Lifestyle

COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: Ten tips for tasty tomatoes in late April

By Marianne Binetti

Marianne Binetti will make the following appearances:

• 9 a.m. Saturday at Windmill Gardens in Sumner, “Chocolate in the Garden: using rich, dark colors and sweet scents.” Phone 253-863-5843 or go to www.windmillgarden.com for information.

• Noon, Saturday, Woodinville Water District Spring Fair at University of Washington Bothell campus. “Waterwise Lessons from the World’s Most Beautiful Gardens.” Phone 425-487-4102 for information.

• 4 p.m., Saturday, Enumclaw Spring Expo, “Spring Gardening Ideas” at the Enumclaw Expo Center.

• 2 p.m., Sunday, Nisqually Valley Home Show, “Incredible Edibles and Creative Landscape Design.” Free lecture. Phone 360-458-3505 for information.

The third week of April is a good time to start tomatoes from seed or to spend your time weeding the beds, mowing the lawn and adding spring-blooming rock garden plants, perennials and shrubs to the landscape.

If you’re wondering why anyone would learn the art of growing tomatoes from seed when it is inexpensive to buy healthy tomato plants from the nursery in May, then consider this No. 1 reason why gardeners grow from seed: more varieties. Nurseries may offer only the most common tomato, vegetable or flower starts while seed companies offer hundreds of different heirloom and unusual varieties.

News flash: A reader from Puyallup is looking for an “heirloom” tomato called “6th Avenue,” sold from a nursery near the Narrows Bridge from the 1920s until the 1970s. Contact me if you can help track down seeds for this old variety.

The planting tips below will help get your tomato seeds sprouting indoors now for setting outdoors later this spring.

1. Start seeds at the right time. For tomatoes this means six to eight weeks before the last frost date – or mid-April if you plan to set the plants outdoors by mid-May.

2. You need light for the seedlings. You don’t have to have a greenhouse but a bright window or set of fluorescent lights kept very close to the seedlings will be needed to keep the young sprouts from getting too tall and lanky.

3. Use a good seeding soil. This means something that is lightweight without a lot of compost or manure. Special “seeding” soil is sold at garden centers; it drains quickly so your seedlings won’t suffer from the dreaded “damping-off” disease – a soil fungus among us.

4. Don’t plant seeds too deep. Tomato seeds should be pressed into the soil and covered with just the slightest bit of very fine soil.

5. Be patient while you wait for the seeds to sprout. Tomato seeds need bright light and warmth to sprout or germinate. Placing the seed trays, pots or flats on top of a refrigerator or dryer will provide bottom heat to encourage sprouting. They need a room at least 70 degrees or warmer to get them growing. It takes one to two weeks for the green sprouts to be seen. Keep the soil just slightly moist.

6. Thin the baby plants when they are 2 inches tall. This means you need to remove nearby seedlings so each plant is at least 3 inches away from any siblings. When seedlings become too crowded they grow skinny and weak.

7. Water gently with warm water. Don’t fertilize until each seedling has at least two true leaves. The first set of leaves doesn’t count. They are the baby leaves. Use a liquid plant food at one-half the strength recommended. Fertilize just once while the seedlings are indoors then once a month after that.

8. Harden off your seedlings by letting them spend some time outdoors during the day, starting the first part of May. Bring them indoors at night until mid-May when the nights should be warm enough for heat-loving tomato plants to go outdoors. A light wind is good for seedlings. It makes them tough, compact and cold hardy. Use a fan on your seedlings if you can’t set them outdoors each day.

9. You will know it is time for your seedlings to go into the ground or outdoor pots when the nights have warmed up (mid-May to mid-June) and the seedlings have several sets of leaves. Water well the night before the transplant operation and remember that tomatoes are one of the few plants that can be planted deeper than their original growing level. This is because tomatoes grow roots all along the length of their stem. Remove the lowest leaves on leggy plants and let just the top four sets of leave poke out of the soil.

10. Grow in the hot spots. In our area you must plant tomatoes in the hottest part of the garden – against a west- or south-facing fence or building is best. Surround the plants with black or red plastic mulch on top of their roots or plant them inside a rubber tire that sits on the ground. Black plastic absorbs heat and in our cool summer area the hotter the better.

Once you learn the art of growing tomatoes from seed you’ll be able to grow the more flavorful heirloom, Russian, Cherokee Purple and other short-season varieties available as seeds. Celebrate the diversity of flavors and get growing.

• • •

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site, www.binettigarden.com.

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