New House.  New Garden.

shop light (x2) + "cool white" bulb (x2) + "soft white" bulb (x2) + storage shelf = A pretty darn cheap grow light system

Cosmo seedling planted by Eric


The Great Tomato Experiment
Growing up in the country, my mom always had a huuuuuuuuuuge garden.  I ran around our yard barefoot and in a swimsuit every summer.  That's all I'd wear and that's pretty much all I did--run around.  And help in the garden.  (Help?)  Mmm, maybe more like eat.  And investigate cracks in the soil, bugs, worms, etc.  I learned how to plant seeds, the names of all the plants, and I even knew what compost was.  (For the longest time, I thought it was a "compost steep.")
My mom planted in wide rows to maximize the space in her garden (as if she needed to!), composted and recycled and was "green" before green was chic.  
One of her favorite tricks to growing tomatoes was to give them a super early start, like, February or something insane like that.  Her method was to transplant them into larger and taller containers until they were in half-gallon jugs about a month before going into the garden.  This allowed them to develop a strong root system.
I recently finished a 12-week course to become a UW-Extension Master Gardener.  What I learned about tomatoes was that there has been research that has shown that tomato plants perform the best when they went into the ground as 5-7 week old seedlings.

So what really will give you a better harvest?  A plant that went into the ground as a 16-week old plant with a ginormous root system, or an itty bitty seedling?

So this is my experiment.  I planted four varieties of tomatoes this year on March 3 (that means they'll go into the garden as 13-week old seedlings on June 1).
Dancing tomato seedlings @ 8 days old

  • Brandywine 
  • Mr. Stripey
  • Yellow Pear
  • Chocolate Cherry

At 3 weeks old I transplanted them into individual containers.

Here they are 6 weeks old.

Enter scene:  Experimental tomatoes 


I planted a new batch of tomato seeds from each of the four varieties listed above.  Eventually, only one lucky little seedling will go into an experimental garden along with an older tomato seedling of the same variety (TBD) from the first batch that was planted in early March.  

Today I also transplanted the first batch of tomato seedlings (now almost 8 weeks old) for the second time into tall containers (half-gallon milk jugs, kefir containers, anything i could find...)


Here we have pictured the hardy, 13-week old Brandywine and its counterpart, the 5.5-week old Brandywine seedling.  *Editor's note:  Unfortunately, due to the natural and expected consequences of gardening with small children, the smaller Brandywine seedling was snapped in two.  Even though I felt like snapping the child in two, my dear husband reminded me that I can always grow another tomato plant, but not another kid.  Well, I guess I could, but you get the point.  Therefore, although the pictures you see are of the Brandywine, the Mr. Stripey had to take on the role as the experimental tomato, as they were the only two left of the same variety as 13- and 5-wk old plants.  Note to self:  Always have a Plan B (and C and D...) when gardening with kids.

Anyway, so here you can see vast difference 8 weeks of growth makes in a tomato plant! 

Two 2'x2' squares of sod taken from soil plots,  6 feet apart.
Mixed into existing soil:  1:1:1 ratio of topsoil, composted manure and Sphagnum peat moss

Experimental tomato plant #1:  Mr. Stripey, 13 weeks old
Little helper giving the 8" (or so) hole we dug in the center a good soak

Giving a good soak to the roots of the plant

Breaking up the roots

Pinching off a few of the smaller, lower sets of leaves

Don't forget the cutworm collar!  Just wrapped a small strip of newspaper around the base of the plant a few times.
Half of the collar will lay beneath the soil line; half will stick above.
The cutworm is a nasty little buggar that attacks at night, chewing through the stem
of your young plant either at, just above or just below the soil line.
Add mulch (straw in this case), tomato cage (I usually don't like these b/c they are too small, but whatevs...
we'll see how it works), and label

Experimental Tomato Plant #2:  Mr. Stripey, 5 1/2 weeks old
GENTLY ease the plant out of the container.
(This was Mini Garden Helper #1's first mistake.)

Since this seedling is so small, I'm going to help it along by putting it on a fast track
to forming a stronger root system.
Step 1:  Strip off all but the top sets of leaves.
Step 2:  Dig a shallow trench
Step 3:  Soak with water
Planting in a trench allows the plant to produce more roots on what used to be the stem.
Its roots will also be in the warmest part of the soil--close to the surface!

Step 3:  Attach cutworm collar
Step 4:  Lay the little guy into the trench

But it's sideways... ??
Don't worry--the plant will reach towards the sun and amazingly grow tall and straight as if it were planted straight into a deep hole.

Step 5:  Cover with soil, so that half of the collar is above the soil line and half is below
Step 6:  Mulch, cage, label
The mulch helps keep mucky soil from splashing onto the lower leaves of the plant when it rains or you water the garden.  This can lead to diseases, so mulch protects the leaves AND helps the soil retain moisture AND prevents weeds from growing.  A big, fat win-win-win, I'd say.

Ok, so, which one will come out on top??  Tune in as the summer progresses to see the results!  I'm as curious as you are!