Wall o’ Maters

My track record for growing tomatoes is decidedly mixed. Back in Kentucky years ago, a handful of plants routinely yielded tomatoes for me, my family, neighbors and coworkers. Since moving to Georgia, ripe tomatoes have been few and far between. The 2021 crop is shaping up to be an exception.

This year’s plants are the healthiest and most robust I’ve ever seen. The cause is hard to determine with any certainty. Too many factors have changed since last year to point to any one in particular. Success this year is likely due to a combination of changes.

A wall of heirloom tomato plants

The spot where the tomatoes are growing was home to a big magnolia last year. The “virgin” soil makes a difference. Growing tomatoes in the same spot two years in a row promotes diseases and pests that overwinter in the soil.

The sun exposure is more favorable for growth. In the past, the plants were shaded until noon or later and then baked in the hot afternoon sun. The new spot is sunny from dawn until three or so. That’s several more hours of direct sun with protection from the worst.

There are other differences. The weather has been great for tomatoes — plenty of rain without getting too hot. The varieties are different from any I’ve grown before too. I also added lime and fertilizer based on a soil test.

While all these factors likely played a role, I’m convinced the source of the plants made the biggest difference. Instead of buying transplants from garden centers as I’ve done in the past, I grew my plants from seed. That forced other changes that made a difference too.

Tomato seedlings (bottom center with missing cell) with their future home in the background

For the home gardener, buying tomato seed is a challenge. Packets for one variety include enough seed to grow acres of tomatoes. I was happy to find “mixed heirloom beefsteak” seed. I’d like to have grown a variety or two that ripen earlier, but beefsteaks are my faves and worth the wait.

Ideally, seedlings should have been moved to larger pots after the first set of true leaves emerged. Nursery space was at a premium, so I planted them. With garden center transplants, I strip lower leaves and bury the plants to just below the top leaves. Eons ago, someone told me roots would grow from the buried stem. The seedlings only had one set of leaves on stems too short to bury.

Many flowers I grow from seed outperform similar plants from garden centers. I suspect something happens when roots run into the container to slow or even stunt growth. Planting out smaller seedlings with fewer roots minimizes transplant shock and any stunting.

Going into July, the vines extend beyond the 8-foot stakes keeping them upright. The foliage is lush and free of disease or pests. Even the lowest leaves — the first to show signs of disease — are healthy. There’s a lot of fruit too, including several the size of tennis balls.

Small tomatoes and corn that was supposed to tower over the tomato plants.

Despite healthy plants and the presence of fruit, I’m not yet counting any chicks. The outlook is good — better than a month ago. My optimism increases with each passing day. As always, I’ll keep you posted.