Garden and Greenhouse

It’s Time for Tomatoes!

In my last post, I detailed my seed-starting procedure, beginning with peppers. All of those pepper seeds germinated in the plastic bags on paper towels, were planted in containers of warmed, moist seed-starting mix, and placed in the heated sand box to emerge. They’ve now emerged and are under a grow light (cutting several days off the time it would take to germinate them in seed starting mix) so the sand box is free for tomato seedlings. But first, I have to sprout them.

I germinate tomato seeds the same way I do peppers, on a wet paper towel sealed inside a plastic zipper bag (click link to seed starting process ), but tomatoes usually sprout much faster. The seed coat of a tomato isn’t as hard; whereas, a pepper seed might take up to a week (or even a little longer) to sprout, tomato seeds usually sprout within three days or so in the bags, and the seed leaves usually emerge from the soil just a couple of days after planting the germinated seed.

(Note: of the ten varieties of tomato seeds I started on 2/22/15, five of them, including Red Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Rainbow, Black Vermissage, and Roma) have sprouted some seeds within 48 hrs. of placement in the bag, and others are showing the characteristic “pointing” of the seed coat which indicates that the radicle (embryonic root) is beginning to push through the seed coat.)

The seed packet says the seedlings should emerge in 8-10 days when planted directly into soil, so you can see that germinating on paper towels in plastic bags can cut up to five days off the initial germination process. As I said in the previous post, five days might not matter to some folks with a longer growing season, but it makes a big difference to me. I have to cope with a short growing season usually started by a delayed and chancy spring, and often ending in an early, bitter fall.

I taught myself something this year about the paper towel/plastic bag method of seed starting. I learned the paper towel sprouting method online, but the site I used (years ago—I have no idea where it was now) said to roll up the paper towels into tubes and insert all the tubes into one single plastic zipper bag. I never thought inserting all the tubes containing  different varieties into the same bag was a good idea—it’s possible to transmit diseases on some of the seeds to all of them that way, so I always used separate bags for different varieties of one plant or different species altogether. In addition, I’ve had some trouble with the tubes in past years. If you wait just one day too long to plant your seeds, the radicle will have grown into the paper towel, and then you have to be very careful not to damage it when you remove the seed for planting in the containers, and this is complicated further by the need to unroll the tube. This year, I thought, why not just fold one thickness of paper towel over the seed, put each one into its own zipper sandwich bag, and let it go at that. And I discovered that doing this makes it really easy to check for germination. You just hold the bag up to the window or a bright light, and you can see how many seeds have sprouted without even opening the bag. You can decide whether some of the seeds need to go into the soil immediately, or whether you can wait another day for the laggards.


Because I already have seeds sprouting and will be planting them in soil today, yesterday (3/24/15)  I had to get the six packs filled with organic sprouting medium, moistened, and into the heat/sand box to warm up, so that the sprouted seeds don’t get shocked moving from a warm environment (the bag by the stove) into a cold one.


If all my seeds sprout, I’m going to be a little short on space in the heated sand box, but I’m not expecting 100% germination out of the older seed. And if I run out of space, I will have to rig another heat box with the old rope light, which should work well enough for a few extra containers.

All this means I should have tomato seedlings by the end of the week! And that means that I will have about six weeks to grow them on before it’s time to set them out in the garden. That should be just about right. Tomatoes grow very quickly, especially in the protected environment of the greenhouse. It’s also important not to set out tomato plants that are blooming. You might think you’re getting a head start this way, but the transplanting process causes the tomato stem to root, and diverts energy from fruit production. It’s actually better, even with a short growing season, to plant tomatoes before they have developed blossoms.   For more about growing on, see my post from last spring:  “Transplant.”

I planted 30 germinated tomato seeds today.  I might have gone a little overboard, as usual. I started 67 tomato seeds from 10 different varieties,and I’ll probably be planting the rest within a day or two. I’m expecting about 60 plants, because some of my seed is getting a little old, and I don’t expect more than a 50% germination rate from a few varieties. (When the germination rate for a particular seed packet, whether homegrown or store bought, falls below 50%, I discard the seed for fresh. But I have saved seeds from my heirlooms since 2010, so I have a lot of extra seed too.) Some of these plants are for my son and daughter, and if I still have more than I need for my own garden, I’ll sell or give away the extras.

Every year, I say I won’t grow so many tomatoes, because I work myself to a frazzle preserving the fruit in the late summer and fall. But every spring, I’m just too tantalized by the prospect of ripe, sweet, homegrown tomatoes to eat fresh, or turn into charred salsa or Italian red sauce or tomato-apple chutney, to restrain myself.


Garden and Greenhouse

January Daze

The holidays have come and gone.  I’ve used up all the leftovers, and I’m sick and tired of cooking.  It’s the time of year when I’m glad I have a well-stocked pantry.  I can open a jar of abalone chowder base (just add half & half and sherry), or a jar of venison chili or venison stew, mix up a batch of cornbread, open a jar of pickles or dilly beans, and there’s dinner.

I tend to get a little blue in January.  After the holiday rush and bustle, the delight of having the whole family together, and the fun of watching the little ones enjoy the season, I always feel a little let down.  I remind myself that this is the time for rest.  Like my garden, I need this time to regenerate.  I need some quiet time to rest and think.  I need time for reflection.

When I was teaching, reflection was an important part of the way I taught writing as a process.  If we don’t take time to reflect on what we’ve done, we’re missing an opportunity for learning.  Rushing from one assignment to the next (whatever kinds of assignments these are, whether self-imposed or part of a standardized course) doesn’t give us time to understand what we’ve done well, where we need to improve, and what we need not do again.  Reflection allows us to make a solid plan for the future, based on what we know worked, or didn’t, in the past.

So this is the time when I pull out my garden log and go over the notes I made about the garden and the harvest during the spring, summer, and fall.  It’s the time when I decide what changes need to be made in what I plant and where I plant it.  It’s the time when I sort through my seed packets to see what I need to buy fresh and how much.  It’s a planning time, and it heartens me.

Seed catalogs have been arriving for a couple of months.  I put them aside until January, when their bright, colorful photographs cheer me and remind me that another growing season will fill me with energy, purpose, and hope.

I don’t buy a lot of seeds.  I sow very frugally because I hate to thin.  A packet of carrot seeds will usually last me two years because I don’t use them all the first year I open them.  The same with most small seeds:  beets, lettuce, spinach, etc.  I seal up the opened seed packets with masking tape, and I put all my unused seeds into an old plastic mayonnaise jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Into the jar along with the seeds, I place several silica packets, the kind that are shipped inside large bottles of medications, to absorb moisture.  I put this container in my laundry room, which stays cool summer and winter, and my seeds stay fresh for years.  I have some large packets of lettuce seeds that I’ve been planting from for ten years.

Seeds grown and processed for storage organically may be viable for a very long time.  There are reports of seeds left in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years that grew when planted.  Unfortunately, many large commercial seed companies began some years ago to treat seeds with substances that are supposed to increase germination rates and/or provide protection against pests and pathogens during and right after germination.  I believe these treatments affect seeds’ viability if they are not used within the first growing season after harvest.  For this reason, and the fact that I don’t like the idea of chemically-treated seed, I’ve begun to look for organic seeds and to grow more and more heirloom varieties and save the seeds myself.  Tomato seeds are very easy to harvest and save, and I’ve had very good luck with them.  I always germinate seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant between moist paper towels stuffed inside plastic zipper bags.  It only takes a couple of days, and that way, I know exactly how many plants I will get from those seeds.  When the sprouts have just broken the seed coat, I can use tweezers to gently move them from the paper towels into warm, damp seed-starting medium and put them under a grow light in the greenhouse.

For other plants like lettuce and spinach, I allow self-sowing.  I let these plants flower (which has an added benefit of giving the bees more blossoms to milk). This means the garden gets pretty raggedy-looking in July and August, when the plants bolt and send up tall spikes of unremarkable flowers, then turn brown and, well, seedy-looking, but it saves me time and work and energy, and I get lettuce and spinach earlier the following spring.  There’s no guesswork on my part about when to plant:  the self-sown seeds sprout when conditions are favorable.  The plants and seeds do all the work.  Sometimes the seeds sprout where I didn’t expect them to, but I just work around them.  I like the spontaneity of allowing self-sowing.  I don’t mind a head of romaine in the middle of the row of carrots.

Larger seeds like pumpkins and squash are also viable for years when left untreated.  I have a pumpkin seed story that makes me smile every time I think of it.  When my children were small, I always grew jack-o’- pumpkins for them.  I usually grew a medium-sized variety, and we’d cook the pumpkins down the day after Halloween for pumpkin pies.  But one year when they were a little older, they wanted big pumpkins, so I planted a variety called Big Max.  They were big, all right.  We don’t have a very long growing season here, but we got a few Big Maxes, and I grew them for the kids for several years before I stopped growing a garden under the pressures of completing my M.A.

When my grandchildren were old enough to enjoy the idea of growing their own jack-o’-lanterns, I dug out the few leftover Big Max seeds and planted them.  Those seeds were twenty years old, at least, maybe older, and I got about a 50% germination rate from them.  Kaedynce and Bryce grew four big carving pumpkins from two plants.  I had stored the seeds using the method above, with silica packets in my leftover seed jar.  That was several years ago, but the kids still talk about Big Max and Maxine.  Yes, they named their jack- o’-lantern pumpkins!

Despite (or perhaps because of) this experience with the pumpkin seeds, I know that as my seeds get older, their viability will begin to decrease.  This is natural.  So I always plant a few extra seeds, more than I would if the seed was fresh.  This spring, because of my garden log, I know that while I still have a few Minnesota Midget cantaloupe seeds left (the only melons that do well in my garden), they will be five years old this spring, and I only got about 50% germination out of them last year.  I need fresh seed.  They are a hybrid, so I can’t save the seed myself.  But I’ll still soak the old ones and sprout them between paper towels, so I can use up every last seed that’s viable.  I don’t like to waste a thing if I can help it.

Just thinking about spring planting cheers me up.  On this gray day, when we’re in the middle of another drought cycle, and yet another moisture-bearing storm is pushing north of us, leaving only dry clouds to veil the winter sun, it’s good to rest, reflect, and plan.  That’s what January is for, in my book.