- Growing Tomatoes in the Maritimes -
Whole books could be written on growing tomatoes (and many are), but here's a basic rundown on how we do it.
- Seed starting:
Sow seeds indoors in March/April, either in a greenhouse or your sunniest windowsill. All throughout a tomato plants life it loves warmth and sun, so give it lots of both. I find 90% of challenges that people run into with starting seedlings would be fixed just with more light. I've never used grow lights myself, but if you don't have south facing windows they might be just what you need to start them off.
I like to sow seeds densely in trays to maximize use of our heated germination space. As plants grow and begin to put out their first set of true leaves, it's about time to transplant out of their trays and into seedling pots. Any 3"-4" or larger pot should do… or they can be improvised! You might find it easier to just sow seeds directly into the seedling pots in the first place, that saves the whole first transplanting step.
In late May start hardening off your seedlings, take them outdoors for just a few hours at a time and gradually ease them up to spending all day outside (but watch out for wind/frosts!). I find it's important to ease them in to life outdoors... growing inside keeps seedlings pretty soft and supple, and strong winds in particular can really damage tender plants. But more time outside is the only thing that will toughen them up!
I usually wait until early June to transplant tomato seedlings into their permanent homes, most of the Maritimes are safe from frost at that point, but in cool years it doesn't hurt to wait for some warmth. Even if your seedlings are still small by transplanting time it's probably best to just put them out, they'll grow faster in the garden then they ever will in the house.
Choose a growing site with as much sun as possible, with well composted and amended soil. If you have less than full sun, growing short season and cherry varieties will usually give you more wiggle room. They tend to be more forgiving in general. I space my plants 24" apart within each row, which seems like a lot of space when they're small but don't underestimate how big they'll grow! Tomatoes will thrive in containers also, they have deep, extensive roots so the larger the pot the better.
- Staking, Pruning and Summer Maintenance:
As plants grow throughout the summer they'll need some pruning and staking to do their best. Most tomato varieties can be divided into Determinate or Indeterminate. Determinate varieties are compact and bush-like, usually staying under 3 feet in height and bearing all their fruit in one big flush. Indeterminates (which include most old heirloom varieties) are tall vines, usually ranging from 4 feet to 8 feet in our climate (in tropical climes they'll grow for multiple years and can grow 20 feet or more). Indeterminates also bear over a period of months, starting in late summer up until the first frost, which I like about them.
Both types benefit from some staking, but it's especially needed for tall indeterminates. I'm a fan of the sturdy wooden stake next to each plant method, using twine just tie the growing vine to the stake every few weeks. It's an ongoing process, but it gives you an excuse to spend time with each plant as they grow. Plants can get really heavy under the weight of fruit and foliage by the end of summer, so make sure those stakes are strong!
Spending time with each plant while tying them is also a good opportunity to prune them. People have different philosophies on tomato pruning, but what I generally do is pinch off the side shoots which grow between the leaves and the main stem and want to form new vines. If left to their own devices indeterminate tomatoes would sprawl in all directions with a dozen vines, but for best production I find it's usually best to keep them to one or two main stems. Those side shoots grow fast, it can be easy to fall behind! Not the end of the world if they get overly viney though, just as long as the fruit can receive a bit of sunlight to ripen.
If all goes well, you should start harvesting your first tomatoes in late summer. Our very earliest varieties (Cole, Whippersnapper, Stupice, Early Latah, Glacier) can ripen as soon as early July around here, with most varieties starting in earnest in Mid-Late August and peaking in September.
- Saving Tomato Seeds -
Tomatoes are self pollinators, and crosses are rare. Saving seeds from your best plants you'll pretty reliably grow the same variety the following season. Crosses pop up once in a while though, so try to observe for any off-type plants and avoid saving seed from them.
Like saving seeds from any fruit, the riper the better. Even beyond ripe is ideal.
The simplest way to collect tomato seeds would be to just scoop a few seeds while slicing up a ripe fruit. And that can work, but take a look at a seed strait out of a tomato… each one has a clear, gelatinous coating around it. That coating acts to inhibit germination until the seeds have left the parent fruit, and if dried with the coating on it contains an enzyme that still inhibits germination the following year. Some seeds will grow, but not all. In nature the fruit would fall to the ground and decompose in autumn, the seeds staying dormant in the soil until the following spring. Saving tomato seeds on the farm we try to simulate that… by fermenting them!
And how do we ferment them? We pick the ripest fruit, the riper the better, and then we squish them. Either squishing by hand, or with our patented tomato mashing stick, try to squish them fine enough to separate all the seeds from chunks of flesh. If you're careful, you could even squeeze the seeds out from the meatier parts of the tomato, and still eat most of the fruit. Add just enough water to cover the squished fruit, put a lid on your bucket or jar (to keep flies out), and let it ferment somewhere warm for 3-4 days.
In that time a magical process occurs, the seeds not only lose their coating but separate from the pulp and the skins. The skins and pulp float to the top, while the fertile seeds all sink to a layer on the bottom. There should be a nice layer of mold atop each bucket when you remove the lids, just add more water and swish it all around. After a moment or two the seeds will return to the bottom, and the skins can be poured off. Repeat this rinsing for at least a few more cycles, until all you have left are clean seeds. Pour the seeds onto a mesh tray or paper towel, and once fully dry you can store them away! Spread the seeds thin to dry them as quickly as possible, if they stay wet for for than a day or two they might begin germinating.