Oh dear. I really have been remiss in providing updates and photos of the garden in its first year. The last photo I posted was on June 29. We were headed to Denver and I wanted a record of it before I left. Until that time June was still a bit wet and sometimes cold. A heatwave struck while we were gone and the garden really took off from there.
We ate our first tomato of the 2011 growing season on June 24, just days after the Summer Solstice. This isn’t the earliest tomato I’ve grown, but it’s been a cold, slow year so by those standards we are right on target.
The winning variety this year is ‘Ditmarsher’ a compact, tumbling determinate variety that takes very well to containers and window boxes. I started the seeds on March 20.
I first heard about this variety from my friend Julianna, the queen of tomatoes in these parts. It quickly became a favourite and one I always plan to turn to as a reliable early-producer. Like ‘Whippersnapper’ (a variety that is often the first producer of the year) it produces loads of pinkish, cherry-sized tomatoes. They just keep coming. Just look at the plant above. It’s laden with flowers that will become future tomatoes. Between it and the three others like it that I have in even larger pots, we should be set for cherry tomatoes for the remainder of the summer months.
If any of my other tomatoes are even half as productive, I’m going to have to go on a serious Nightshade Family fast come fall.
Ascending up to the front door of our new place is a series of cracking concrete steps. They are fully exposed to the sun and I predict that in combination with the metal railings, they should prove to be a hot spot by mid-summer.
Since moving in I’ve been contemplating what to grow there. The steps are thin so I could not install large pots that would impede the mail man’s ability to get to the box. They’re in front of the house, and now for the first time in my life I am actually considering the neighbours. To a degree. This isn’t the suburbs after-all. Fortunately, I live in a mixed ethnicity, working class neighbourhood so it’s not an external pressure to “Keep up with the Jones” but more about not inciting bad blood with the Castilhos or receiving hostile stares from the De Silvas.
When I last spoke of the Office Tomato, I described a plant that was quickly headed towards its final days. It had three ripe fruit and I was hoping to keep the plant going long enough to turn out a forth.
Amazingly, I managed to keep it alive to get not only a forth, but a fifth. There was even a sixth that made it to full size, but it stayed green.
The plant did die back. I have cut the stem down to a six-inch stub and am planning to put it outside to see if I can coax a second life out of this thing. Office Tomato 2: The Resurrection! And why not? I’ve got nothing to lose but a bit of time spent caring for it. My main concern is that the plant was not at its best, and that should a resurrection occur, I could find myself with a new, albeit sickly or disease-riddled plant. As I type these words, I can’t help but think of bad Zombie films, Reanimator, and Frankenstein. As if my resurrected plant is going to take on a life of its own, turn bad,and go on a rampage.
I need BRAINS! BRAINS!
The Taste Test
My second reason for bothering to keep this particular plant alive is the fruit. When I decided to nurture this particular volunteer plant, I predicted that this would all just be a bit of fun, but that the tomatoes themselves would be mealy and unpleasant. NOT SO! They were delicious. Very delicious. We ate the first and the last few straight up with a pinch of salt. The skin was a bit thick, but the insides were juicy with a nice tang. They were not mealy in the least. I made the mistake of leaving the last few on the plant longer than I should have as I did not have time to take pictures. You can see a bit of splitting in the full tomato depicted above. Tomatoes that split tend to turn mealy very quickly. These didn’t! They were just as juicy and delicious as the first.
Unfortunately, I’m still not sure exactly which variety this is. I grew a limited number of varieties on the roof last year (the volunteer came up in a houseplant that had summered on the roof), but I still can’t pin-point which one it was. I’ve narrowed it down to ‘Czech’s Bush’ or ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ I’ve been growing both varieties in pots for years. They are excellent, early producing varieties that do well in mid- to large-sized pots. Both produce similarly sized, red fruit. The leaves looked right. The only difference is that ‘Czech’s Bush’ is a very stocky, hardy plant. It’s short, thick, and rugged. This plants wasn’t any of those things particularly, but I wonder if that could be the result of a lack of light. It was grown in a window through the dim days of winter after-all. And it was never as leggy as other windowsill-grown plants have been. Either way, I’ve also saved some seeds from one of the fruits and might try growing those out this year to see if the plant shape changes at all in outdoor light.
The experiment continues. I hope my experience has inspired you to try your hand at an office (or bedroom, or living room) tomato this year. For the best chance of success, I’d go with dwarf varieties as they tend to be a bit more forgiving about a lack of light and can tolerate a very small space. But then again, I had luck with a larger determinate, so you never know. Gardening is an evolving never-ending experiment. Have fun with it!
Hardening off. It sounds a bit dirty doesn’t it? Sort-of like “getting off” (see also “Back and Forth Forever“), but then when I think of the two acts, even just in terms of gardening, they are by comparison, practically opposites. One is about letting go of restraint, so to speak, while the other is all about withholding our desire to “just get those plants out there and into the garden already!” It is the impatient gardeners’ ultimate test of will and patience.
For those who are new to gardening, hardening off is the process of preparing your indoor-grown seedlings for life outside. Think of it like this: your plant babies have spent life so-far indoors underneath lights where it is cozy and temperature-controlled. There are pests and problems for sure, but for the most part life is simple and easy. There is no wind inside, nor is there pelting rain, chilly nights, blinding sun, or squirrels (sorry, hardening off can’t help with that). Thrusting your babies out into the big bad world in one go would be devastating to them. The sun alone would fry them to a crisp in no time.
And so, not unlike human children, we introduce them to the world and all of its joys (sunlight, beneficial insects, gentle breezes) and strife (see above) gradually, easing them into it as best we can. This means putting them outside, in a sheltered spot for short stints. Gradually, over the course of two weeks, we nudge them away from shelter and out into the storm.
There are lots of ways to do this. Cold frames and plastic greenhouse thingys are helpful. My friend Barry sets his seedlings behind an old window screen. The screening diffuses the sunlight. You can also make a tent from a newspaper to cover the seedlings with to a similar effect. I prefer to put mine out against a brick wall in a shady spot. The plants gain protection and warmth on one side from the brick. It helps if they are close to a door so I can pull them inside quickly in the event of a freak downpour or (god forbid) hail.
The trick is in remembering that while tomatoes and peppers are sun lovers by nature, they aren’t ready to be out in the sun just yet. Your plants will get there eventually, but if you don’t exercise restraint now, chances are good that you could lose the whole lot of hard won seedlings in one swoop if you expose them to too much, too quickly.
The Hardening Off Process
I put mine out slowly at first; an hour or so on an overcast day. Over time they stay outside for longer periods and eventually overnight. It’s okay to halt the process in the event of unseasonably cold weather, especially if frost is predicted. We’ve had some exceptionally cool nights and hard rains this year, and I’ve had to pull my plants in for a few days on a couple of occasions. The first batch are ready to stay out overnight, but they still need a bit more time in full sun before they’ll be ready to take their place outdoors for the season.
Therein lies another tip: Don’t try to harden everything off at once. I try to stagger seed starting as much as possible. Granted, different plants have different schedules, but I don’t do all of the same type at the same time. This year my tomatoes were done in two batches. So were the peppers. As a result, I have less plants at the same stage of development to harden off at the same time. If something goes wrong with one batch, I don’t lose everything at one time. It reduces the risk and also makes life just a bit easier.
Are you currently in the process of hardening off your transplants? How is it going?