A Haircut That HURT!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Leggy Heirloom Starter Plants Flopping Over
It was time. I just couldn't bear to look at them anymore. "Them" is pictured to your right. This is how my heirloom tomato starter plants look at the moment as I put them through the "hardening off" process by introducing them to the harsh sunlight of outdoor life.

I was hoping that the introduction to outside conditions would be the kind of "tough love" my heirloom tomato starter plants would need to develop tough stems at the base. And while the "tough love" approach of direct sunlight, cool spring temperatures and breezy days is having the desired effect -- it's not going to result in the kind of stem growth we need that will allow these plants to stand upright.

Leggy starters like these aren't a problem if you've finally arrived at the magic "plant out" date. You can take a variety of actions when faced with the problem of "leggy" starter plants. You can either dig a deep hole and plant the root system and most of the stem deep into soil. Or -- you can dig a long trench and bury most of the plant in soil except for the top four or five inches.

There's just one problem. We're not at "plant out" date yet. In fact, as much as I hoped for an early plant out date -- it ain't gonna happen children. It's still too cold outside. Oh -- sure -- the afternoons (like this afternoon) are wonderful. But our nights are still cold. There's also a chance of another cold rainstorm or two in the long-range forecast. To plant out now? That's like rolling the dice at a craps table. And I don't want to come up snake eyes -- not after caring for these starter plants for as long as I have.

A Leggy Stupice Heirloom Starter
So -- what's the alternative? Continue to let them flop over like they have been? That's a three foot long Stupice starter plant that I'm holding in my fat paw in that photo to the left! Do you know what happens to starter plants that flop over like that? Eventually -- they break in two. Or worse yet -- they snap at the base of the plant. Know what that means? GAME OVER!

No thanks.

The second option? Transplant into larger pots. In my case? I would need much LARGER pots that would allow me to plant these leggy starters deeply. Stems that are planted into soil WILL develop a secondary set of roots. That's one of the nice things about tomato plants -- you can bury them deeply and not hurt them. But -- there's just one problem. I didn't have that many half-gallon pots. I certainly did not have the extra soil on hand. Finally, transplanting into that large of a new pot could possibly delay plant out which should come at the end of this month.

Time for a haircut? Mebbe!
Transplanting is only half the battle. Once transplanted, you've got to allow the starters to expand and grow a new set of roots -- otherwise you can shock them by removing the plants from starter cups during plant out. Even worse -- you can snap a tender starter in half. Know what that means? GAME OVER!

So -- what's a tomato nutcase like Bill Bird to do? I suddenly remembered that I had rooted several varieties of basil in a glass of water during the last growing season. Sacramento area gardener Carri Stokes assured me it would work. And -- it did work. Rooting those basil starters brought back an even more distant memory where Venus and I had taken the same steps with a cutting of lemon thyme that Venus received from a colleague at work. The cutting developed root systems while placed in a cup of water before we transplanted it into the herb bed. Today, it's one of the most prolific herbs in the backyard bed (it's also a good pollen source for the bees -- but more on that later).

And so the inevitable thought crossed my mind. If you can root herbs like basil and thyme by placing cuttings in a glass of water -- can you do the same with tomato plant cuttings? Will they take root in a glass of water? Can they successfully transplanted into starter cups after rooting in water?

Snip, Snip!
For questions like these and more -- I usually turn to the TomatoMania forum or Group on Yahoo. It's a community of like-minded heirloom tomato nutcases like myself -- where you can ask questions and get quick answers. Sure enough -- they all answered in the affirmative -- so the haircut activity took place in earnest earlier today.

Trust me when I tell you: this was anything but EASY. Venus and I have babied these starters from seed for months. We've made every effort to provide them with good soil, light, water, heat -- all the elements one needs for producing starter plants indoors. To suddenly WHACK them back by several feet seemed a little inhuman -- but it had to be done.

And if the action resulted in additional starter plants for family and friends???? Well -- there could be an upside to this endeavour. At least 300 people at work have asked me to "put them on the list" for starter plants. This is one impressive list -- and no I won't be able to fill every last order or desire -- even if every plant roots.

Will They Take Root?
So today -- the three-foot long Stupice got a nice "haircut." So did the two-foot Brandywine. Tigerella also offered up a nice top stem -- as did Bradley, Kelloggs Breakfast, Marianna's Peace and a few others.

The cuttings from each starter plant have been placed in clear plastic cups -- as pictured -- filled with cool water -- labeled and placed on a bright and sunny location on a windowsill. A number of things could happen in the next two weeks. They could root. A marauding cat could knock them into next week (always a possibility in the home for wayward and bratty cats). Or, they could simply shrivel up and die.

As with every gardening experiment? Time will tell!


Carri said...

Thats the beauty of gardening- the scientific experiments! Unfortunetly what works one year doesn't always work the following year- but it's still fun to try! Keep expectations low, and it will always be fun!

Greg Damitz said...


I have quite a few 1 gallon and 5 gallon pots if you need them. I also have tons of 4" pots.

muddytoes said...

I was with you until you got to the part where you said you put them in glasses of water. That's a good way to get rotten stems. Sure, sometimes you get roots, but more often you end up with sliminess. Proper cuttings are rooted in potting soil, sand or vermiculite (or potting soil lightened up with extra vermiculite). Rooting hormone will help, but isn't essential with tomatoes since they are good at forming roots all along their stems. Making sure that about 4 nodes (the places where leaves come out from the stem) are buried helps the success rate.

muddytoes said...

Here's a tutorial for softwood cuttings http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/load/propa/msg1211152916932.html The process should work well for tomatoes.

Bill Bird said...

Greg, I need more pots like I need a hole in my head. I've managed to cut down on my supply of them, which is what I wanted to begin with. My dear Muddy (sorry to have forgotten your name). A number of growers told me this would work. Basil is also a soft wood cutting, yet it rooted just fine in water last year. So, we'll see. If I lose them? I lose them. I hope not, but if it happens, it happens. Life always does.

Laura Bell said...

FYI, the cuttings will also root nicely when stuck unceremoniously into the ground. Discovered this a few years ago when my shovel met up with an Amish paste plant, cutting it cleanly between leaf sets. Irritated with myself, I promptly stuck the new trimming in the soil & voila ! I had two plants for the price of one !


I did not know that!
Spectacular find.

Jeanne said...

Bill, you've attacked the symptom, not the problem. Get a greenhouse. With more light, your long internodes will disappear.

JM said...

Very entertaining reading! Just moved back up here and will be starting a garden too. Small beans compared to yours, but you have to start somewhere! My dilemma- we're renting for a year-ish before buying a house, and don't want to spend too much on stuff that can't be moved with us when we do... what inexpensive (or mobile) suggestions do you have for my garden this year? I'm thinking 3 tomatoes, 1 zucc, 2 peppers, and a bunch of basil.