neighbours to the pleasures of tomatoes that come in colours other than red. They were at first perplexed when I told them I was growing purple tomatoes, but next thing I knew they were leaning over the fence politely inquiring if there were any more! Even my mail-lady bashfully admitted that she’d been sneaking cherry tomatoes off the arbour all summer. Thankfully there was more than enough to go around. I finally stopped weighing the harvest when the total hit 300 pounds!!
one day's harvest
If you have never grown anything from seed before, heirloom tomatoes are just about the most wonderful veg I can think of to start on. Growing from seed is easy and can be done on the cheap. The tomatoes you see above would have cost me well over 200 dollars at the farmer’s market, but seeds are usually no more than 3 or 4 dollars a packet. If you’re really smart, you will do one better and find someone who already grows heirloom tomatoes from seed and pinch a few seeds off them.
Gardening from seed is like that song we used to sing as little kids – It’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor! Sing it with me – Love is somethin’ if you give it away, you end up having more!
My singalong aside, this really is the magical thing about gardening. Unlike the Monsanto’s of the world who believe in the paradigm of scarcity, greedily hoarding the very seeds of life (literally) for fear that there won’t be enough for everyone so they’re going to keep it all for themselves . . . Any good gardener knows that in fact the opposite is true. Abundance shared is abundance multiplied. Life begets life.
camp-joy cherry tomatoes climbing my front gate
The largest, sturdiest and tastiest tomatoes in my garden came to me free from my Mum’s neighbour, Ed. Ed has been growing and saving tomato seeds for who knows how long, and the plants grown from his seeds are keenly attuned to our particular climate. Even saving seed for just one go around will produce stronger, healthier, more locally-adapted plants. If Ed had been like Monsanto – hoarding his seeds, patenting them, charging the earth for them, engineering them to embody death rather than life like the terrible terminator seeds, then my garden, my family, my neighbourhood would not have been blessed by the ridiculously abundant harvest we enjoyed last summer. Tomatoes from Ed’s seeds still fill my pantry, even now in April. They have been enjoyed by family and friends and neighbours who before last August had never known that particular earthly delight that is the organic, home-grown heirloom tomato. In the spirt of things, I of course have paid it forward, sharing our seeds with our organic master gardener classmates, and even the man who delivers our local paper.
So how to do it? Easy peasy. Lots of people, myself included, are apprehensive about starting from seed, thinking it’s going to be complicated or who knows what. It isn’t complicated and it isn’t expensive. An initial expense and some creativity will keep you going indefinitely.
First things first, seeds.
We grow strictly heirloom varieties for a number of reasons. Taste, biodiversity, the ability to save seeds, the sheer stunning beauty of them. There are a gazillion varieties to choose from, all with fantastic names, stories and different growing and eating qualities. A great place to start if you’re unfamiliar (or overwhelmed) is The Heirloom Tomato by Amy Goldman. A gorgeous coffee table book, bordering on tomato porn. Seriously, so beautiful. And lots of great information about a ton of different varieties. You can get seeds from friends, go to seed swaps, contact Seeds of Diversity in Canada or Seeds of Change in the USA, or any of the other seed providers listed in my links. Many will actually be labeled heirloom or heiritage. If not, look for OP or open pollinated on the package. If they aren’t OP, it means they are a hybrid and you won’t be able to save the seeds and have the plant come true to the parent. Another hint is indeterminate - this means they grow all over the place, rather in a contained little plant, which is what you want to get a nice tall vine. Don’t be scared – try a few varieties and see what you like. Some companies are now selling packets that have a variety like the one below.
Next thing – containers.
This is totally up to you. They don’t need to be huge – even 1″ square is fine. You can use little paper pots, scavenged pots from the plant shop, recycled plastic bottle bottoms, pre-bought seed trays, whatever suits your fancy. Make sure they have adequate drainage in the bottom and are about 1 1/2″ deep. One thing you SHOULD NOT use is those stupid little peat pellet things. Just don’t. No matter what they tell you, do not believe them when they tell you peat is a renewable resource. It’s about as environmentally friendly as a clear-cut. You will need a tray to set your pots into because the best way to water is from below. Again totally up to you.
our trays of tomato seedlings
Planting time is a busy time for us, and being that we both have day jobs, we don’t fuss about here, we just buy organic seed starter mix. But again you can get creative as you like. Apparently soil cut with worm castings is one of the best home-made seed starter out there. Whatever you use, get it damp like a run-out sponge first, then fill your pots up. All you have to do then is tuck your seeds in, label them, give them a water from the bottom of the tray, cover them with a plastic dome, reused clear plastic bags, whatever, and put them in a warm place. I’m spoilt and have heated floors in my kitchen, so that’s my spot, but just on top of the fridge will do fine for most people.
Within a couple of days you should see sprouts. Make sure it doesn’t get too hot or humid or your seedlings will damp off and rot. As soon as your little darlings pot their heads our, put them under the lights.
Jeff rigged me up a growing station in our den that reminds me of my grade 12 biology class room. Simple, cheap shop lights with full spectrum florescent bulbs, attached to coat hangers and hung on wires. Key is keeping the lights as close as possible to the seedlings as they grow; this will keep them from growing too leggy.
Once you have the first true leaves, give them a dose of organic fertilizer. As they grow occasionally brush your hand through them. This will keep them strong and sturdy. As they grow and the leaves begin to touch it’s time to pot them up. Make sure before you put them out into the ground that you give them a chance to harden off, exposing them to the elements a bit at a time. And that’s it, that’s all there is to starting tomatoes from seed!