By Beth Barrett
Boxes of unripened green tomatoes lined the back hallway entry to Annie’s childhood home. Montana’s short growing season meant that her father had to harvest his tomatoes early and ripen them in boxes layered with newspaper. “Dad grew tomatoes at our home,” Annie recounts, “even with all the challenges. Originally growing up in North Dakota, my mom knew nothing about compost or building healthy soil, so our lettuce was bitter; she didn’t even attempt to grow tomatoes.”
Years later, Annie, fostered by these young memories, grows over thirty varieties of tomatoes from seed yearly. She has learned a lot through her 25 years of experience growing tomatoes–from rotted tomatoes damaged by blossom end rot to moles gnawing at the roots and destroying her entire crop. Discouraged, ready to give up and quit, Annie has persevered through trial and error to succeed in our maritime climate.
I recently sat at Annie’s kitchen table as she explained her process.
Annie begins to sow her tomato seeds indoors in late winter, around early March. Using 2″ cups, she plants two to five seeds in each container of the same variety. She recommends good potting soil and lightly dampening the soil before planting. These pots are then placed in a propagation flat (12″ by 18″), which holds at least 30 containers.
A seedling heat mat the size of the flat is placed underneath, with a propagation kit dome covering the top of the flat. The entire kit is conveniently placed on her kitchen counter. The plastic covering will help keep in the needed heat and retain moisture. Annie has learned that consistent, moderate heat is more important than light. She waters them from the bottom of the utility flat. It generally takes about one week to germinate.
In late March or early April, the seedlings, now around two inches in height, are moved to her unheated greenhouse. “Otherwise, the seedlings will become leggy,” Annie explains. She “up pots” her delicate seedlings by gingerly using a spoon to lift out the soil, separate them and transplant them individually into four-inch pots. Again, she waters the flat from underneath with warm tap water, avoiding damaging overhead watering. Larger heat mats are now employed as her space has increased to accommodate up to 180 plants in eight flats! Admittedly, the expansive mats are expensive but will last for many years. Annie considers it well worth the long-term investment.
Near Mother’s Day, it marks the time to transplant outside. Annie cautions to watch the outside temperatures and transplant “only if the temperatures do not drop below 50′.” She plants them two-thirds deep into the soil, amended with a good organic fertilizer and compost. Galvanized bins and raised planter beds are excellent options for these heat-loving plants.
To prevent blossom-end rot, Annie discovered that pushing several Tum AntiAcid tablets into the soil beside each transplant alleviates the disease. A calcium deficiency causes blossom-end rot. Increasing the watering and liquid fertilizer has also helped her languishing, fruitless plants to revive immediately within a few weeks. These simple amendments have produced flowers and plants covered with little tomatoes.
As our time concluded, Annie brought her box of saved seed packets, stored in a cool closet, to the kitchen table. Some are many years old, but they still germinate. Spreading out the packages, she fondly showed me her favorite varieties, many with a story of how she found the variety.
Botanical Interests – botanicalinterests.com
- ‘Camp Joy’
- ‘Cuore Di Bue’
- ‘Speckled Roman’
Ed Hume – humeseeds.com
Franchi Sementi – growitalian.com
- ‘Principe Borghese’
Renee’s Garden – reneesgarden.com
- ‘Isis Candy’
- ‘Chadwick’s Cherries’
Territorial Seed – territorialseed.com
- ‘Chocolate Cherry’