Going potty for tomatoes
Over the last few months I’ve been trying an experiment. I planted tomato plants in 14 different kinds of growing pots to see what pot works best. That’s two seeds per pot, and two types of each pot. I tried a 72-cell insert, cow pots, jiffy pots, a 40-pellet pack from Walmart, newspaper pots made from the New York Times (I wanted to see if the quality of the writing made any difference – it didn’t), round plastic pots, square plastic pots, coffee cups (East Ferry Deli works best), clay pots and – well, you get my drift.
After weeks of carefully tending plants, I came to the conclusion that the pot didn’t matter at all. All the seeds germinated. They all came up and I gave tomato plants to everyone in sight. But what was most interesting is that the smallest pots – the 72-cell insert – was the hardest to keep watered. The small cells dried up quickly. The clay pots also dried up quickly, as did the paper pots, but they were large enough – 3-inches in diameter – that they were easier to keep watered than the inserts.
My conclusions were that if I had to start seeds in pots I would start them in 4-inch square pots simply because they were large enough to hold water for more than one day, and when they were pushed together it was easy to water the rows without spilling a drop of water. If I were growing to plant outdoors – which I was – the best pot were cow pots, but they are hard to find and are only available from the farm where they are made in Connecticut. They are also one of the more expensive pots. But unlike jiffy pots, you do not have to break them apart when planting them. In fact, the roots grew right through the pot before it got planted into the soil.
After I put the pots outside to harden them off, before planting out, it was interesting to find that the smaller pots regularly blew over, while the 4-inch square pots stood up to the wind – well mostly. The 72-cell insert easily stood up to the wind because it was so flat, but it had to be watered twice a day, whereas the other pots were watered in the evenings only.
What does that prove? Absolutely nothing, except that you want to use the largest pot possible– up to 4 inches –when starting seeds. You will get equally good results using old coffee cups with a hole punched in the bottom or a strip of the Jamestown Press wrapped around a 4-inch diameter paint pot as long as you remember to keep everything watered.
If you don’t water tomatoes regularly, you will get blossomend rot on the first few tomatoes on the vine, but typically that goes away after the first blush. I had it on the first tomato that I picked two weeks ago and had to throw the fruit away. Seems a shame in that it is hard to get homegrown tomatoes in May. But in the greenhouse there are several plants with pink tomatoes on them, and given a few days of sunshine, I’ll finally manage to get my greenhouse tomatoes and lettuce to ripen at the same time. That’ll make a tasty salad with a few herbs, snow peas and beans.
If you are growing tomatoes, make sure they are well watered and are protected against high winds. Strong winds can blow tomato cages over and break the stems. If you have cages, make sure they are anchored to prevent them from being blown over. I use stakes hammered into the ground inside the cage. I also have cages made of squared, concrete reinforcing mesh. The cages have lasted nearly 15 years and are very hard to blow over, although Hurricane Irene did a good job last year.
As for fertilizing your tomatoes, do not use a high-nitrogen fertilizer. If you use a high-nitrogen fertilizer you will get a lot of very green leaves but few tomatoes. Read the numbers on the fertilizer packet carefully and you’ll see numbers such as 10-10-10. The first number is nitrogen, and the others are phosphate and potash. A fertilizer that reads 10-10-10 has 10 percent of each nutrient in it. For tomatoes you need 1-2-2 ratio. In other words, your fertilizer label can read 10-20-20 or 2-4-4. All that means is the 2-4-4 has a smaller percentage of nutrients than the higher numbers so you should use a little more. With a little luck, some fertilizer, and some sunshine, you too can be enjoying fresh juicy tomatoes this summer.