Several people have been asking me about the status of my extra-early tomatoes. I also have received questions about how big they get inside before I move them out. I have been a bit less organized this year so not all of the early tomatoes were planted at the same time. Currently I have some in all three of the first stages. First, I think it would be helpful to explain the process that I take all of my early tomato plants through with this picture montage:
I start the seeds in plastic cell packs by sowing two or three seeds in each cell and then cut out all but the best looking plant. As soon as the plants get their first set of true leaves (not counting the seed leaves) I transplant them to 4 inch peat pots or sometimes newspaper pots. When they get about six inches tall I transplant them to CD spindle covers and then again later to patio planters. Each time I re-pot them I bury the stem all the way up to the leaves to encourage new roots (visible in above pictures 5 and 6).
Why do I transplant so many times and so often? This is the key factor in keeping the plants growing at a fast pace. The plants will stop growing if they run out of root room. If a plant stops growing, it doesn't necessarily hurt the plant, but my goal is to get them to ripen as early as possible. Here is a picture that illustrates this in an amazing way:
What's so amazing? The plants on the left are the exact same age as the one on the right. The only difference is that the one on the right was potted-up about two weeks earlier. The ones on the left stayed in their original cell pack. When the roots ran out of room, their growth was retarded. That is why you must transplant often to keep the plants growing.
I have tried simply starting the seeds in larger containers as well. This works better than allowing the tomato plants to become stunted, but you lose the benefit of planting deeper with each transplant. The plants just get taller and spindly and fall over. The root system is not as strong either because when you bury the stem during transplanting, new roots from from that previous stem. Extra bonus!
This year I am skipping the peat pot stage and transplanting from the cell packs to a 4 inch nursery pot. Here is a recent flat of them:
Those are my 4th of July, Orange Blossom, and Early Girl seedlings. I have found a method for quick and easy transplanting too. I fill the new pot with new soil mix, leaving the center open. I then can simply remove the plant and root plug from the cell pack and drop it in - filling in the dirt around it and around the stem until the new container is full. This smaller montage shows what I mean:
I'm not sure if I'm on target to get ripe tomatoes before June 1st or not. Last year I managed to get my first ripe tomato on June 5th. I hope to beat that this year, but I'm not very confident of that. We'll see. My favorite old gardening book that I often speak about is The New Victory Garden by Bob Thompson.
In that book, Thompson outlines this process of growing early tomatoes and he gets ripe tomatoes in New England by June 1st! Maybe I need to study the book again to make sure I have the plan right from here on out.
It is very cold here this week, but I can easily imagine a warm May 31st were I visit the garden early in the morning to find this:
That was last year's first tomato. Can't you just taste it? I can hardly wait!