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How I grow tomatoes.

Now about tomatoes, I can talk a long time. Tomatoes are one of the most universally enjoyed vegetables even though they were once considered poisonous; and then later, called a fruit before they came to be considered a vegetable.

Growing tomatoes is tremendously satisfying to me. Almost a spiritual experience. I get to know each one of my 100-200 plants, individually, because they are all different. No two tomato plants are exactly alike, but you have to get to know them well to realize this.

A dried tomato seed is about as big as a dull pencil point, beige colored, and flat. It would take a microscope to find the embryo of life in it. In January, when that tiny seed is put in the cold wet soil in the greenhouse, it is an act of faith that in a few weeks, a tiny curled plant will appear. When a spoonful of these little bits of life develop into a forest of tiny green stems, it is such a joyful occasion, my heart swells in thanksgiving that once again my faith in God's bounty is justified.

As each little plant grows to the size to be separated from its birthing bed, it is lifted by its tiny leaves and carefully set in a hole in a cup of fine soil and gently watered.

As they are carefully watched the next few weeks, each plant becomes an individual. Some are, from the beginning, stronger and healthier and take off growing immediately. Some are obviously weaker and after a few days, you can tell they won't make it.

But after this natural culling, and it's time to plant in the garden, there are still differences, just like in people. Some just will always have to struggle more. But the care I give them from now on will usually make the difference.

The best growing method

The best tomatoes are grown when the individual holes are dug about twelve inches deep and a shovelful of manure or compost and a cupful of 12-12-12 added. The dirt is put back in to make a mound. The plant, by this time tightly rootbound, is carefully tapped out of its cup and buried about half way up its stem in this mound of loose dirt. It is carefully watered and a stake about four feet long is firmly driven down about three inches behind the little plant.

Each day I go out and check what the cutworms did the night before. I used to always put collars around them, but don't bother with this anymore. Good garden hygiene has dwindled the cutworm population so much it's not worth the effort now. After about the first week, the danger is passed. This Spring I had to replant only two plants out of 165.

In just a few days, these fledgling plants are almost doubled in size and are on their way. Now is when I really get to know them well. At about 12 inches tall, they are tied for the first time. For years, I stripped and balled up old sheets and such for ties. They are soft and about an inch wide, kind to the tender plant stems. The last few years, I've not had anything to strip up, so now I use jute baling string. A big ball of this is not expensive and lasts for years.

At the time of this first tying, there are a few suckers that need pinching off. As the plants grow, they sucker rapidly, and will soon become thick and unwieldly if not pruned carefully.

What is a sucker? It is extra growth the plant should not have to support. They come out from the ground line and these are called root suckers, and should all be pulled off. Then at the intersection of the leaf and stem a sucker will grow. This looks just like another little plant and needs to be pinched out. As the tomato plant gets about 12-14 inches tall, it will ordinarily develop two heads, like two big plants at the top. These you leave, because at the junction of these two top plants the first bud cluster will be formed.

As the plant grows, it will need to be tied three or four times. Don't take off the first ties; add new ones and continue pruning. The bush will get very heavy as the tomatoes grow and will have several large clusters of developing fruit. It needs only the leaves left on to protect them from the sun, but not all the extra growth to drain the food source.

Here is where the spiritual part comes in. From the first tiny hair of growth to the ripening of the juicy red tomatos, you have watched, tended, protected, become exasperated at the speed of growth, then felt pride in their prolific maturity, and deep wonder at the miracle of life that you have witnessed.

Each year I witness this renewal of the simile of my own family, and thank my Heavenly Father for His bounty that fills dozens and dozens of jars on my pantry shelves.

See? I told you I could say a lot about tomatoes!
COPYRIGHT 1993 Countryside Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ferguson, Mary C.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1993
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