Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Seedlings, Day 15

I love this time of year. This mildly cool, breezy spell we're having is great. I'm outside every morning, watering and moving seedling trays, and it only reminds me that we're really heading into the fall and winter almost-Mediterranean growing season.

About those seedlings ... I might have over-reacted a little bit last weekend, after I first transplanted the seedlings from their hydroponic home into soil (I used 4" Jiffy pots). It's true that I'll never do this again, but I didn't actually lose any seedlings. Everything perked up after a day or two in a shady, protected spot outside, so here we are on Day 15, with tomato seedlings between 4" and 7" tall (depending on the variety), lots of greens, and much smaller peppers. The trays are currently spending most of the day outside, and I've been acclimating them to more sun and wind every day. I'm watering every other day and feeding with a diluted fish emulsion fertilizer, plus the worm castings in the soil mix.

I figure I'm about two weeks away from planting. I find at this stage it's helpful to stake up the young transplants, especially after thinning them out. The young plants typically lean on each other for support, so the combination of cutting away their neighbors (you want only one plant in each pot) and exposing them to wind means they appreciate a little help in the form of a bamboo skewers.

If you're not doing seedlings, it's a good time to go out and buy your tomato transplants. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. It's great to see the expanding variety of tomato transplants on the market now. Even Lowe's and Home Depot typically carry a dozen varieties of tomato or more, including bicolor, cherry, beefsteak, and plum-type tomatoes.

2. Pick the healthiest plants possible, with sturdy stems and healthy leaves, but try to avoid buying tomato plants in bloom or especially plants that already have tomatoes on them. These plants are already acclimated to a smaller pot and have experienced an abbreviated "adolescence," or vegetative stage. They will never bloom as vigorously as a plant that's allowed to grow to its natural size before setting flowers. Plus, it's still really too hot to set tomato fruit. Most tomatoes will still be dropping flowers until the nights cool off a little more and the plant can actually set fruit.

3. Beware of these "three in one" 5-gallon or 3-gallon pots. I've seen a lot of these lately, with three tomato plants in a single 5-gallon container. I don't quite get it. A 5-gallon pot is too small for one plant, let alone three. And if you transplant them, are you supposed to separate the root ball? Or grow all three in one cluster? Even though the plants are large, I think you're better off just getting a standard 6" or 4" transplant.

4. Beware also of tomatoes labeled "heirloom." I'm not saying these aren't wonderful plants--maybe they are, and maybe they will yield great fruit--but paying more for an heirloom label has more to do with marketing than anything else. I've spoken to a bunch of nurseries, and almost no one in Broward County actually stocks true heirloom tomatoes. Flamingo Road Nursery is an exception, but they don't have heirlooms in stock yet (I called them this morning to check). Part of the problem arises from confusion over the word "heirloom." There really isn't a single definition, and there's no oversight body that decides what plants can be called heirlooms. Various definitions have been proposed. Here's an article I wrote about heirlooms that contains more information about what is and isn't an heirloom tomato (this links to a tomato-related website I've been slowly building based on material from the blog ... it's still less than half-done, but you know how these things go).

5. Buy your transplants within a day of planting them. It's best to get them into their permanent home as quickly as possible.

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