Tomatoes in tight spaces
Beating the grocery store prices
When times are tough one of the best ways to both save money and eat healthy is to grow your own vegetables. While this lens concentrates on tomatoes and how to produce them for next to nothing the principles can be applied to any vegetable.
Aside from them being good for you and all that. It’s rewarding to know that with a little knowledge and patience the skills you’ll learn will help the family budget stretch that much further. And you just can’t beat a fresh tomatoes picked straight from the vine for taste.
In this lens I won’t just tell you how to do it, but I’ll walk you through the steps that we did to produce wonderful fresh tomatoes all summer for only the price of 2lb of tomatoes.
Some simple steps to produce great results no matter how much of a garden novice you are. All you need for space is a couple of square feet on either a balcony or deck facing the Sun.
How we got started – Moving house, moving mindset
It was about a year ago that we moved into our present house after what can only be described as a tumultous year. One that we were glad to see the back of, but we also knew that the year ahead was going to have challenges of it’s own.
The new house was amazing, in many ways better than we could ever have hoped or even wished for. It had many blessings for us, but also a few challenges.
One thing that was both was having no lawn to mow (that was the blessing) but that also meant no place for a garden, specifically no veggie patch (the challenge). Also moving in Summer (In the southern hemisphere Summer is around Christmas time and January is when you get the first lovely tomatoes and other salad stuff).
Knowing about the move meant that I hadn’t planted any veggies. Doing the move in summer meant that we would lose all those delicious summer salads with produce fresh from the garden. It was hard giving up on stuff so fresh that it’s transported from the garden to the plate in a matter of minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, vegetables from the grocery store are great, if you have other priorities. But when money is tight then any way that will save you a few $$$ is welcome, and if you enjoy doing it then it’s even better. I mean why spend $10 on a couple of ib of tomatoes when for the same money and a little care/attention you can have 20lb of tomatoes arriving just when you need them all summer and they are so fresh you’ll never want another store bought one.
In this lens I’ll show you what we did to get not only the tomatoes (what the lens is mainly about) but also wonderful cucumbers. Talking you through the process so that you’ll get the same results.
You’ll need a few things, but many of them can be used for growing other stuff that I’ll be talking about in other lenses. They aren’t expensive and used well they’ll give you good fresh seasonal vegetables all year round and that can only be good for you and the family, all that for a fraction of what it costs at the grocery store.
Seeds or seedlings?
Pros and cons of both
Before we go any further do you want to grow from seeds or buy seedlings and just grow the plants?
There are advantages and disadvantages with both.
1. Buying the seedling
means that you can skip this part of the lens and go straight into the planting part. Buying seedlings means you’ll get about six in a pack, they are fairly easy to grow and will save you money with the groceries (also the setup cost isn’t as high) But they are almost always grafted hybrids and while you’ll get a good crop this year the produce itself will more than likely be sterile and you won’t be able to use their seeds for germinating next year.
2. Using seeds
Do take longer to get them growing. The setup cost of buying the propagator and extra seed raising mix should be factored in but the big advantages are that for the price of the six seedlings you’ll get a pack of 70 to 100 seeds (read 50 to 70 plants with a 70% germination rate) enough to give away to friends. Also you can make sure that you’ve not bought a hybrid (check the packet), hybrids are often used for increased resistance to some diseases but there are some good lenses that deal with how to increase disease resistance using natural products.
The main diease that gets tomatoes is ‘Blight’. It;s a fungus which often occurs when the plant roots get too wet. It shows itself on the leaves but really the problem is in the wet soil where the fungus resides. The best way to combat this is to make sure that the roots are well drained (potting the plant helps majorly with this) You can also dilute a little milk (ratio about 10 to 1) and spray on the plant in the evening, this too will help. another way is to plant Basil in the same pot (Basil will also keep some insects away, herbs are our friends!)
Get tips from the experts – A few ideas on how to get the best results
It’s always best when you;ve got input from a couple of experts. Here’s a few ideas of where to look for the best local advice. Remember every region is different, what works in New York might need a different approach in Los Angeles (and vis versa)
Which would you rather grow – Seeds or seedlings
Which of the two will suit you best?
- Skip the seeds and go straight for the seedling
Growing from seeds
When growing from seed there are a few essential pieces of equipment that you’ll need. Some (like the seeds and the seed raising mix) are self evident but the others might not be so I’ll run through them and a little of why I consider them essential.
1. Seeds. It goes without saying, no seeds will result in no plants. But the essential thing here is to look for the good quality ones. For someone just starting out on this journey I’d recommend you go for the ‘name brand’. Got a friend or relative who grows veggies? What brand of seed do they use? What about the local garden centre or the gardening section of the local hardware store, what brand do the people there recommend? The ‘name brand’ is often a bit more expensive but that’s because they often guarantee better results.
2. Propagator. This is the little plastic container that you put the seed trays into in order to get them to germnaite. They often come with seed trays and are ready to use. the propagator is basically a miniature greenhouse and can be used over and over so the cost can be spread out over many years. They usually cost around $20
3. Seed raising mix. Use specialized seed raising mix as opposed to compost or potting mix at the start for the simple reason that it’s usually not as acidic as the other two. High acid content in the soil at the start will hinder the germination process. Seed raising mix is gentler on the seeds and often has a fertilizer specifically for seeds. (no this isn’t an advertising ploy, it’s painful experience talking)
4. A sheltered sunny spot. An essential part of the plan. Find a place that will be out of the wind (but not any rain- rainwater is your new friend!) but gets as much sun as possible. It’s the mix of sun, heat and moisture that will germinate the seeds.
5. A pair of dishwashing gloves. Yes you read right! Dishwashing gloves (or cleaning gloves) rubber or latex gloves are a great advantage. Soil has the potential for some pretty nasty diseases (Legionaires disease is one) and the best way to make 100% sure there are no problems is to protect against it. There is only a remote chance of it but I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t tell you about it. The gloves can simply be washed after use and returned to their normal use (don’t tell the wife, she’ll kill me!)
The real key to all this is timing. For tomatoes the best time to get things under way is the first two or three weeks of spring. That way you’ll have tomatoes coming ripe early in summer that should produce all the way through to mid Autumn. Pay attention to what’s on the seed packets as they often tell you whether the plant is an ‘early fruit’ or what. There are literally hundreds of varieties and it’s often best to decide before what kind you want. Stomach problems? Maybe a low acid tomato is the answer (try the heart shaped Roma). Want hughe tomatoes then maybe a Hearty beefsteak (they’re literally as big as a quarterpounder!). The list is impressive and the folks at the local garden centre will be great, they’re as excited at you growing your own as you are!
Start with the propagator.
It’s really just a lightweight plastic (see through) box that works like a mini greenhouse. In fact that’s exactly what it is. It keeps the seeds warm and moist while it’s busy germinating and growing into the seedling. Below are a few good ones for around $20. You can also get them at the local garden centre. The beauty is that because they can be used over and over you can really enjoy their benefits many times (I’m germinating Lettuce in mine at the moment, as soon as they are ‘on the way’ it’ll be back to getting Winter veggies started)
Wearing the dishwashing gloves take the seed trays out of the propagator and place them on a surface you don’t mind getting a little dirt on.
Open the bag of seed raising mix and grab a handful of the mix. gently pour it into the seed trays so that the loose mix is flush with the top of the trays. DO NOT PUSH THE MIX DOWN YET.
Next open the packet of seeds and gently place about two or three seeds in the middle of each recepticle. Once the seeds are there then gently with your thumb press the dirt down a little (be gentle) you want the seed to be firmly in place but still loose enough for the seed to grow.
Now place the seed trays back in the propogator and get a small glass of water (room temperature) you can also take the gloves off now.
gently drizzle the water over the seed trays until they are moist and there is water in the bottom of the seed tray. Now close the lid and place in the sun (preferably in direct sunlight)
You’ll need to check the propagator every day, my advice is either in the early morning before the sun gets too hot or in the cool of the evening before after sundown but before dusk. Watering is the same way as was just done. You can use a watering can if you have one but be careful not to do it too hard as you’ll wash the seed away.
Most seed packets say that it takes about ten days to two weeks for the seeds to germinate. That is under ideal conditions and usually they take about two to three weeks depending on how cold it is.
For a plant like tomatoes using a propagator with a heat pad does make sense, especially if you live in a colder area. Also some of the more northern parts may need to have their tomato plants inside as they grow as they do not cope well with the cold.
Once the seeds are germinated you can treat with a very diluted fertilizer (either a bought one or some from a friend’s worm farm but the seed mix has all the nutirents they will need.
Here are some great propagators for all budgets
Some plants require keeping the seeds warm. This one is perfect for that
Seedlings to Salads
How to get there
This is the exciting bit. For those of you who skipped the seeds to seedlings and jumped right in welcome back.
The seedlings are about three inches tall now and it’s time to get them into pots or whatever we want them in.
You’ll need a few things
(1) A planter box (either a proper one bought from the store or you can get creative like the one below) make sure that it’s got good drainage holes (if you’re not sure how many or what size then see below for a description in how to make them.
(2) About half a bucket of Kitchen scraps (this is optional, but tomatoes love to grow and the more stuff like this at the start the better the crop will be) Make sure that there are no meat, potato peel (potatoes will germinate and take over the box) or dairy products (Egg shells are ok but won’t break down) everything else is fair game.
(3) garden lime (also optional, it helps the Kitchen scraps to break down for the tomatoes to eat)
(4) Potting mix. You can use normal soil if you want to but the potting mix is best because it’s sterile. You can sterilize your own soil but that takes time and the costs go up significantly (you bake the soil in an oven at 350 degrees for half an hour, partners and flatmates are not happy with this believe me!)
(5) Fertilizer. Either from a friend’s worm farm (the best) or a store bought fertilizer.
The first thing for us was the pots. I had nearly a dozen seedlings I wanted to grow (I’d given half the seedlngs I’d germinated away!) but didn’t have the money for all the pots I would need. We could have gone around our friends and got some, but that would have ruined the fun so we went looking for alternatives.
Did you know that Polystyrene containers from the Fish section of the local supermarket are perfect for that. All thatw as needed was some holes in the bottom for drainage. Using something about the width of the six inch nail (about an eigth of an inch) go down the sides of the container (just inside where the wall will be) every six inches and make a small hole. This will give you as much drainage as you will need.
By the way. You can paint these boxes pretty much any colour you like. We had some left over test pots from times when we’d done some painting so we used them. But even if you go out and buy paint a test pot costs around $2 and look at the results, pots that are any colour you want and will match any setup you have!
The next part should be done either in the early morning or the cool of the day. It gives the plants the best opportunity to take hold before the heat comes.
Make sure that the boxes are where you are going to want them to be as when they’re full you won’t want to lift them, they’ll be heavy!
Once the boxes are the colour you want them (paint dry) and you’ve got the holes in its time to put the gloves back on again. This time take the Kitchen scraps and tip them into the boxes so that they are spread evenly over the bottom of the box.
Next sprinkle a little garden lime over the kitchen scraps. You only need a really small amount as the purpose of this is to accelerate the decomposition of the scraps so that the tomatoes can get at the nutrients quicker this acts as a natural booster for the plant and should increase the yield (the time I did this I got so many from six plants that I ended up freezing 20lb of tomatoes at the end of the season, but I did have them in veggie boxes that were bigger than my present ones).
Once the scraps have a thin layer of lime on then take the potting mix and fill the container up to level with the potting mix. brush your hand over the top to get it level (not essential but it looks neat)
Now get the seedlings and gently push upward with your thumb on the bottom of the container that the seedling is sitting in until they come free at the top. Once free gently lift the plant out (without damaging the roots or the plant itself and place it on the potting mix.
Once all the seedlings are out of the container (or all that you want for that box) lay them all out.
Digging the holes you should work on having each plant about nine inches apart. You can have as many per box as you want to. Don’t worry if you’ve got too many seedlings, all you need to do with the excess is put them back in the trays and keep them in the propagator until you’ve got more boxes, they’ll keep but won’t grow much. This way you can stagger it so that some produce early in the season and others come on later.
Once you’ve got a rough idea of where you want the seedlings planted tehn with your hand (wearing the gloves) scoop out a small hole about three inches deep. Place a seedling in each hole and ocver back up making sure not to get any on the leaves. Once you’ve got the plant in and covered back up gently but firmly push the stem down making sure not to break the stem. This gives the plant the maximum chance to grow as it’s firmly planted in the soil. Do this with each of the seedlings you intend to plant at the time.
Once all the seedlings are planted this way then the next step is watering them. The best method is either by hose (gentle pressure and takes less than two minutes) or with a watering can (may take as long as five minutes) You want to water making sure that you don’t get any (or as little as possible) on the leaves (I’ll explain why later) and make sure they’re where you want them to grow.
Some great tips I found on another lens – I’m going to use some of these myself
Some really good tips that we may have missed – I’ll be trying a few of these next time
Watering and Staking
two essentials for good crops
Tomaotes need water and lots of it. There are a few ways you can do this. The best is to try to water them twice a day and each time you do make sure that the whole box gets saturated with water. Don’t worry about disease as the drainage holes will drain any excess away and prevent any waterlogging or water born fungus growing.
When watering try not to get any on the leaves. There are two reasons
(1) Waterborn fungus can get onto the leaves and cause disease
(2) If you get too much water on the leaves in the morning it’ll still be there when the sun gets up and willact as a magnifying glass causing the leaves to burn (yes plants can get sunburn but they can’t get a sunblock!)
Another way to give them the water is take a plastic drink bottle, wash it out, cut the bottom off so that all you’ve got is the funnel and the main body and stick it upside down in between the plants. Push it about halfway down the funnel. When you water as well as watering the soil fill the bottle all the way up and just leave it. that way the plant can take as much water as it needs during the day. Then when it’s time to water again before you do just feel the soil, if it feels really damp then just fill the bottle up! If it’s just a little damp then water the soil as well.
When they get to about a foot tall it’s time to stake the plant. All you need is a straight piece of wood or plastic rod about sixx feet long that you gently push in about an inch or so from the base of the plant, be careful not to push through the roots as that damages the plant. As the plant grows either using a pieces of string or some garden ties gently tie the stem loosely to the pole. This will help the plant to stay straight and improve the fruit.
As the plant grows you’ll notice that it sends out leaves at 90 degrees to the main stem, but occasionally in between the stem and leaves at 45 degrees you’ll see a shoot coming off, these are called laterals (no idea why) and if left unchecked they’ll take over. The simple way to control them is gently using thumb and forefinger pich them until they come away *the tomatoes usually grow off a stem from the leaves or their own shoot coming out 90 degrees from the main trunk)
The first sign you’ll see is small yellow flowers appearing on the plant, that’s the sign that tomatoes are on the way.
Whe the fruit comes and turns red then it’s time to put them in the salads>
That was then, this is now!
This lens is a ‘work in progress’ I’m always wanting to get better and better results. I’ve shared a few things t. hat we’ve learned over the years, but I’d really like to hear what you folks think about this subject. How successful are you with some of the stuff we’ve covered?
I wrote this hub in 2013 but this year I’m still doing the things that I did then. This year I went more for seedlings than from seed. I’ve got “Sweet 100” for the cherry tomatoes and “Moneymaker” for the full sized tomatoes. One thing to bear in mind with Tomatoes is their Acidity, they tend to be high in Acid (great for the digestion but plays havoc with ulcers). For those who can’t have too much Acid you might try “Roma” which is low in acid and recommended for those with stomach problems. The names of the varieties might be a little different where you are so it might pay to ask in the local garden center for their recommendation but I promise you it’s worth your effort.
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