Consider the seed. If you’d never heard of the concept, would you believe that a mere fleck could contain genetic mapping and enough physical energy to burst from nearly nothing like a rocket, careening into full-fledged planthood upon immersion in a handful of moist earth?
Yesterday I began the annual ritual of implanting these unlikely vegetative slow-motion exploding devices into 4-inch by 4-inch square pots. In south-ish Texas, early January is the time to plant tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds indoors, in order to obtain full benefit of the year’s spring/summer harvest.
I put 40 or so of the little pots into a large but shallow plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid, spraying water over the seeds before closing, to insure humidity and moisture – but not too much lest fungal rot ensue. The plastic tub sits on a large seedling heat mat, a handy device that provides bottom heat and helps germinate seeds quickly in a cool spare “plant room” that otherwise has no heat.
You don’t have to go to such trouble, however, and I’ve successfully raised tomato plants by starting seeds in foam drinking cups with drainage holes punched in the bottom with a pencil. Fill with good potting soil and keep them in a tray on a sunny southern window, rotating so they don’t lean too hard toward the sun.
In eight or 10 weeks, the weather should be warming and, with luck, we’ll be past the last winter frost here. I’ll have transplanted the best-looking seedlings into bigger pots, and they’ll spend time outdoors on still, warm days in order to “harden them off” for the rigors of life planted in the garden ground.
For the Deep South gardener, it’s important to get tomatoes into the ground as soon as early spring nights warm to 50 degrees or better – hopefully by mid-March. That’s because daytime highs often hit the mid 90s by the end of May, and tomatoes stop producing new fruits when the weather gets too hot. Thus, you must help your maters off to a quick start, in a race for as many fruit as possible before the summer sun calls a halt to the exercise until fall. Peppers – especially the hot chilies we grow around here – aren’t as picky about the heat. Eggplants are in between.
I’ve found through experience that there’s no use in trying to rush the harvest by putting tomatoes into the ground too early, however. Just one night that dips to 40 degrees can “check” the plants’ growth. They may survive, but it’ll take so long for them to overcome the chill that fruit production likely will be delayed. So the hurrier you plant, the behinder you can get.
If you think the idea of babying a bunch of seedlings indoors for two months does not sound like major fun, you can simply wait until mid-March and then drive down to a reliable retail nursery and buy tomato plants ready to put straight into the ground. You’ll pay more for plants than seed, but in the end the plants are surely cheaper if you consider the value of your time. The downside is that the nurseries likely will have only a few varieties from which to choose, and the choices may be based more on what wholesale growers have available than what types taste and grow best in your particular area.
Here at the One Acre Ranch we save a lot of seed, and it’s the third year of our open-pollinated heirloom experiment. The idea is to try to obtain big, delicious heirloom tomatoes that stand up well to the heat and soil diseases common to semi-south Texas. Every year I introduce two or three new varieties just to see how they’ll do, but at this point it looks as though the plants from previous years’ seeds outperform “new” heirlooms.
This year I’ve planted third-year seeds from what originally were run-of-the-mill German Johnson and Belgium Giant open-pollinated tomatoes. I’m also experimenting with a Hawaiian open-pollinated variety that’s supposed to be somewhat resistant to nematodes.
That would be a great trait to be able to breed into my maters, because the microscopic nematode worms are our most serious pest, and seem to be in the soil everywhere around here. I’ve had many plants that appeared to be dying of one or another type of wilt disease, however, when I’ve pulled them up I’ve found most had been ravaged by the tiny worms, as evidenced by a characteristic knotting of the roots. As I noted the other day, interplanting with something popularly referred to as Mexican marigold seemed to have repelled the nematodes last year, and maters planted nearby, while showing evidence of wilt, nevertheless survived from March into December.