Friday, February 21, 2014

My Tomatoes' Journey: Table of Contents

This series of posts documents my experiences in growing tomatoes from seed. Over the next 6 months (from now until harvest time), you will journey with me through the life of my tomatoes. I will provide instructions on how to start, transplant, care for, and harvest tomatoes. I plan to write on topics such as common pests and diseases, fertilizers, and plant varieties, to name a few. 

I will continue to update this page with my ongoing journal entries along the way. If you'd like to read any of my posts, check out My Tomatoes' Journey:

My Tomatoes' Journey: Oh no, Mold! (Part 4)

The white fuzz (aka mold) is in the lower right corner.
The brown substance is cinnamon.
I've experienced my first set-back in this tomato journey, and I'm only 9 days into it. Ugh. I noticed a very faint layer of white fuzz on the top of my soil. I presume this is mold. I'm devastated. I believe that the mold started because of the increased humidity in my area this week as well as overwatering. In everything I've read, I was reminded, encouraged, and warned not to overwater. Apparently the message didn't sink in enough. 

So now what am I suppose to do? Well, I did what any other person would do in this day and age...I googled it. Here are a few things I found that may help:

  • Stop watering and/or remove your plants from the tray with the water in it. (I dried up any excess water in the bottom of the tray. Check.)
  • Circulate the air. (I turned on the ceiling fans. Check.)
  • Remove as much mold as possible. (Check.)
  • Sprinkle cinnamon on the soil. Apparently something in cinnamon acts as a fungicide. There are cinnamon sprays and cinnamon oils out there, but I only have dried cinnamon in my cupboard. So, that's what I'm using. (I'm a little skeptical of this, but I'm willing to give it a shot. Soil has been sprinkled. Check.)
I plan on starting a new round of seeds this weekend. I had originally intended to do this for a couple reasons. First, I want to stagger my plants to ensure a longer harvest season. Secondly, I can apply what I learn from the first round to the second round. And finally, just in case my first attempt fails, I still have a chance for redemption. 

If all else fails, I'm not ashamed to buy some tomato plants from the store. Or if things really go south, I'll have to settle for grocery store tomatoes yet again. Let's hope things improve. 

Check out my other posts on My Tomatoes' Journey.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

My Tomatoes' Journey: Light (Part 3)

Apparently eight is the magic number for my seedlings this year, because I saw my first sprout today! It's teeny, tiny, but it's the real deal. Once your first seed germinates, remove the plastic wrap and get the tray into light. Do NOT wait for all the sprouts to poke through. For the next six months (and especially for the next six weeks), you need to ensure these plants get as much light as possible (ideally between 14 and 16 hours). In this post, I will share with you why plants need light as well as the ideal lighting conditions. 

Why do plants need light to grow? 

If you recall your basic science class in grade school, you may remember that plants need light to grow for a little process called photosynthesis. [For the record, I never enjoyed science. My last biology class was my freshman year of high school, and I took the easiest science courses in college to fulfill the basic requirements...we're talking "rocks for jocks" and an easy, easy physics class (like no trig involved). So, we won't dwell on the science, but I wanted to give you all a refresher course.]

Photosynthesis means using light (photo) to put things together (synthesis). Plants use light to "put together" food. In order to make food and grow, plants require carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water. Just as humans need to breath oxygen and drink water, plants "breath" in carbon dioxide through their pores (or stomata) and "drink" water through their roots. The third component is sunlight, which is soaked up through a plant's leaves. Cells make up leaves, and within the cells are chloroplasts. Chloroplasts make leaves green as well as convert carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water into sugar and oxygen. The plant uses the sugar for food and "exhales" the oxygen into the atmosphere. Here's my lighthearted attempt at a visual explanation:

So, light will ensure that the plants can make the necessary food to thrive and not become weak and die. Ipso facto...let's put our plants in a place they will get a lot of light.

What is the best light for my plants to grow? 

The more light the better. You could go all out and get some fluorescent lightbulbs and set up an indoor growing area, but without a garage or basement, I just don't have the extra space (or space out of the reach of little children) that I can commit for the next six to eight weeks. So, I will simply settle on the sun's natural rays (ho-hum). My plants will set up shop in a very well-lit room in my house until I transplant them outdoors. If possible, place them in an area with southern light exposure.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Continue checking the trays daily for their moisture level. Only water (from the bottom of the tray) if the soil is not moist.
  • Turn the plants a quarter turn each day so they get even exposure to the sun. 
  • Try to find a location that has a fairly stable temperature (ranging from 60 to 75 degree F). Don't place the plants too close to a window sill as it can get cool at night. 

Apparently the fluorescent light set-up isn't that time or labor intensive, but I have not done this myself. If you want to use fluorescent lighting, here is a brief tutorial based upon a couple sources I've read (see below):

  1. Use a light fixture with two 40-watt cool white fluorescent bulbs, and space the tubes 3" to 4" apart. 
  2. Hang the light fixture above the plant trays and turn the light on 14 to 16 hours per day. (I've read to place the fixture from as close as 1" above the plants to up to 8" above the plants. Your guess is as good as mine.) 
  3. The temperature should be between 60 degrees and 75 degrees. 
  4. Check moisture level daily and water from the bottom when necessary. 
  5. Continue to raise the light fixture as the plants grow.

Check out my other posts on My Tomatoes' Journey.


McGrath, Mike. You Bet Your Garden Guide to: Growing Great Tomatoes. Fox Chapel Publishing. 2012. Pages 38-40. 

"Home Vegetable Gardening". North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University. Prepared by Larry Bass, Extension Horticulture Specialist. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Tomatoes' Journey: Sowing your Seed (Part 2)

The day has arrived to sow our seeds! (No, not that kind of sowing your seed...come on, this is a kid-friendly blog.) As a reminder, we plant the seeds six to eight weeks prior to the average last frost date in your area. Although this step does not take a lot of active time,  you do need to set aside a couple hours to allow the water to soak into your soil. So, you'll start the process; let it hang out a couple hours, and then finish it up. As I mentioned in Part 1, you will need the following supplies: 

  • Seeds
  • Seed Starting Mix (I'll be using the term "soil" for the rest of the post, but remember this is a special type of mixture.)
  • Plant Containers
  • Tray for Plant Containers

Here are a few additional things I didn't include on my original list. Hopefully, you have these things lying around the house:

  • Plastic Wrap: You will use this to cover the plant containers and create a "greenhouse-like" environment.
  • Permanent Marker (or something to label your plant containers)
  • Water

Now that you have everything you need, let's begin. 
  1. If you are not using the plastic six-pack trays (or a container with holes in the bottom), you will need to create holes in your plant containers. This will allow water to seep up through the bottom when watering your plants. Simply use a knife, pencil, or something that will puncture the material to create a hole in the bottom of the container.  If you are using an egg carton, puncture a hole in each of the 12 segments. Make sure you create a fairly big hole (like the size of the entire diameter of a pencil, not just the tip). Initially, I didn't create large enough holes, and the water had trouble soaking up into the trays.

  2. Lay the plant containers in the tray you will be using. As you can see, I'm using a rimmed baking sheet. 

  3. Fill the containers with the seed starting mix leaving about an inch at the top. 

  4. Next we need to water the soil. However, do NOT just pour water on top. This will water-log the mixture and be too wet of an environment for the seeds to thrive. Pour water into the bottom of the tray so that the water seeps up through the bottom holes of your containers. This may take some time. When I did this, I just put water in the bottom of the tray and let it sit for a couple hours. You really want the soil to naturally soak up this water. Keep adding water and checking back. If you notice water remaining in the bottom of the tray, you know you're ready for the next step. 

  5. Place TWO (not one, not three, but two) seeds in each section (this applies if you are using the plastic six-pack trays or egg cartons). If you are using a bigger container, you could use a piece of cardboard or something to segment the container into sections. Once the plants poke through, you will thin them out, but I'll get to that at a later time.

  6. Label your seeds so that you know what types of seeds are in which compartment. I used a permanent marker to write on the outside of the containers. I wrote "BM" (No, not for bowel movement...get your mind on tomatoes, folks!;) for "Beefmaster Tomatoes". 

  7. Cover the seeds with an additional 1/4" to 1/2" inch of the seed starting mixture. 

  8. Cover the trays loosely with saran wrap to create a miniature greenhouse and set the trays in a warm environment where it stays between 70 to 75 degrees F. 

  9. Each day until your plants sprout, take the plastic wrap off for a little bit to let the soil breath and also check the soil's moisture. (See my note below about when and how much to water).

Now that we've sown the seeds, we wait. You will probably see sprouts in as little as 5 - 7 days. Until then, here are a few tips on how to care for your seeds until you see the plants sprouting. 

Where should I keep my trays? 

Ideally, you want to keep the trays in a constant temperature environment (between 70 and 75 degrees F). Many people think a window sill is a great location, but what we may not realize is that temperatures next to the window may fluctuate a lot throughout the day and night (getting hot in the direct sunlight and dropping off during the night). So, a few unlikely ideal places to keep these trays until your seeds sprout may be on top of the refrigerator or another heat-emitting appliance. Do not put them on top of a radiator though because that will totally dry out the soil (and it's probably a fire hazard). If you don't have a location like that available, simply keep the trays on a counter in an evenly heated room. 

When and how much to water? 

We may be inclined to overwater at this stage. Check your moisture levels each day. If the soil is dry to the touch, then add some more water to the bottom of the tray and allow the soil to soak it up through the bottom. If the soil is moist, you don't need to add any water. One reason we don't water from the top at this point is so the seeds don't wash up from under the soil. However, you may lightly mist the top of the soil with a water bottle. 

After those plants peak up through the soil, we will turn our attention to getting those little guys some light. I'll cover that in my next post...

Check out my other posts on My Tomatoes' Journey.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

My Tomatoes' Journey: The Beginning (Part 1)

Gardening is something I've always enjoyed, even as a young girl. My crops are not always successful, but there is just something about getting your hands dirty, seeing something come from practically nothing. I find this incredibly rewarding -- even through my failed attempts. My gardens don't look the same each year. I tend to plant different varieties of fruits or vegetables from one year to the next. However, there is one plant that has always makes an appearance: the tomato.

Recently, I have not had success with my tomatoes. It's very frustrating to plant, wait, weed, anticipate, water, nurture these plants only to end up with tomato rot, blight, aphids, etc., etc. I just want enough to make a batch of salsa for pete's sake! Here are a few examples of my duds in the past few years:

So, this year I am determined to have tomato success! Part of this process includes documenting the journey of my tomatoes. My hope is that by doing this I will be more motivated to research and properly care for these precious plants. I also hope this creates a forum for people to share their successes (and failures), so we can learn from one another. I'm starting my plants from seed and will write about and show you the progress. Over the next 6 months (from now until harvest time), you will journey with me through the life of my tomatoes. I will provide instructions on how to start, transplant, care for, and harvest tomatoes. I plan to write on topics such as common pests and diseases, fertilizers, and plant varieties, to name a few. 

If you are interested in starting from seed, the seeds should be planted indoors six to eight weeks prior to the last frost of the spring. This will be different depending on where you live. Where I grew up in Michigan, I wouldn't dream of planting my garden before Memorial Day Weekend. But in North Carolina, the average last frost date is around mid-April, so I will plant my seeds indoor in mid-February (six to eight weeks before mid-April). You can easily find the last frost information online for your area. 

So, stay tuned in the next week or so, and I'll show you how to start your seeds. In the meantime, here are a few supplies you can get around in preparation:

  • Seeds: Use a variety that you like and will eat. I'm using seeds I kept from my tomatoes last season, but you can certainly buy some from the store. I'll write more later on how I got my seeds. 
  • Seed Starting Mix: NOT plain old soil. You need this loose mixture that holds moisture and drains well.
  • Plant Containers: I will use egg cartons and a plastic container some tomatoes came in from the store. I will probably need to transfer the plants from the egg cartons to a larger container before planting them outdoors, but I'll wait and see how it goes. I'm simply using this because this is what I have on hand. Ideally, I would use the plastic six-pack trays that plants normally come in. The plastic material won't get soggy when watering; they are the correct depth; and there are drainage holes on the bottom. Since I don't have those, I'm improvising. Use what you have on hand. If you use plastic yogurt cups or something similar, be sure to puncture a hole in the bottom. 
  • Tray for Plant Containers: You will need something for the plant containers to sit on since you will be watering the plants from the bottom. A cookie sheet or aluminum tray should suffice. 
Perhaps you have never gardened a day in your life, or maybe you, too, struggle with growing tomatoes year after year. If nothing else, I hope you are encouraged through this gardening endeavor. Come along and share in my tomatoes' journey!

Check out my other posts on My Tomatoes' Journey.