Thirty Days in the Garden: Planting Tomatoes

I haven’t had much success growing tomatoes these past few years, but I refuse to give up. Fresh garden tomatoes off the vine are a treat.

A basket of assorted tomatoes from 2017

My dad grew tomatoes in our garden in Canada. I grew up eating tomato sandwiches for lunch. In California, people add tomatoes to things like salads and sandwiches, but we enjoyed eating tomatoes as the main event.

When I write or type the word tomato, I can hear my mother pronouncing it tuh-mah-toh. Most Americans use the hard a or tuh-mey-toh. Are you saying it in your head now, too?

A year into the pandemic, my husband Mike, is showing an interest in gardening. Who knew? We headed to the nursery together and diplomatically chose two plants each. I frequently buy the brand Bonnie Plants, a company that has been around for over 100 years.

We decided on two cherry tomato plants and two Early Girl. For some reason, the term Early Girl gets on my nerves, but it didn’t stop me from buying the plant. It sounds vaguely patriarchal somehow.

2019: The plants looked healthy, but production was almost non-existent

I have a raised bed in the back garden which has grown a variety of things over the years. I planted geraniums at the end of the summer a few years ago so that Tessa wouldn’t use the raised bed as her personal “litter” box. We eventually transplanted one geranium to a pot, a second one in the front garden, and I think I may have taken the third plant downtown.

2016: Assembling the raised bed, called a VegTrug

With the bed cleared, and the tomatoes planted, I covered the plants with a mesh netting intended to keep out bugs. It won’t be in place for long, as the plants will need to be staked, but I had hoped it would serve as a deterrent while the plants get established.

2021: VegTrug mesh cover

A few days later my son found Tessa sleeping under the mesh canopy. That cat!

The other two plants are in an Earthbox in the front garden in one of the few sunny spots. Earthboxes are all-in-one growing systems, intended for growing vegetables in small spaces. They’re great for moving around. The box has casters, a watering tube, a perforated watering tray, and even comes with a bio-degradable cover. You stuff potting mix into the bottom corners and soak to create a wick of sorts. Then you add potting mix, some lime, and some fertilizer, mix it all together and plant. You can plant seeds or small plants in the box. I’ve used mine for several years.

Now we sit back and wait to see if our plants will produce those delicious red tomatoes of my youth.

Tomato Swan Song

tomato harvest

This weeks tomato harvest

The heirloom tomato plants pumped out fruit all summer long. We ate them raw and in salads, sliced between sandwiches and Mike made the surplus into salsa. Oh yum.

Alas, tomatoes are a summer annual and they’ve come to an end. Here in the Northern Hemisphere,  fall is just a couple of weeks away. It’s time for the tomato swan song.

The plant is still pumping out fruit, but the lower leaves are browning and the fruit isn’t nearly as sweet.

tomato ripening vignette

Ripening vignette

tomato plant in decline

Tomato plant in decline

I collected a huge bowl earlier this week, washed them and popped them in the freezer. We’ll be able to enjoy them in another salsa or sauce. I harvested some green tomatoes as well, and put them in a paper bag. If green tomatoes have released a gas called ethylene then they’ll continue to turn red. Otherwise they’ll remain green. The bag simply traps the gas and allows nature to follow its course.

Here’s an excerpt from Garden Know How:

The main determiner in how fast a tomato turns red is the variety. It will determine how long it takes for a tomato to reach the mature green stage. Tomatoes cannot turn red, even forced by modern technology, unless it has reached the mature green stage.

Another factor  is the outside temperature. Tomatoes will only produce lycopene and carotene, two substances that help a tomato turn red, between the temperatures of 50 and 85 F. (10-29 C.) If it is any cooler that 50 F./10 C., those tomatoes will stay a stubborn green. Any warmer than 85 F./29 C., and the process that produces lycopene and carotene comes to a screeching halt.

Tomatoes are triggered to turn red by a chemical called ethylene. Ethylene is odorless, tasteless and invisible to the naked eye. When the tomato reaches the proper green mature stage, it starts to produce ethylene. The ethylene then interacts with the tomato fruit to start the ripening process. Consistent winds can carry the ethylene gas away from the fruit and slow the ripening process.

If you find that your tomatoes fall off the vine, either knocked off or due to frost, before they turn red, you can place the unripe tomatoes in a paper bag. Provided that the green tomatoes have reached the mature green stage, the paper bag will trap the ethylene and will help to ripen the tomatoes.

This year’s crop planted themselves. I call them ‘volunteers’, seeds unintentionally planted thanks to the wind or a bird dropping seed. They’re often the healthiest plants in the garden.  So while I’ve saved some seeds, I’m also lobbing the occasional tomato back into the veggie box, hoping they’ll plant themselves again next year.  Sometimes, a gardener just needs to get out-of-the-way.

tomato long view

Tomato Plants: the long view Dear Reader, I wish you were here! This is a recent shot of my tomato plants. I’ve been harvesting tomatoes all summer long and putting them to good use. If you were here we could make a salad together while we caught up on our news. Until recently, that ugly pipe was hidden with cherry tomatoes. Just behind the tomato plants are the recently pruned raspberry vines. Let’s catch up soon. Cheers, Alys