Of all the fruit and vegetables home gardeners love to grow, tomatoes top the list. Even though plentiful, local tomatoes fill our supermarkets every summer, impassioned tomato growers — driven partly by the superior taste and sheer variety of this popular home-grown fruit — abound in all corners of this city. These master tomato gardeners, committed to their craft from seed to harvest, could teach us all a few tricks.
Tomatoes are not difficult to grow but do require nurturing. Sunshine, regular watering, and fertile soil are all tomato growing essentials.
“Sunlight is critical for strong plant growth,” says Derrick Pounds, a West Island gardener for the past 50 years. “A minimum of six hours daily or even more is best.”
Pounds specializes in growing English tomatoes and cucumbers from seed, filling his garden with 80 or so started tomato plants and generously offering dozens more to friends and neighbouring families every year — even planting them in their garden “at least one inch deeper than the soil level of the plant in the pot.” He knows that tomato stems, when buried this way, develop into resilient root systems that help feign off drought.
For Pounds, regularly giving tomato plants cold, chlorinated tap water and poisonous, chemical fertilizers are big no-nos. Instead, he uses rainwater stored in two 50-gallon capacity plastic drums collected from roof runoff and warmed by the sun to water his plants. Homemade compost feeds them.
Tomatoes are summer fruit; cold weather hinders their germination and growth. In temperate regions like ours, starting tomato seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost will give them just enough time to develop into healthy, robust seedlings ready for planting outdoors once weather warms, usually by the end of May.
But gardeners achieve success in different ways. Each spring for the past 37 years, Alfiero Di Battista (who recently passed away) and his family sow hundreds of tomato seeds directly in the garden which fills their modest-sized yard in St-Leonard where fresh basil, lettuces, beans and other edibles grow. To prepare the soil, a soupy concoction of aged manures mixed with water is left to settle in the garden for a week or so. Then, when weather warms enough, in as early as late April, tomato seeds are sown directly into the fertile soil in rows which are rotated yearly to prevent soil-borne diseases.
The openly pollinated tomato seeds that are saved from year to year have clearly adapted well to their garden’s climate because the Di Battista family is rewarded with bushels of delectable tomatoes every summer, used mainly for canning and sharing, of course.
Started tomato plants are always available in nurseries in May, but why settle for limited selections when there are literally thousands of tomato varieties to choose from in seed catalogs, exchanges and online offered in colours, flavours, shapes and sizes certain to please everyone, even container gardeners. Which tomato seed variety you choose to grow depends on your location and how you plan to use the fruit.
It may seem premature to write about growing tomatoes when conditions outdoors are still too damp and cold to garden, but with spring on the horizon you may already be dreaming of a homegrown, tomato harvest this summer.
March is a perfect time to start seeds indoors. Opting for varieties with short maturity dates will help ensure tomatoes have enough time to ripen. Wouldn’t it be a delicious treat to bite into a sun-warmed, juicy tomato plucked off its stem just footsteps outside your patio door?
Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com