March Update: Babies Move to a New Home

Monday, March 16, 2009

The heirloom tomato starter plants currently growing in the North Natomas home of Bill and Venus Bird are doing well. So well as a matter of fact that it was time to take the next step in the seed propogation effort.

Moving day had come.

I could tell because the plants that we started in this Jiffy starter tray were developing "root legs," and my fear was that if they didn't get a new home and soon, they just might walk away. Plus -- they were hitting the top of the grow lights, which is never a good sign. And those long stems that you see in abundance? That's not a good sign either.

There's a term for this -- and it's called "leggy." And this happens to a lot of indoor growers who do not have standard greenhouses. Starter plants tend to develop very weak stems when reaching for heat or a light source or both, and that's not good when you're growing tomato starter plants. Strong stems are needed for leaf growth and development. If the plant gets top heavy -- SNAP! You've just a lost a starter that you've spent a good month growing.

So, the "project" so to speak this weekend was to move the babies to a new home. This required a couple of different steps: A nice place to stretch out and work -- some new cups for the tomato and pepper starters and some good compost that the tomato and pepper plants will appreciate over the next month and a half.

Venus and I found the planter mix after a trip to the Big Box store that is Lowe's in West Sacramento, and the cups came courtesy of Farmer Fred Hoffman (Fred can just about find anything). After setting everything up in ye olde GarageMahal, including a tarp to cover the garage floor, Venus and I were ready to get to work.

In past years, we have used each Jiffy Peat Moss Pod to start three to four seeds -- or plants -- each. But separating the plants from the pod, without damaging the intertwined root systems, wasn't easy. And it was extremely messy. We usually wound up losing one or two starter plants from each pod anyway, so this year we tried something a little different:

One plant per pod.

And this made the process of transplanting pods into cups much easier. All you needed to do was scoop -- pack the dirt down -- drop in a pod with a plant -- cover with more composted soil -- label the plant and move on to the next pod.

The tomato starters, however, required a little more care than the peppers. Since the plants were so "leggy," we actually had to bury most of the stem in the compost, leaving only the top leaves exposed. This is actually a reccommended practice if you're going to start tomato plants from seed. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that will actually develop a second set of root systems resulting from a buried stem. And that, in time, will hopefully result in a stronger, thicker stem above.

As for the pepper plant starters, well, they didn't require this sort of "deep burial" treatment. All of the bell pepper plants had nicely developed stems, with good leaf structure. These were the easiest of plants to transplant into new cups.

This also happens to be the absolute worst year I've experience when it comes to actual germination rates. In previous years, tomato plants have always germinated faster -- and at better rates -- than the bell pepper counterparts. But, not this year. The bell pepper seeds gave us germination rates of nearly 100%

But the tomato seed? While some rows did better than others -- the total germination rate was probably 60%. In some cases, we had zero germination. We will not be enjoying Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red this year, because none of the pods planted with seed germinated. The same holds true with another heirloom variety called Red Reif Heart.

But, don't feel sorry for us. We're not crying. We have more than enough started to plant five or six tomato and pepper gardens rather than just one. This includes a large variety of heirloom tomatoes and peppers. All of these plants are now sitting under a special contraption that I put together last week in the GarageMahal.

I can't take credit for inventing this PVC contraption. It sprang from the mind of an A-Type personality engineer who works for Intel and lives in the Rocklin area. But, while I could never invent something like this -- I am very good at looking at pictures or instructions and making a duplicate copy.

Which is exactly what I did!

All of these plants will remain indoors for about the next month (four weeks). By mid-April, if the weather has warmed sufficiently, I will take the next step in the "growing from seed" process and place the babies outside for what is called the "hardening off" process.

Details on that -- and more -- to come. But for now -- everthing is just dandy in North Natomas.


Anonymous said...

Greetings Senator, from a Southern California tomatomaniac. I actually own TOMATOMANIA!, a seedling sale we now hold in six locations here in CA and in CT and MD on the east coast.

I'm always looking for tomato news/blogs etc. and was excited to find yours. I've been guest blogging on tomato growing this season on, a friend's foodie blog. Check it out if you have a second. Search for tomatomania and you can pull up the two so far.

How can we get a TOMATOMANIA event up in the Sacramento Valley?

Have a great season,

Scott Daigre

g_rob said...

How do you know when your sprouts are ready to be transplanted. I started my tomatoes and peppers on Feb. 23 and transplanted around March 18 and I have lost all but 2 tomatoes. I used the same Jiffy pod set-up except with no grow light - just a sunny window.

Bill Bird said...

Hi Rob,

Something isn't right. You shouldn't have lost them. Lord knows, I'm not perfect. I've killed my fair share. But the process of transplanting should not have killed them off.

You could have overwatered -- possibly -- or it could be a heat and light issue or both. I'm just not sure. I've found that the elements of heat, light, water AND fertilizer are extremely important.

Like all babies, starter plants do need some sort of food -- some sort of fertilizer. Not a lot mind you, but they need something. In the past I have used a light mixture of fish emulsion fertilizer. This year, I'm experimenting with light mixtures of an organic fertilizer called Omega 666. I'm doing something right. This is one of the strongest batches of starters I've ever grown.

I've been there (losing plants). I know it's tough. Don't give up.

Oh -- and Scott in Ojai -- didn't mean to ignore you (but I know I did). I can't do anything from the blog that will result in any sort of sale of any item for you or I. That's the rules of the workplace. I either follow them -- or choose to work elsewhere. And I like where I work. That's why you don't see any advertising on the blog, nor any sort of product endorsement. I cannot accept gifts or payment of any kind.

Those are the rules -- sorry. You may however, want to contact Farmer Fred Hoffman on his web page and talk to him about setting something up. Just google the name. Or, better yet, follow the link I have posted on the blog.


g_rob said...

Yeah, it is frustrating. The plants are all in the same location as they were when germinating. I used a soil mix that has compost - chicken manure in it. The peppers are all fine. Could it have been too early? I'm having a hard time pinpointing something that could have led to their demise - everything is the same except they have been transplanted into 4 inch pots. Luckily I have a friend with extras so I will not be without tomatoes this year.

Bill Bird said...

Chicken manure in the compost? That's way too much for tomato babies. I have a feeling that's what did your starter plants in. You want blander than bland stuff g. That way you can control how much fertilzer your giving your starters. Sounds like you may have killed them with a bit too much love. Now -- that's just a guess on my part. Who knows? Maybe you've used this stuff before and it's come out just fine and dandy. But, from just from what you've told me, the use of anything with chicken manure -- even composted chicken manure -- spells trouble. That's some strong stuff.

g_rob said...

Well, lesson learned. I checked with my local master gardener and confirmed what you suspected - WRONG SOIL. This is my first time growing from seed and I made one fatal mistake. But, I am starting some new tomatoes in hopes that they will be ready when it comes time to plant. Luckily I have been able to save most of my peppers. For some reason, they did not react as quickly as the tomatoes did. Thanks for your advice and expertise!