Plant the Taste of Summer Now

Plant the Taste of Summer Now

To me, nothing tastes more like summer than a sun-warmed tomato plucked right from the vine. Throw in the smell of fresh mown lawn, the hum of a box fan, and I’m transported back to barefoot, fire fly-catching, childhood bliss.

As a kid, I only knew of three ways to eat tomatoes: Sliced, sandwiched, or snitched. Growing up, the sliced tomato was a mainstay on the dinner table (once they started rolling in around the second week of June). With eyes squinted and chin raised, my grandfather would make his proclamation the way a sommelier evaluates a fine wine. “Nice balance of acid and sweetness. If the squirrels don’t get ‘em first, this is going to be a good year for ‘Better Boys.’” This was reliable information you could interject if there was ever a lull in adult conversation, I learned.

Tomato sandwiches were the original fast food. Rarely eaten while sitting (at least in my family), they taste better while leaning over the kitchen sink, before heading out to most anywhere. The recipe in those days was simple: Two slices of Sunbeam bread, Duke’s mayonnaise slathered on both sides, and one HUGE slice of tomato – preferably ‘Beefsteak.’ Salt and pepper to taste was optional. Not until I met my husband (with Chicago roots, and perhaps a more sophisticated childhood culinary background than my own) did I taste true nirvana. I caught him by making biscuits; he caught me with a toasted, open-face tomato sandwich. To recreate, drizzle olive oil over the top of sliced French bread. Add two slices ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, two slices of fresh mozzarella, a little more olive oil, and broil until bubbly. Top with a chiffonade of basil. You’ll fall in love. I did.

I still snitch tomatoes. I’m shameless. As a kid, they’d sustain me until supper, and when I returned to play until the sun finally gave way to moon, I’d grab handful to munch, making the most of long days. First it was ‘Sweet One Hundred’ cherry tomatoes, then ‘Sweet Millions,’ and then came that crazy little ‘Yellow Pear’ that added both color and variety to tossed salads. The first tomatoes I planted once I got my own place were cherries. Tiny and terrific, these little gems are forgiving for the first-timer (even if you hold a Master’s degree in horticulture) and don’t take up much space. They are a mainstay in my garden today and more are probably eaten on the way to the mailbox than any other way.

So why all of this reminiscing, you say? Because now is the time to start tomatoes from seed indoors. Do this about 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected frost date. Sure, you can buy plants at your favorite local garden center, but there’s a real connection you get when you start from seed. Tomatoes are tropical, heat-loving plants. Unlike lettuces, radishes, and kale, which can be started in cool soil and counted on to sprout, tomatoes like it warm. Don’t let the length of the instructions scare you off. There is method to this madness and you’ll be rewarded with memories for years to come.

Start tomatoes from seed indoors adapted from reneesgarden.com.

Get Ready

Choose a clean container that has drainage holes and fill it a pre-moistened, sterile seed-starting mix. Make shallow furrows with a pencil or chopstick about 1/4 inch deep. Sow seeds by dropping them along the bottom of the furrows 1/2 inch apart.
Gently pinch together soil to cover each furrow, covering seeds 1/4 inch deep. Water cafefully and label each variety. Put container in a warm place, 75-80˚ F.  As soon as seeds begin germinating and stems start to show above the soil, it’s critical to provide a strong light source such as florescent bulbs or a very sunny window.

Watch the calendar

Day 7: Seedlings have should have germinated. First to appear are “baby” or “cotyledon” leaves. Careful labeling of each variety is important, as they all look alike.
Day 15: Seedlings are still tiny and have only cotyledon leaves, but are growing well. The little leaves should be bright green. This indicates that plants are getting enough bright light to thrive.
Day 30: The first set of “true” tomato leaves begin to appear above the baby cotyledon leaves. 

Move to a larger pot

Once all seedlings have their true leaves, it’s time to transplant into individual containers so that they have room to grow. This is called “pricking out.”
To prick out, lift seedlings from below, holding each one gently by their baby cotyledon leaves and scooping up entire soil ball from below. An old fork works well for this. If roots have grown together in a clump, gently tease seedlings apart; holding on by the baby cotyledon leaves.
Transplant each seedling into its own container (at least 3-4 inches in diameter) filled with good quality, pre-moistened potting mix. Make a hole for each seedling. Insert each seedling into the hole to the base of its cotyledon leaves.
Tomato seedlings will readily grow new roots along their buried stems, resulting in sturdy, vigorous plants. Gently water to settle the plants.

Harden off

IMPORTANT: Seedlings need to be kept at between 65 and 70 degrees after they have true leaves and until they are ready to go into the garden.
When night temperatures are regularly in the 55-degree range, you may plant well-rooted, established seedlings outdoors. BUT FIRST, you must acclimate plants. To do so, move them outside into the sun, first for a few hours, then gradually increasing over a weeks’ time until they are in full sun all day.  This process is called “hardening off” and it avoids transplant shock.

Plant outdoors

At transplanting time, if hardened off young plants are more than 6 inches tall, remove the bottom branches before planting.  New roots will form along the buried stem.
To plant in the ground or in a container such as an Earthbox, ease the tomato from the pot by overturning it and gently squeezing.
Set the seedling in the hole, so that the entire stem will be covered up to where leafy branches begin. Pull soil around the plant and firm.
Water gently, but thoroughly and install tomato supports. Be sure they are well secured, because grow large and have heavy with fruit.

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