Growing a green thumb: tomatoes

I talk to so many people who feel like they are afraid to or can’t start a garden because they don’t have any experience taking care of one or think it might be too complicated to manage. Every time, I tell them that if I can do it, anyone can!

82. Grow tomatoes

The wonderful thing about a garden is that it requires as much time as you want to give it. I started on the deck of our townhouse in Burnaby when I rescued a few of suffering late-season plants from the Rona down the road. There were two strawberries and two tomatoes. We bought long window box style pots to put them in, dirt and hangers so that the strawberries could sit on the railing.

I remember that it was really funny to me that Kevin seemed so surprised when fruit actually came off of each of them. We didn’t get a lot, of course, they’d been neglected all summer until we’d brought them home, but it was a start. The following year, we revived the strawberries and replaced the tomato plants. The deck got evening sun, but the overhang blocked a lot of it from hitting the plants. It wasn’t ideal, but we got a good crop of strawberries and some tomatoes as well. We moved that October so we started over the following year.

Having been bitten by the gardening bug, I was pretty enthusiastic to get started on our new, bigger and less obstructed balcony in New Westminster. I had more space to work in and early the following spring, I saved a cardboard egg carton and filled it with dirt. I planted my carefully selected tomato seeds in each compartment and tended to them every day. I watered them in droplets and kept them warm with heating pads and inside a makeshift mini-greenhouse made from a used lettuce clamshell. They sprouted, every one! And then they grew bigger and I had to find small pots to transplant them to, then I had to buy bigger ones and relocate the strongest to the empty pots we’d brought over in the move. They flourished and I felt like I’d won the lottery. That was the moment in my gardening history when the bug really took hold.

I actually grew many things last year, but the tomatoes were the most satisfying. (Jalapeños were a close second.) I was successful with spinach, beets, some small hot red peppers and strawberries again. I also learned to sprout an avocado pit and had a dozen of them at varying heights by the time Christmas rolled around. I was defeated by brussels sprouts, cauliflower (white, yellow AND purple varieties), cucumbers and I also lost a lemon tree. I’ve never been able to grow a melon either.

When you tell a seasoned gardener that you couldn’t grow something, they just shrug, smile in understanding and offer their best experience and what they did to find success or ‘fess up that they’ve never been able to grow it either. Everybody who does it seems to believe that there is some level of chance and with all the variables, I suppose there always will be.

At the end of the day, the experience of gardening is so enjoyable that I think everyone should try it. There are times when I get into the garden and when I get out, I feel like I’ve just had the most relaxing meditation session. Gardening is therapy.

Because I am so excited to share the joy of gardening, I’m going to walk you through just how easy it is to grow some of your own food. It’s too late for tomatoes now, but there are a few other veggies that can still be grown this fall and some that even do well over winter. If it were me, I’d wait until the spring, but get your hands on a copy of a West Coast Seeds catalogue. I buy all my seeds from them and their annual catalogue is a gardener’s dream. Not only does it show off the many varieties of all the seeds they sell, it is full of pro-tips and how-tos for those new to the game. Sign up for their newsletters for even more detailed coaching including infographics on how to grow your favourite fruits and vegetables (like this one on how to grow garlic) and email reminders that “this month is a good time to plant <fill-in-the-blank>.” And if you’re anything like me, this will result in an overcrowded, but delightfully generous balcony, porch or garden space.

Want to know how to get started, I’m here to help. Here’s my step-by-step instructions for how to have a bountiful tomato growing season (next year.) If you’re on the west coast, plan to start in mid-March (though you can also start later.) If you’re someplace else, check in with a reputable local gardening resource and go from there.

Here’s all you need:

  • Seeds
  • Dirt
  • Something to plant the seeds in – egg carton, peat pucks that expand when you add water, seed trays
  • Stakes and twist ties or a tomato cage

80. Grow tomatoes

I’ve used this Early Girl variety for two years in a row and they have been fantastic both seasons. They are easy, hardy and high yielding. Get out to Ladner to visit the West Coast Seeds delightful little store. They’ll have everything you need (and more) and their staff are very experienced and willing to help out if you need it.

As I mentioned, I used a cardboard egg carton the first year I planted tomato seeds. I filled each little pocket with some potting soil, then placed one seed in each pocket of dirt. I sprinkled some dirt on top to cover each seed and then put a few drops of water over each seed. Germination takes about a week with a tiny little sprout showing itself first. From there it opens up with two leaves and later on a second set of leaves will appear. The key here is patience. It doesn’t happen overnight, but once they get growing, you’ll start to see a difference every few days.

79. Grow tomatoes

After I first planted mine, I placed them inside the plastic clamshell that we’d emptied of salad and put the lid on top. I’d hoped that this would create  mini-greenhouse and it did. I put the contraption on top of a heating pad and I turned it on a few times each day. (Ours has a two hour auto-shut off.) I’ve since read that tomatoes seedlings like bottom heat so this is a good tip to follow. I just did it instinctively because I’d wanted to add some heat to get my greenhouse effect going. It worked.

After a few weeks, the seedlings grew tall enough that they could no longer stay in the greenhouse when the lid was on so I got another bottom half and doubled it up on top of the original. At one point, I had to use plastic wrap to keep everything warm and cozy, but I can’t remember exactly how. You can buy clear lids for gardening trays at nurseries or hardware stores, but you get my drift: whatever you use, keep things as steamy as you can. Watering regularly will help with that and it will also keep your tomato babies happy. They don’t want to be swampy, but they will drink a lot. Don’t overwater, but don’t let them dry out. You’ll figure out a happy balance. 🙂

78. Grow tomatoes

Eventually, your seedlings will start to look a little cramped in your egg carton garden bed. When this happens, find some small pots (make sure they have drainage) and fill them up with your leftover potting soil. Gently dig out the area around where the roots of your plants are one by one. Be generous with the dirt you dig because you don’t want to break your plant or damage its roots. Once you’ve placed the plant in the new pot, add some more dirt to fill up the pot and I like to pack a little more around the area where the stem meets the dirt to give it a little extra support. Continue to keep your plants on the windowsill or in a place where they will get a lot of sun. By now, they’ll be too big to keep a lid on them, but they should also be strong and healthy and able to withstand a little cooler temperature.

Eventually, they’re going to need to go outside and, I’m not going to lie, this was absolutely the hardest part for me. The first night I put them out, I felt like I knew what it was like to send a child off to college. I worried about them all night and I regularly checked that they had enough shelter for days after. (We get a lot of wind on our balcony.) As they get bigger and bigger, they’ll start to need bigger pots. If it’s a warm enough spring or if you plant them later than March or April, you might be able to skip the middle-man small pots and go straight to the ones that you’re going to have them grow in. This might mean that they go outdoors sooner and, if the weather is good, that’s okay. As I mentioned, this is a very hardy variety of tomato.

Note: this transplant or double transplant works with this variety of tomato, but there are many plants that don’t like to be handled and won’t withstand a single transplant, let alone two. Do your research before you choose something else to grow. If you don’t, you can chalk it up to being part of the learning process, but you might have wasted an entire growing season and, once you’re an enthusiastic gardener, you’ll realize just how long the winters really are.

81. Grow tomatoes

Once your tomato plants are in their permanent homes, they’re pretty low-maintenance. They will continue to drink a lot and appreciate daily waterings. Keep the water coming and your plants will grow up and around. After they establish themselves in your garden or their pot(s) in your patio area, you’ll start to notice yellow flowers blooming more and more frequently. These are your future tomatoes! You’re almost there!

Shortly after the blooms shrivel up, you’ll start to see tiny little green orbs where the flowers used to be and as time passes, they’ll get bigger and bigger. It’s around this time that you’ll need to start thinking about support. Some people like those metals cages for keeping their tomato plants upright, but I just use bamboo stakes and twist ties to keep my plants sturdy. As the tomatoes get bigger and bigger, the branches will get heavier and begin to droop more. Keep them up!

If you’ve made it this far, you are officially a gardener! Now, you enjoy your spoils! Eventually, your tomatoes will begin to soften their green colour, then turn yellow-ish, then orange-y and finally RED. That’s how you know when to pick them. Simply pluck them off their stem and enjoy. I usually have so many that I start to pick them early and ripen some in my kitchen while the others take their time while still on the plants.

Bon appetit! When you sink your teeth into your first tomato, you’ll remember just how good homegrown vegetables can be. And then you’ll want to grow something else.

Do you have a garden? If you could grow any fruit or vegetable, which would it be? 

2 thoughts on “Growing a green thumb: tomatoes

  1. russ hook says:

    Hi Carly! Good stuff! I started gardening late in life about the year 2000! I still look forward to Spring every year and can’t wait to get started I was in Kelowna close to the lake so it was an ideal hot climate esp for tomatoes I had close to 100 tomato plants mostly heirloom every size color and shape! Peppers was my 2nd FAV with cukes zucchinis squarshes lol close behind On my back porch which faced south I had my growing boxes for herbs and a small greenhouse where I started my seeds and plants On the west side of my house by driveway I planted 5-6 raspberry plants They eventually spread so I had about 40 x 3 ft of raspberries! My grapes were on the other side of driveway by the fence I also had rose hips there and picked them every Fall for rose hip tea in the winter I also had various pot of different sizes scattered about in the back yard with mostly tomatoes and peppers in them I started asparagus and blueberries but I had to move!
    BTW do some research on FOOD GRADE H2O2 I have been using it internally for my myself pets and plants! I haven’t been sick since 1986 My raw vegan diet helps I am sure! I also have an attachment on my water supply hose that swirls the water and restructures it! If you want more info let me know! Cheers Nick

  2. allison says:

    While I think I’d like to grow fruit or veggies, I don’t have the patience or interest to grow them from bitty seeds. I hate the feeling of dirt on my hands and under my nails. And when I do try, I still end up killing things. Maybe I’ll try again in a new place.

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