Category Archives: Growing heirloom tomatoes

Look At My Babies Grow!

So far so good…

SeedlingsJustSproutingThe peppers are just sprouting, at last.

SeedlingsFirstPairOfLeavesMost of the tomatoes are already growing their first pair of true leaves. (The “leaves” that you see when they begin to grow are really part of the seed.)

Weekly photo challenge, today

(Normally I don’t post more than once a day – but who am I to defy the Weekly Photo Challenge? This time, they’re asking for photos of “today” – Friday, June 1, 2012 – and I just went out and took some.)

Today in my back yard –

The vegetable garden. Does it look a bit empty in the middle? That’s where the second row of beans and the cilantro will be.

A closer look – tomatoes, basil, and peppers at the far edge. I doubt that there’s a backyard garden anywhere in South Jersey that doesn’t include these.




And the opposite corner – oregano, purple (!) tomatillos, and beans stretching off into the distance.



And a nod to the Photo Challenge I skipped two weeks ago: Let me give you a hand.

I’m mixing purchased topsoil with the – stuff – that came with the yard to make another garden bed. This area has never been tilled since we moved into the house, and maybe never since the house was built. Years ago, I struggled to make other sections cultivable, but I had forgotten that the basic mixture is clay and lots and lots of stones.

You know you’re dealing with hard soil when you stick a garden shovel into it, stand on the shovel (so you’re applying your full weight), and can only get it to penetrate about the length of a finger. It turned out that a hand trowel was a more effective tool to loosen the clay enough so I could crumble it and mix it with topsoil.

Basically, it’s a quiet day in the neighborhood – my town had its big extravaganza last Saturday, closing the main street for Mayfair and holding boat races on Cooper River.

A month in spring

Just about a month ago, my tomato seedlings were tiny, with only their first pair of false leaves showing.

They’re not tiny any more.

And this is what happens when you don’t know if year-old seeds will sprout. (They will. Believe me, they will.) I’ll be giving most of them away over the next week or so.

Learning from experience, with a little help from my friends

A tangle of tomato seedlings with long fragile stems

Little tomato plants searching everywhere for light - 2011

Last year, I tried growing tomatoes from seed. I had never tackled a project like that before, and it worked better than I had any right to expect – but I made some pretty basic mistakes.

Mostly, I didn’t realize how MUCH light seedlings need. I starved the poor things, really. They grew long and skinny reaching desperately toward what light they could find. The room seemed nice and bright to me, but I don’t live by photosynthesis. Luckily, I showed off some pictures to my friend Sue The Gardener, and she was horrified.

Ugly but functional

I’m trying again this year (with some of the same seeds – it turns out you can use seed from last year’s packets, if you seal up the packages and store them someplace dry). This time, though, my husband rigged up an adjustable plant light for me. It’s not at all pretty, but it seems to be doing the job.

If all goes well, in a few months I’ll be able to walk about fifteen feet from where I’m sitting at the moment, climb through a window, and pick a ripe tomato. Maybe some peppers – I added pepper seedlings this year – and green beans and cilantro to go with it, too.

(If I insist on using the doors, it will be a slightly longer trip. Oh well.)

This year's seedlings are a lot shorter than last year's,
and apparently that's good.


Return to blogging

NaBloPoMo, they call it. We call it, I guess, since I’m trying it. NationalBlogPostingMonth, in which you post – something – every day for a month. My poor little blog has been pretty much moribund all summer.

Not that I skipped the summer, though. The tomatoes were wonderful. Sparse, like my blog posts, but delicious. So that’s something else to return to – heirloom tomatoes. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to bother with growing tomatoes from seed next year, and then one managed to get ripe before the bunnies nibbled it to pieces. So we ate it instead. A nice red Boxcar Willie. The best tomato I ever tasted.

Oh, yes, I’m growing more old time tomatoes next year.

She’s back, with apologies and more tomatoes

And now it’s July. Almost August. I think I’ll start by (mostly) wrapping up the Tale of the Tomatoes.

When last heard of, there were nearly sixty tomato seedlings looking for a home. What happened to the ones I didn’t give to specific friends? About three-quarters of them went to church. And, during coffee hour, they all got adopted. Whew. I’ve heard that some of them are doing well.

After that, I took the biggest and smallest seedlings – the ones I kept for myself – and started planting. That’s when I learned why Sue the Master Gardener told me to discard the tiny ones.

Helpful Household Hint #2: Listen to Sue. Or whoever your local expert may be.

One of the “how to grow tomatoes” web sites I read claimed that little plants are good, because they put all their energy into growing lots of roots instead of wasting it on stalks and leaves. THIS IS NOT TRUE. The big plants had filled their drinking-cup pots with roots. The tiny plants had tiny root balls, about the size of a pea. Not good.

I planted them anyhow – why not, at that point? – and within a few days the minis had shriveled away to nothing. Still, the husky weight-lifter plants kept growing and growing, and here’s a portrait of how they look now:

They're not very big, and they're very green, but they're definitely tomatoes

More flowers! More tomatoes?

They’re nearly as tall as I am (with a little help from stakes and tomato cages). Quite a change from March, when they looked like this –

Heirloom tomato seedlings just after sprouting

Tomato seedlings, only four days after planting the seeds

Precision and why you can’t have it

The friendly economy; Tomato Chronicles Part 5

Six tomato seedlings ready to give to my friend Eileen

Six plants for Eileen leaves fifty-one

Fifty-seven tomato seedlings.


And a fairly shady, smallish yard to plant them in. It can’t be done. Even if I had every tree on the property cut down (not that that would help much, because we’d still have the shade from buildings, and trees that belong to neighbors, and trees between the sidewalk and the street that belong to the township) – anyway, even if I got rid of all our trees and dug up the entire back yard and front yard, it isn’t enough space to plant fifty-seven tomatoes.

Fifty-seven hopeful little tomatoes, waving their little green leaves in the breeze from the open windows.

What to do?

A box with four tomato seedlings for my friend Sue

And four for Sue leaves forty-seven

Well, that’s easy. What are friends for? To give plants to, of course. Six to Eileen, four to Sue, four to Donna. It’s a start. And in return (not even counting the advice from Sue without which I wouldn’t have this problem, because all the tomatoes would have died weeks ago), I got four lily of the valleys, six mystery flowers, and a quasi-infinite supply of grape hyacinth bulbs from Eileen.

Supply and demand. Things gain value if you don’t have your own stock of them. There’s no question that this was economic activity in the oldest form there is. Any self-respecting economist ought to hate me.

How can you accurately measure GNP if people all over the nation are adding gross product without any money changing hands? If I had let an official nursery raise those seedlings and sell some to me and some to Eileen and some to Sue and some to Donna, the value – excuse me, the price – would have been duly recorded and added to the official economic statistics.

Better yet, we could have let a commercial nursery start the seeds and sell the plants to a commercial farm that could sell the tomatoes to a commercial wholesaler which could sell them to a commercial supermarket which could sell them to us, not forgetting the commercial truckers who would get a piece of the pie here and there along the way. And each step would lead to a bigger GNP. As it is, there’s no way at all to keep track of how much productive activity really goes on in the world.

Look at that pin. How many angels are dancing?


The Tomato Chronicles, part 4.

Stump of a bitten off tomato seedling

Once there were three. That green line in the center of the picture is what's left of a seedling.

Horror stories are everywhere. The world full of dangers, especially if you can’t get away. Say, for example, that you’re a very young plant, with no way to perceive danger and no way to dodge anyhow.

As April drizzled on, New Jersey had occasional sunny, warm days – good weather for seedlings. I put the baby tomatoes outside whenever there was enough light and enough warmth. They kept on growing – I only lost two or three to “damping off”, a dread disease that causes seedlings to shrivel away to limp little threads.

But one afternoon, when I brought them back indoors, something was terribly wrong with several pots. Where there were strong, leafy plants in the morning, now there were only inch-long stems. Toothmarked stems.

I don’t know what was guilty. A squirrel? We have lots of those. A rabbit? I haven’t seen many this year, but there are always some. Maybe even a duck, wandering uphill from the lake? A predator, anyhow. Everything’s hungry. And normally I would side with the being who has a nervous system. But I meant to eat these plants, or at least their fruit.

Since then, the tomatoes have stayed in. When the weather’s warmish, I open the windows instead to let them experience unblocked sunlight and breezes. Am I overprotective? Maybe, but none of them have been chewed up lately. This horror story has a happy ending, so far.

The tomatoes are way ahead of me

The Tomato Chronicles, part 3

So, I lost a few weeks of posting time…the offline world wanted me. And meanwhile those heirloom seedlings grew, and grew, and grew. (They were a part of the offline world that was demanding my attention.) Let’s try to get up to date, okay?

When last heard of, the seedlings were growing like mad, trying to get close enough to the light. Their stems were a little thicker than a hair, and they were spiraling around one another like well-tangled spaghetti. Then I learned that they needed light, light, light, LIGHT. Unfortunately, the only grow light I had available was very wobbly and kept wanting to fall on top of the seedlings.

A tangle of tomato seedlings with long fragile stems

Little tomato plants searching everywhere for light

They wound up on a windowsill. And most of them got sturdier and healthier, and before very long they started to grow fancy leaves. Real leaves. You see, when tomatoes first sprout, they have two false leaves – cotyledons – which were once two halves of the seed. As they grow, they start to form real tomato-leaf shaped leaves. And then it’s time to transplant them.

That took over a week. I started by potting – no, plastic cupping – the biggest, thickest-stemmed plants. Many of them had to be put way down in the bottom of their cups so I could pile soil¬† around their long, long stems and they could grow roots out of the buried stems.¬† Day after day I stuck more seedlings into potting soil, and spilled soil everywhere – you wouldn’t have wanted to walk into my powder room while that was going on. I finished just about the time we got one precious 80-degree day sandwiched between a lot of cold, raw, miserable February-in-April weeks, so I took the babies outside to play in the sun for an hour. Don’t they look happy?

A few of my little heirloom tomatoes enjoying life outdoors

But then they had to come back inside. All sixty-one of them. (I’m sorry, Sue. I know you told me to cull the ones that weren’t growing well, but I didn’t have the heart. So yes, there were sixty-one.) I had tomatoes on windowsills everywhere. Well, not in the attic. But that’s only because there are no windows in the attic. And they grew, and they grew, and they started to smell like tomato plants – that unforgettable sharp summer smell that you know if you’ve ever had a vegetable garden.

The very best intentions, plus ignorance

(The Tomato Chronicles, part 2)

So, to begin with, I bought and planted a lot of heirloom tomato seeds – probably around 70 – and pretty much all of them came up, much sooner than I expected.

Heirloom tomato seedlings just after sprouting

Tomato seedlings, only four days after planting the seeds

And that’s where I went wrong. I was told that tomato seeds need to be kept warm to germinate. What I heard was “tomato seeds and seedlings need warmth more than anything else, except maybe water.” Oops.

I kept my seedlings nice and warm up near the ceiling, about three feet away from the only light in the room. And it’s not a particularly bright light. And my seedlings grew and grew, and I was happy. Until I showed Sue the Master Gardener a picture of them.

“Oh, my, they’re leggy,” said Sue. “Are you giving them lots of light?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “They’re not very far at all from the ceiling light. Only a couple of feet.”

“Well, they need more light so they won’t be so spindly,” said Sue.

“But if I put them in a window, they’ll be cold.”

Sue is a very patient person. “They only need to be warm till they germinate,” she said. “Too much heat and not enough light is what makes them so tall and thin. You need to get them under lights right away.”


So I spent several days trying to grow seedlings under a fairly wobbly light that kept trying to nosedive right into the starter trays. The tomatoes got taller and taller and twined around each other in loops and spirals and square knots. At last I gave up on lights and moved them to a windowsill.

A tangle of tomato seedlings with long fragile stems

Little tomato plants searching everywhere for light

They may not have been healthy, but they were determined. And I was showing my true colors as an abusive tomato mommy.