IT’S TIME!

The day has arrived – the forecast looks like 10+ overnight and 20+ during the day for the ongoing future! It’s not officially summer, but it’s summer growing weather. If your tomatoes are hardened, it’s time to plant them in the ground!

As with pretty much all gardening advice, people have personal preferences for how to transplant tomatoes into the garden. If your mom or grandpa or someone else tells you differently than me, I won’t be offended! But here’s the way I do it – it’s a variation of the way my mom taught me.

Transplanting into the ground is not too different from transplanting into a bigger pot. You need the same tools (digging instrument, garden gloves) and a supply of water. I prefer to put my cages in right away as well because several years ago I learned the hard way how frustrating it is to try and get a cage around a plant that’s gone a little wild.

First, depending on the size of the plant, I decide how deep I’m going to bury it. For the one pictured below, I wanted to bury it right up to the leaves, so I chopped off the lower branches/leaves. Dig an appropriately sized hole – you can stick the plant, pot and all, into the hole to check if it’s the right size.

Next, I always fill the hole with water and let it partially drain, to ensure there’s moisture at the bottom of the hole where the roots will be. It’s been pretty dry in Saskatoon this spring, so pay attention to how dry your dirt is at the root level. This will be a good indicator of how much you will need to water over the next few days especially.

Then I put the plant in and bury it! Water deeply again, put the cage over, and you are good to go! (The next two pictures are different plants, one much bigger than the other – the second one was very big and I buried it as deep as possible but wasn’t quite able to go all the way up to the top leaves.)

You can see that this isn’t the end of the post yet. If you bought all your seedlings from a greenhouse or started them super early and they’re quite mature, you can stop here. If you started seedlings along with me in March or April and they’re still little tinies, I have an additional recommendation.

I did not put all my little tinies in the ground today. I chose two varieties of which I have some “backups” as test transplants, to avoid putting all my eggs in one basket.

The process for transplanting an extra-small seedling is largely the same as above, except you will need to be extra-gentle when handling the plant. As well, it is a good insurance policy to protect these delicate plants from strong winds and blazing sunlight.

There are endless options for how to protect little tiny tomato plants. My mom used milk cartons, I’ve seen others use yogurt containers, plant pots half buried, etc. Last year because the growing season was so weird, we bought a bunch of red tomato greenhouse plastic to extend the season, and so I’m going to use what I have.

Essentially, I’m putting my little tinies in greenhouses to help them along since they need a bit of a boost. To do so, after planting, I threaded the bottom spokes of the tomato cage through the holes in the plastic and then tied it at the top. Now they are nicely protected from burning sun and wind, but the red plastic apparently allows in the exact wavelength of sunlight that tomatoes want. It also has holes for airflow.

I would personally recommend greenhouse plastic, after using it for one year so far. It’s not the cheapest if you have a lot of plants, but it was a lot easier to have something I could just leave on my plants in the fall instead of having to constantly cover them overnight as it got colder. As well, putting it on early in the season before the plants get out of control is much easier than doing it in August! I’m thinking I probably will put all my plants in “greenhouses” over the next week, even if they don’t actually need it right now.

Fingers crossed on the little tinies – I’ll definitely own up and update if somehow this greenhouse experiment ends up killing them!

While We Wait: STILL???

It’s 25 degrees outside but I’m still! not putting my plants in the ground. The lil fellas I started from seed are still! SO LITTLE that I am a tad paranoid about putting them in the ground yet. I am aiming for a June 1 plant date for them unless the forecast drastically changes.

Last night there was still! a risk of frost, though it ended up only going down to 8. I am pretty confident now that it won’t freeze anymore, but last year I got burned big time by a hot May and a cold June, and it’s best if you can protect your plants from wild overnight temperature swings as long as you can. And one forecast is still! predicting overnight temperatures under 5C later this week! So even though I’m getting very tired of carrying the plants in and out every day, and they seem to be pretty well-hardened by now, I’m giving it one more week.

(Still sooo little. The “big” ones are actually peppers, and at least one of these has since gone on to a better place)

In the meantime, I did a bit of planning today – I put cages into the tomato bed to stake out where the plants are going to go. I can usually fit in about 15 plants spaced about 2 feet apart. Best practice would be to space them a bit wider, but this setup works for me. Below is a terrible picture of it – tomato cages are not especially photogenic! However it scratched a bit of the itch I had to DO something while I (still!) wait.

While We Wait: My Screwups (So Far)

I’m still in the hardening phase with my seedlings, gradually increasing their outdoor time. A couple days this week were so ugly and windy and rainy that I didn’t chance it, but I think slowly they are getting more used to the wind and the sun. I figured this is a good time to talk about some of the mistakes and mishaps I’ve encountered this year, in case you are dealing with them too and need a bit of reassurance.

I have had a couple of seedlings that appeared totally healthy just wilt over and die randomly. I am not sure if I forgot to water or maybe overwatered those specific plants, but it’s too late now. Luckily I had others of the same variety.

I burned a few plants by leaving them out in the sun too long during early hardening. The leaves took on a silvery, transparent appearance and won’t really recover from it (but the new leaves will grow in fine). This is one reason why proper hardening is important. I think they are close to being past the stage where they will burn now, but I’m still being careful because if I burn off ALL the leaves, the plant will die.

If we are being honest, I absolutely started my plants too late. I like to grow heirlooms with a long maturity period (some 80-90 days) so I really should have started them in February or EARLY March – definitely not April, like what happened with a few. Some of them are still soooo small. It’s okay though – I’ll get fruit eventually, and I learned a few tricks last summer to encourage ripening. I also bought a few plants from the greenhouse that should be producing ripe fruit by July so I won’t have to wait until September for all of them.

I somehow screwed up the germination on my most coveted seeds! It’s a long, multi-week story about how I even ended up getting them, but once I finally did, they didn’t sprout and it was too late to try again. I am disappointed that I won’t get to grow one of my very favourite varieties (green grape) this year, but I germinated three “surprise” plants from a variety mix and perhaps one of them might end up a new favourite.

As I said to a friend today who was asking how my tomatoes were doing, I always have a few each year that nearly die after planting but somehow come back and grow and produce just fine. I’ll keep saying: tomatoes are so resilient. Even though I made all sorts of mistakes and had some bad luck so far, I’ll still be be marveling at how the plants that seemed so tiny and close to death in May are 5 feet tall and dripping with fruit in August.

While We Wait: Transplanting and Hardening Off

We’re still a good week or two away from being able to safely put tomatoes in the garden, but if you’ve got seedlings you started yourself, or bought in those teeny-tiny fourpacks from a greenhouse, it will be a good idea to do some transplanting to encourage them along. (Probably should have done this a while ago already, but who among us is actually on top of everything right now?)

The thing that is very cool about tomatoes is that if you bury the stem under some dirt, new roots will form off the stem! Which will create a much stronger, larger root system to support the plant. So, here is a very quick guide for how to transplant your seedlings! (For a longer and more comprehensive discussion, this post is worth a read.)

You will need: pots to transplant into, garden gloves, a trowel or small dirt scooping instrument, and potting soil. And of course, your seedlings. My pictures here show some seedlings I bought from four-packs at the greenhouse, which were very tall and very root-bound in their tiny “pots”.

The simplest way to go about this is: pull your tomato seedling out from its tiny pot, set it at the very bottom of the new pot, and then cover in dirt. Then water, and you’re all set!

It is really that easy. The main thing to keep in mind is to bury it as deep as you can. You can see my demonstration seedling was pretty tall and leggy, but I buried it as deep as the new pot would allow. I probably should/could have put it even deeper, using a larger pot, if I was trying to be perfect.

Bonus mini-post: because I know I won’t be able to muster up the timely energy to write an entire post on hardening off – once your tomatoes are transplanted and doing well, the weather right now is perfect to start taking them outdoors for an acclimatization field trip every day until it’s time to plant them (this is what’s known as “hardening off”).

To do so, bring them outside to a sunny, sheltered location for an hour or two to start, and gradually increase their outdoor time (and wind exposure) over the next couple weeks. They may wilt a bit at the start, but will spring back. Eventually they will be acclimatized to the elements and will not get such a shock when you put them in the garden.

I will admit that I have skipped the hardening off phase a few times. It wasn’t to my advantage as the plants were obviously shocked and did not grow at all for the first few weeks in the garden, but they eventually bounced back. It just halted their growth for a while which meant they didn’t produce fruit as early as they could have, so the only real loser in the situation was me.

While We Wait: So I went to the greenhouse and it was too stressful

I don’t go into shared spaces (like stores) much at all anymore, and I wrote previously that I wasn’t going to go to the greenhouse this summer. However, I ended up going back on that statement last week to make sure I could get the tomatoes I specifically wanted for my garden, as I was having trouble trying to organize a curbside order over email with the greenhouse in question.

I went on a Friday morning shortly after opening to ensure there weren’t too many people around, and brought a list so I could do a quick in-and-out. However, this plan unraveled pretty quickly when some of the items on my list were not available. Trying to figure out how to substitute them while also trying to minimize my time in the greenhouse, follow the directional arrows, and stay away from other people was FAR more stressful than I ever expected it to be.

To their credit the greenhouse itself had done an impeccable job implementing the required safety initiatives. I want to stress that I did not feel unsafe – just highly anxious. I ended up buying too many tomatoes, abandoned the rest of my list, and high-tailed it out of there. I do not plan to do this again. As expected, it was not an enjoyable experience in the least.

This does make me sad – one of my favourite simple summer joys in years past had been spending lazy afternoons browsing garden centres. But, it’s just another thing to add to the list of activities that I can’t get enjoyment out of anymore. Relatively speaking, it is not that big a deal. Casually browsing at the greenhouse will be that much sweeter in a year or two when I can do it again, and until then, I still have my garden.

FREE FERTILIZER!

The Saskatoon compost depots opened for the season yesterday, which means free mulch and compost is now available for Saskatoon residents! I only used this program for the first time last summer because every time I planned to go in prior years, it rained and I didn’t want to bring home extra heavy wet compost. But, it’s awesome!

Dig-Your-Own mulch and compost is only available at the West Depot off 11th St, but it’s exactly as it sounds. You show up, they tell you where to go, and you can dig up to a cubic yard each of mulch or compost from big piles, for free!

If you do this a couple times over the course of the summer, you can easily fertilize your tomatoes and other garden plants without spending anything but gas money.

In other free fertilizer news, I also scored both rabbit and chicken manure this summer, at no cost. If you know someone with a barnyardy pet (OF COURSE, I don’t know ANYONE with backyard chickens, that would be ILLEGAL…), they may be happy to give you bags and bags of manure which your garden will love. Rabbit manure does not need to be composted/rotted, but chicken manure does, so if you are getting animal manure to use on your garden, be sure to check whether it needs to be rotted first.

While We Wait: Growing Tomatoes in In-Ground Gardens

This is Part 3 of 3! See bottom of post for links to parts 2 and 3.

I do not have direct personal experience planting my own tomatoes in an in-ground garden, but know many people who have them so most of this information is what I’ve gleaned from talking to them and researching online. I have a couple of in-ground boulevard gardens in my front yard and have had great success growing garlic and sunflowers in them, and some success with potatoes and squash, but overall the good quality soil does not go very deep before one hits pure clay. I’m working at building up the soil quality but for the time being it seems to be a better place to grow smaller plants with fairly shallow roots. 

Note that an in-ground garden does not need to be a huge, half-yard production – it can be as simple as digging out the grass along the sunny side of your garage or something and replacing it with soil (I have relatives who grew the largest tomato plants I’ve ever seen in a tiny dirt strip along the garage).

I’m not sure if there is any scientific basis for this or if it’s just my anecdotal experience, but it seems that tomato plants, when planted directly in the ground will get bigger than their raised bed or potted counterparts. This may or may not translate to higher production, and maybe is more dependent on the variety grown, but I’ve never had raised bed harvests even close to what some of my friends and family with in-ground gardens have seen.

A large issue that my friends with this type of garden complain about is how weedy they can get, much more so than raised beds (though you can remedy this with mulch!). Depending on the placement and soil quality, your garden may also not be as well drained as you would like. You may need to use more fertilizer in a larger garden to ensure the actual tomato plants get what they need rather than the weeds, and some may be lost to runoff. 

(Photo is courtesy of City of Saskatoon Healthy Yards Program)

Unless you are going to dig out whatever soil exists and completely replace it, you’re somewhat at the whim of your natural soil quality and need to work to build up its health over time. This is not a bad thing – your natural soil might be healthy and already high in nutrients and earthworm activity which will be beneficial for your plants. I am of the understanding that rototilling, something my parents would pay someone every year to do for their garden, is actually bad for the soil and causes it to distribute weeds and lose nutrients. If you have an in-ground garden it’s apparentely better to just amend by top dressing and eventually, over time your soil will naturally aerate. 

In-ground gardens do seem to hold water a bit better than raised beds, and the tomato roots will have the opportunity to go a lot deeper, so you may not need to water as much – but this can be dependent on where the garden is situated, how much sun it gets, how much clay is in the soil, etc.

Pros of in-ground gardens: More space for plants and roots to spread, possibly higher production, may retain water better, higher natural nutrients, can use high volume fertilizers

Cons of in-ground gardens: Will get weedy if you don’t mulch, soil takes longer to warm up in spring, likely to be compacted, may get standing water, nutrients may be lost to runoff or stolen by weeds/grass

As always, I’m not being comprehensive, so if you want to read more on the subject, here are a couple other posts regarding the advantages and disadvantages of in-ground gardens (in comparison to raised beds). 

Links to Part 1: Pots and Part 2: Raised Beds

While We Wait: Growing Tomatoes in Raised Beds

This is Part 2 of 3! See bottom of post for links to parts 1 and 3.

Raised beds are quite en vogue, especially if you’ve got a blank canvas to start from. There are people who will tell you this is the best option, and they definitely do seem to have more potential “pros” in their favour than the other two options, but it is really all about what works for you and how much effort and money you want to put into your garden.

There are a lot of options for raised beds. You can do waist-high garden beds, which will be easiest on your back (depending how large/deep these are, they may be more similar to a pot than a garden bed), or shorter ones built into the ground. You can see mine are built into the ground, surrounded by my dumb lawn, which I sort of hate because somehow the grass has crept itself into the beds and grows just brilliantly in the rich soil that I amend every year with copious amounts of compost and/or manure.

This may shock some people but last year was the first year I ever used a chemical fertilizer (Miracle Gro) in my raised beds, because I wanted to see if it made a difference. (Previously I had only just mixed in a ton of manure at the beginning of the summer and let ‘er rip.) I was actually QUITE surprised that it didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference, so this year I’m not going to bother with the Miracle Gro unless it looks like the plants need a boost. I’ve already worked in about 80 lbs of rabbit manure and hay this year, and also have a source for chicken manure if I need it. (Post on free fertilizer options coming soon!)

I know you’re not supposed to crowd plants, especially tomatoes, but I am notorious for crowding up to 15 tomato plants into 40 square feet of raised bed (and every second year these also compete with dozens of cousin sunberry plants that keep popping up; will write about this in another post) and have had no major issues. The raised bed soil does seem to dry out faster than in-ground soil, but it also heats up faster. I think that elevating the tomatoes helps them get a bit more air circulation which is maybe why it’s not the end of the world that I crowd them? Also having the plants close together makes it easy to cover them when they get threatened by fall frost.

Pros of Raised Beds: Can grow a lot in a compact space, soil is warmer than the ground, can use high volume fertilizers like compost, good control over soil quality, can be designed to eliminate bending, easy to cover in fall, usually less weedy than ground level gardens, well drained

Cons of Raised Beds: Soil dries out faster than ground, plants will have to be covered in fall, soil will cool off faster in fall, may get weedy, plants may require pruning

As always, I’m not being comprehensive, so if you want to read more on the subject, here are a couple other posts regarding the advantages and disadvantages of raised beds (in comparison to in-ground gardens). 

Links to Part 1: Pots and Part 3: In-Ground Gardens

While We Wait: Growing Tomatoes in Pots

A few posts ago I think I told you to just start growing some seeds without much regard to where you were eventually going to put the plants. It’s now time to start thinking about it so you can gather all the supplies you’ll need to put those plants outside in about a month.

I’m going to talk about three options – pots, raised beds, and in-ground gardens. There are other options, such as hydroponics, but I don’t have experience with them and the process is different than growing in dirt. (That said I think hydroponics are super interesting and you should check it out if it’s something that sounds like a fun pandemic project!)

For my first few years growing tomatoes, I didn’t have any garden space so I grew my plants in 10 inch pots (pictured). It is a myth that you need a ton of space or a big garden to grow tomatoes! You can successfully grow a relatively large plant with a fairly good yield in an ice cream pail, as long as you make sure to feed and water it enough. 

The second summer in our current house, we built two 4×10’ raised beds in our small back yard, and I rotate my tomatoes between the two beds each year. I have never personally grown tomatoes directly in the ground, but helped my parents with their in-ground garden growing up, and have many people in my circle who have them. 

Originally this was just going to be one post, but it got wayyy too long, so I’m going to break it up, but am posting them all simultaneously so they can be linked. This is Part 1: Pots, click for Part 2: Raised Beds and Part 3: In-Ground Gardens.

If you have any tips or concerns to add, please comment!

Pots

I think pots are a great option for growing tomatoes (especially for beginners), and I have had a few years where I ended up with too many plants for my raised beds so did the rest in pots. A big benefit is that you can move them around if you have variable sun locations throughout the day, and at the end of the season you can even move them indoors to protect from frost or prolong vine-ripening. I also never had to worry about pruning when I grew in pots; the plants were quite good at self-regulating their size (they definitely grew more “up” than “out”). The soil will also be very warm in pots which the tomatoes will enjoy, though watch out for the soil to get cold at the end of the season (the below picture is of my 2012 plants safe and warm in the garage in October). You probably won’t have many, if any, weeds to deal with in pots!

The major issue with pots is that the plants use up the nutrients and water in the soil very quickly, especially if the pots are small (e.g. ice cream pail). Thus they need to be watered at LEAST once a day, maybe twice, and must be heavily fertilized or they won’t grow well or produce much fruit. If you are trying to go all organic/”chemical free”, your options for fertilizer are pretty limited (all I can think of is compost tea) because you won’t have extra space to continually add soil amendments like manure or compost. Your best/easiest bet for feeding tomatoes in pots is frequent applications of Miracle Gro Tomato (use the kind you dissolve in water, not the slow release pellets).

Many garden centres sell pre-potted tomato plants, either dwarf tumbling varieties in hanging baskets or with a built-in cage. These are the ultimate option for building a “lazy garden”; a one-stop-shop if you don’t have ANY supplies at all to start with, and probably the most affordable in terms of startup costs. Just buy some fertilizer and you’re set for the summer!

Pros of Pots: Can move around or indoors in bad weather, don’t take up much space, won’t require much pruning or weeding, soil heats up quickly, can purchase pre-potted and staked

Cons of Pots: Require more frequent watering and fertilizing, soil will cool off faster in the fall, plants may not get as big as they would in the ground

Links to Part 2: Raised Beds and Part 3: In-Ground Gardens

Tomato Sale at Floral Acres

Just a heads up that there’s a big sale on tomato seedlings at Floral Acres until April 28! If you buy two or more, seedlings are only a buck! Unfortunately for me, none of these are the varieties I want to grow this year, but you may want to take advantage of this sale if you see some varieties you like on the list, and have the space and sunlight to nurture your seedlings indoors for the next month or so.

Disclaimer/FYI – nothing I ever say on this blog will be paid or sponsored (should be clear from the fact that I have like two subscribers, alas). If I make a post like this or recommend any businesses or vendors, it is my uninfluenced opinion only, based on past personal experience!