While We Wait: Shifting My Shopping Habits

While we wait for our tomatoes to get big and strong, here are some thoughts I’ve been having about how I’m going to shop differently this summer.

Right now the majority of garden centres in Saskatchewan are implementing new COVID-19 regulations that dictate their ability to open for business while keeping customers and staff safe. For customers shopping in person, these regulations include limits on the number of people allowed into the greenhouse, one-way traffic, a lot of sanitization (including mandatory hand washing or sanitization before entry), and no washroom availability.

While one of the joys of shopping at garden centres for me is just slowly browsing and picking out some pretty or interesting new varieties of things to grow, I likely won’t be doing much, if any, of that this year. I just don’t think I will be able to find much joy in waiting in a long line and then anxiously, hastily choosing my plants with the awareness that there are dozens of people waiting for me to leave so they can come in. In general, I’ve been trying to avoid contact with people in storefront settings as much as possible, and I don’t see why I would make an exception for a greenhouse if I don’t need to.

In addition to the distancing and cleaning measures, many garden centres have developed online shops, or will be accepting orders over the phone/email, which can be picked up curbside or delivered. This is what I plan to mainly do this year. While it will be sad to not be able to pick out “the best” plants from the shelf, and not experience that fresh greenhouse smell, this is the option I feel the safest about, and the least I can do to slow the spread of COVID-19 within the gardening community.

We’re all making sacrifices right now, some big and some small, and this feels like a relatively small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. Your choice for how you will shop this summer is personal, but I hope it will be risk-informed. I would encourage everyone to help any older or at-risk family members with online/email/phone orders (or put in a shared order within your friend or family group to save on delivery costs) if you have the ability and opportunity to do so.

Through some membership committee work I have been doing with the Saskatoon Horticultural Society, I’ve been in touch with a number of greenhouse owners in town and the majority have mentioned that it is going to be very costly to implement the distancing/cleaning regulations, and those who have created web stores have also incurred increased costs in doing so. I am sure I’m not the only one who goes to the greenhouse with a list and then ends up spending an extra $10-20+ on impulse plants – so if you’re shopping over the phone or online, if you’ve got the means to do so maybe try to add on a few “impulse” purchases  (ask them to surprise you, if you’re talking to a staff member!) to help them out, or buy a few extra things you can use next year, like potting soil. And if you can, be mindful of the smaller businesses who may not have been able to afford to create a fancy website and show them some love too.

Getting Started: Other Resources

URGENT! Okay not really but before we start this post, I just want to give another reminder to everyone who has recently started seeds to KEEP THEM WARM! I had planted a few seeds and brought them to my sister’s house a few weeks ago where there is more room and no cat, but regretted to mention that they needed to stay as warm as possible, and forgot that her house is on the cool side. About half the seeds did not germinate. I cannot be certain that it was the temperature, but to reduce your risk of disappointment please keep those seeds in the warmest place in your house until they germinate!

Moving on…

Let’s be clear: I am not an authority on tomato cultivation, and you should probably find some other sources of information to supplement what you learn from this blog. Like I’ve previously said, I won’t give you any bad advice that will kill your plants, but there’s a lot I don’t know, and probably a lot of people out there who are better at growing tomatoes than I am.

If you’ve got questions, I am happy to try and answer them in the comments on any post. I’ve also compiled this (not comprehensive) list of other places you can look for advice and information. Most of these have a Saskatchewan/prairie focus. 

Gardening at University of Saskatchewan – I don’t think anyone would disagree with me that this is probably the best resource we have in the province for gardening advice. They’ve got tons of free information, including a tomato growing page, affordable classes and certificate credit courses, and an active Facebook page

City of Saskatoon – The City of Saskatoon’s Healthy Yards page has a big list of great resources and links for getting started with gardening at home, including boulevard gardening which I’m a big fan of! There are also a variety of community gardens in Saskatoon. Note – I am unsure which of these initiatives (especially planned workshops)  will be going ahead this summer due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Shifting Roots – This is a local gardening blog based out of Saskatoon (coincidentally run by a childhood friend). She’s got a free downloadable tomato growing guide which you may want to grab.

Plant Clubs – There are a variety of local organizations dedicated to promoting horticultural initiatives in Saskatoon (if you’re not in Saskatoon, your city likely has similar clubs). Probably the most relevant to tomato growing is the Saskatoon Horticultural Society (a membership also gets you discounts at most garden centres in the city). Depending on your overall gardening interests, you may find a good fit within the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (members get similar greenhouse discounts as the SHS) or the Native Plant Society; though tomatoes are neither perennials nor native plants, many lovers of perennials and native plants are also tomato fans.

Books and Magazines – There are a couple of gardening magazines that are focused on Canadian or prairie growing – The Gardener, and The Prairie Garden annual. I believe most gardening societies offer a discounted Gardener subscription with a membership, and back issues of The Prairie Garden can be ordered through their website or McNally Robinson (the 2019 issue is all about growing food). Speaking of, independent booksellers in Saskatoon are still doing business, just not open to the public! You can do curbside pickup or shipping from McNally, and Turning the Tide will deliver within Saskatoon for free. SaskBooks also has a couple of gardening books available and is shipping for free for the rest of April (I own and recommend both books showing up on that link).

Local Garden Centres – when in doubt, just give your favourite garden centre a call, email, or ask a question on their social media page. In my experience there are a lot of experts working at these places who are happy to share their knowledge and help you out.

Old People – seriously though, if you’ve got parents or grandparents who spent any time living on a farm, they’re probably gardening experts. While you might not be growing the same varieties as they are used to (you’ll have to pry the Early Girl seeds out of their cold, dead hands), they likely still know a thing or two.

As mentioned this list is by no means exhaustive. If I’ve missed something you think should be on here, let me know and I’ll happily add it!

This also concludes the Getting Started series! I hope you’re currently enjoying the wonder of germination, or will get to in the next few days…

Getting Started: Light and Water

If you’ve got your seeds in the dirt now, you should see them start to sprout in 1-2 weeks. Make sure to keep the soil wet and warm during this time of waiting, but you do not need to keep the un-germinated pots in a sunny location until the plants sprout. We’re going to jump ahead a bit today so you’re well-prepared for what to do once your seedlings emerge.

Light

Once the seeds have sprouted, they will need to get at least 12 hours of sunlight per day. If you’ve got a south-facing window in your house or apartment, you are set! Feel free to stop reading and skip down to the Water section.

If you don’t have a window that gets an appropriate amount of sunlight, you’ve got a couple options. The first is if you have windows that get variable amounts of light during the day, you can move your seedlings around to “follow the sun” throughout the day. This is the cheapest option but definitely requires quite a bit of effort. If you’re home all day anyway, or maybe need to give your kids a science project to work on, this could be a good option! If it sounds like too much to remember though, you should probably get a grow lamp.

There are a lot of options for grow lights that can work for whatever setup and/or budget you have – you can just replace the bulb in a normal lamp with a UV bulb, for example, or get something that is more of an all-in-one mini greenhouse. Early’s has a really great selection. If Dutch Growers is your garden centre of choice, they also have grow lights, though a more limited selection than Early’s. (I will also mention that I did an online order at Early’s this past week including curbside pickup in the parking lot – it was super easy!)

If you are going to use a grow light, I would highly recommend attaching it to a timer. This way you don’t have to remember to turn it on and off every day, and you ensure that the hours of light your plants get are consistent every day.

Last year I received some very LEGGY seedlings in mid-May from my horticulturist friend (like, 2 feet tall and a month away from planting weather). The fluorescent grow light I had purchased at Early’s a few years earlier had burned out, so she recommended I buy this chonky boy from Amazon. I assumed it would be light and energy-efficient, because LED, but it was quite the surprise when I received it. Folks, this is a heavy, cannabis-strength grow light. It requires PPE in the form of sunglasses if you go near it while in operation. Because I needed to keep my plants in a bathtub due to their immense size, this lamp worked great to fill the entire room with light (and also generated a decent amount of heat), but it might be overkill if you just have 2 or 3 lil baby seedlings. 

Note: If you are using natural sunlight, a few cloudy days will not hurt the seedlings. It gets cloudy in the summer too, so don’t be too concerned if they miss a day of bright light.

Water

I did talk about water quite a bit in my last post, because it’s the one thing you have to get right immediately after planting your seeds in order to make them grow. I’ll reiterate again to keep the soil wet but not waterlogged at all times. 

One thing you have to keep in mind, if you are going to set yourself even an informal watering schedule, is that as the plants get bigger they will use water faster. This seems intuitive, but I screwed this up royally in my third or fourth year of growing tomatoes. I went on vacation and left my seedlings (and cat) with a house sitter, and prior to the vacation I’d only needed to water every 2-3 days because they were so little. However they went through a growth spurt around the time I left, and so the 2-3 day instructions I’d given the sitter were inadequate and almost all of the seedlings dried up and died by the time I got home. 

In general, just be prepared to check your seedlings every day and if the top layer of soil looks dry, give them a drink.

—————-

I think I’m close to done with the Getting Started series of posts. I have one more planned, which will be a list of other tomato growing resources you can check out for more information. Following that, I plan to move into a series called While We Wait – these will discuss garden planning, companion plants to consider, supplies that will be helpful to start collecting now, and any other miscellaneous topics we can talk about while we wait to transplant our seedlings into their summer homes!

Getting Started: Let’s plant some seeds!

If you’re back, I hope this means you’ve got your seeds and your dirt and are ready to get started! If not, there’s still a bit of time but ideally you want to get those seeds germinating by the end of April. My plants got held up a bit last year due to a cold June, so I will share some tricks for prolonging the growing season and speeding up ripening later in the summer.

First, I better mention that this is not a comprehensive guide, and I’ve yet to encounter the one true “expert” on tomato growing. I’ve been to classes by high profile local gardeners and horticulturists and have heard opposite advice on all sorts of things. I won’t tell you anything that might risk killing your plants, but it’s very possible that someone else you know may have strong feelings about my advice. However what I think is so wonderful about growing plants, and especially our highly resilient tomatoes, is you can experiment and figure out what works for your situation, your yard, your preferred varieties and still end up with a decently good outcome. Maybe not The Best outcome, but you’ll still have fun and get to make salsa at the end. Tomatoes are very hard to completely screw up.

So! You’ve got seeds, and dirt, and containers. Read carefully, because the following steps are highly complicated:

  1. Put dirt in container
  2. If dirt is dry, make it be wet
  3. Poke tomato seed into dirt

If you stop reading now, you’ll probably be fine. If you want some more details, here is the elaboration of each step.

  1. Put dirt in container. What kind of dirt do you have? Is it a “potting mix” or “seed starting mix”? If so, that means it has some fertilizer in it which will be helpful for your seedlings. If it’s just regular ol’ dirt that you dug out of your yard… honestly, that’s fine too. You may want to consider adding a fertilizer spike at some point, but it’s not do-or-die necessary. The U of S has a good post about this on their Facebook page for more information.
  2. If dirt is dry, make it be wet. If your dirt has been sitting all winter and it’s totally dry, it’ll probably be quite hydrophobic. You know when you water a plant and the water seems to just run right through out the bottom without wetting the soil? That means the soil is not retaining the water, i.e. hydrophobic. If the dirt you are using is peat-based, it’s definitely going to be hydrophobic right now. When peat totally dries out, it takes a lot of water (ideally a good rain) to get it back on the hydrophilic (retaining water) side. You will need to soak it until it starts retaining water, otherwise your seed will never get wet enough to germinate. The way I did it this year was run my pots with dirt in them under the tap on a gentle spray until it filled to the brim, let the excess water run into the sink, and repeated this about 5 times until I could tell that the soil was wet throughout. If it appears your soil has become completely waterlogged, you may want to wait a day or so before putting in your seed so it doesn’t rot before it can germinate. The good news is that once peat is properly retaining water, it takes a lot of neglect for it to completely dry out so if you forget to water it for a day you should likely be okay.
  3. Poke tomato seed into dirt. If your soil is now adequately wet, place one or two seeds on top, and poke it down a bit (a half inch or so) with a chopstick, skewer, stick, etc. Then just make sure the upper layer of soil where the seed is stays wet (but not waterlogged) and your seeds should germinate in about 6-10 days. 

Try to keep your planted seeds in a warmer area where the soil can stay consistently above 20 C. Because it’s still very cold overnight in Saskatoon (whyyyyyy), I’ve been keeping my seedlings in a sunny window during the day and moving them to a space heated bathroom at night. I also wrapped the pot in aluminum foil to try and hold in more heat and catch drips so I don’t make a mess on my windowsill.

I like to plant two seeds together at a time, as sort of an insurance policy in case one doesn’t germinate, and then I just lop off the weaker one after they’ve got a couple weeks’ of growth.

If it’s been two weeks and your (tomato – different plants have variable germination times) seeds still haven’t germinated, something probably went wrong. It is unlikely your seeds were too old – tomato seeds can germinate after decades of dormancy if they’ve been stored in the right conditions (cold and dry). It is more likely that the soil was too wet or too dry. The only times I’ve ever personally killed tomato seedlings is by accidentally overwatering, and in both cases the soil was completely waterlogged, which I didn’t notice until it was too late. (I also once lost some while on vacation by telling my house sitter to only water them every 2-3 days, and they dried out.) So just aim to keep your soil in a happy medium of “damp/wet” and you should be fine.

If you have your seeds and dirt but don’t have a sunny area and will need to get a grow lamp, you’ve got time. The seeds don’t need light to germinate, but once they’ve poked above surface they will require it. I’ll talk about my ridiculous bathtub tomato grow-op from last summer in an upcoming post next week!

Getting Started: What the heck is a hybrid seed?

I promised in the last post that I’d explain the difference between heirloom seeds and hybrid seeds (and why you shouldn’t plant seeds from a tomato you bought at the grocery store). If you don’t care about what varieties you grow, and don’t plan to save any seeds, this post is probably not very important for you. But if you are growing with a goal in mind and hope to save seeds it may help you decide which seeds to start with. 

I have admittedly been using the term “heirloom” as a catch-all for open-pollinated seeds (and I’m not the only one who does this). They technically aren’t the same thing, but I find the word “heirloom” a lot easier to remember than “open-pollinated”, and the most important thing when selecting seeds is understanding the difference between open-pollinated and hybrid seeds.

Run a Google search for “heirloom vs hybrid tomato seeds” and you will likely come across a lot of posts from hippies about why heirloom seeds are superior and more “natural” while hybrid seeds are garbage. This is not really true. Heirloom plants are those that have been cultivated for generations and maintain some semblance of genetic “purity”, while hybrid means the seed is the result of deliberate cross-pollination (plant breeding) to create a plant with the desirable characteristics of more than one variety. It’s like the tomato version of a tangelo. Open-pollinated means that the seeds came from a plant that was naturally pollinated – e.g. by bees or wind. Technically all true heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. It is also possible that even the heirlooms/open-pollinated varieties we grow and save seeds from have become hybrids thanks to the bees in our garden – but I’ve personally never had noticeable issues with this. For a more fulsome explanation, check out this article.

Hybrids are usually created to give the people what they want, which is why some tomato snobs will say that they are boring and lack flavour. This is true if we’re talking about the hybrids that are bred in order to survive cross-continental truck rides from Florida fields to the McDonald’s factory without bruising or over-ripening, but there are also a lot of excellent hybrid tomatoes available that taste just as good as heirlooms, such as Celebrity and Juliet (which I recommended in my last post). There are also many visually stunning open-pollinated tomatoes that have no flavour, such as Yellow Pear and Indigo Rose. As well, there are hybrids available of “known” heirloom varieties out there, so you need to be aware of your source if you are planning to save seeds later in the summer. The general rule is: save open-pollinated seeds, don’t save hybrid seeds. And unless the seed says “heirloom” or “open-pollinated” on the package, assume it’s a hybrid.

When you save the seeds of a hybrid plant, there is no guarantee that the seeds will produce fruit at all, and best-case-scenario it will likely not produce fruit that is quite the same as what you grew the previous year. Two summers ago I saved some seeds from what appeared to be an unusually productive Brandywine that I bought from a small nursery at the Farmers’ Market. I planted it last year and it never flowered, which was a waste of energy, space, fertilizer, and water. I just figured “Brandywine is an heirloom” without realizing that it’s such a popular heirloom (probably the most well-known, in fact) that there could be hybrid varieties out there. It is likely what I bought was actually a Big Brandy hybrid or something, but because Brandywine is a recognizable variety it was being sold as such.

Most heirloom varieties will not be super productive, though I generally find cherry-type heirlooms to produce more than larger heirloom varieties. They may also be more prone to cracking, disease, pests, etc. because these traits have not been “bred out” – but they will be interesting and fun, and my all-time favourite tomato (ananas noire, below) is an heirloom. I personally love growing interesting heirloom/open-pollinated varieties, but I supplement them with hybrids to make sure I get an adequate yield.

If your only goal is to maximize your harvest and make a bunch of tomato sauce, grow hybrids. If your only goal is to have fun and make colourful salads to post on Instagram, grow heirlooms. If your goal is a mix of the two, grow some of each!

Getting Started: Seeds or Seedlings?

So you have decided to grow tomatoes! Congratulations on your excellent decision. This is Step One in making your socially distant summer a little bit better, especially when it looks like this outside today:

The question of the day is: should you start your own seeds, or should you just buy seedlings from a greenhouse in May or June?

Personally I do not have a great natural setup in my house for starting seeds from scratch (i.e. a cat who likes to knock containers of dirt on the floor and then eat the plants), so I usually do a mix of greenhouse-purchased hybrid* seedlings, and get a horticulturist friend to start heirloom* seedlings at her work greenhouse for me. This year though, the friend’s work greenhouse is off the table due to COVID-19. I have changed my strategy a bit; I’m still planning to purchase some seedlings from the nurseries, but am also growing a few of my heirlooms on a semi-cat-proof kitchen windowsill and a few more at my sister’s cat-free house.

If you don’t really care about the varieties you grow, I would normally say do not bother starting your own seeds. They are not hard to grow if you’ve got a sunny spot or a grow lamp, but they do require daily attention, which can be an issue if you’ve got a trip planned etc. However, this year is different! This year I think we should all start at least a couple seeds.

There is something very magical about starting a fruiting plant from a seed, moreso I feel than say, a carrot or leafy green. When it’s August and you’re looking at your little four foot “tree” dripping with ripe tomatoes, it’s truly awesome, in the literal sense of the word, to think about how that plant started from a tiny seed in your kitchen window. You can’t quite replicate that feeling if you didn’t start the seed yourself, which is why you should do it this year, when we need that little extra bit of joy and wonder in our isolated lives. Even if you want to buy most of your plants from the nursery, I challenge you to nurture just one from a baby seed!

If you’re going all-in on seeds, my favourite place to buy them in Saskatoon is Early’s. In my opinion they’ve got the best selection, and they package seeds under their own label, so you’re doubly supporting a local business. You can also get dirt, starter pots, and grow lamps there if you need them. Due to the pandemic-related shipping delays most online shops are experiencing, I would not recommend ordering seeds from out-of-province right now because they could take a bit longer than you want to get here. If you have a favourite local garden store, check if they have an online shop or just call them to see what they’ve got for seeds. If you’re overwhelmed by the available varieties, I recommend Celebrity and/or Juliet, both of which I grew for the first time last year and loved, and both are AAS winners which is pretty much a guarantee that they’re near perfect plants. (I have also heard great things about Mamma Mia and Super Fantastic, and recommend Black Cherry or Sun Sugar if you want more colourful varieties, but for the love of dirt please do not grow Early Girl unless you legitimately enjoy mealy and tasteless McDonald’s-style tomatoes.)

If you just need one or two seeds, go on Saskatoon Kijiji and find me (just search for tomato seeds) – I’ll give you a couple of surprise heirloom varieties for free, and I also have a few small nursery pots I can share if you need. Do not try to plant the seeds from a tomato you bought at the grocery store, as they are likely hybrids and will not set fruit. I’ll explain this more in another post (including my own frustrating experience with an unwittingly saved hybrid Brandywine seed last summer), but for now – just don’t do it. Get seeds that are specifically prepared for planting.

*What are these heirlooms and hybrids I keep talking about? I’ll let you know in the next post. Just go get some seeds, dirt, and containers, and meet me back here in a day or two.

——————

Also, a PSA – The University of Saskatchewan has posted its spring gardening class schedule. All classes are online this year and only 20 bucks! Lyndon is a hilarious, passionate, and extremely knowledgeable instructor and I learned a ton in his tomato class a couple years ago. It looks like he is doing one later this week on tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, so I would recommend signing up if you can!

Let’s grow some tomatoes!

Hi everyone! Thank you for coming. My name is Robyn and I am a tomato fanatic in Saskatoon. Whether you are here because you love tomatoes too, or you’re a new gardener, I hope this can become a place where we can help each other out!

I’m starting this because it’s going to be a hard spring, and a hard summer, for all of us. My personal challenges in the last month are that I no longer have a “job” (I’m a freelancer and my only contract was cut off) and I feel helpless and anxious that I can no longer connect with my older family members in person, during a time they may be feeling especially lonely. I know we all have different challenges right now, and they will continue to evolve over the coming months.

Life is always challenging, and always brings suffering – but we rely on the large and small joys to help us cope. Summer is often a time when the larger joys are concentrated – family vacations, weddings, camping trips with friends, gathering for ice cream on a patio. It is unlikely that we will have access to these larger joys in summer 2020. The small joys are going to have to step it up this year.

For me and countless others, gardening is a small joy that spans over half the year and as a result, becomes a large joy. I want to share that joy with you this year, and I want to spark it in you too if it’s not something you’ve experienced. We need gardening this year, more than ever.

But why tomatoes? Tomatoes were my gateway plant, a decade ago when I first started gardening. They are extremely forgiving and easy to grow, and there are so many incredible varieties to try out. You can grow them literally anywhere that gets sun – for my first few years of tomato growing, I did not have a garden. I planted them in 10” plastic pots and they grew 5’ tall and were absolutely magnificent! Tomatoes are still the number one plant I look forward to growing each year. I have a lot to say about them! If you’re going to grow stuff for the first time this summer, I suggest you start with tomatoes – even if you don’t like eating them raw, there’s probably a way you can use them, or a friend, family member, or neighbour you can share them with.

I am hoping this site will evolve and grow and become what it needs to be as we figure things out over the seasons. But right now, my goals are to:

  • Give you some tips on how to get started with your tomato plants – either starting from seed, or selecting which varieties to buy from a nursery
  • Point out some good local resources for obtaining plants, seeds, and gardening education
  • Connect tomato fans with other tomato fans who might have seeds or plants to swap, in a safe and socially distant manner
  • Profile/review different tomato varieties
  • Share tips and challenges as we grow our gardens together in 2020

Right now is the perfect time to start tomato seeds. In the next two weeks I’ll be posting a “Getting Started” series, mainly for those new to growing tomatoes, but if you are an experienced grower please share tips or feedback in the comments! I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’ve found some things that work well, and would love to hear what works for other people.