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Cherry Tomatoes

November 16, 2009

SUMMER’S CHERRY TOMATOES

In container gardening the only difference between having a green thumb and brown one is one’s vigilance in watering and fertilizing. 

It is mid-November and I just plucked a tomato from one of our vines.  The plant is dead–since late October–but a few green fruit persist and slowly turn color, even after nearly 8″ of rain and temperatures in the 40’s, with one frosty morning. The ornamental pears are finally turning color, and I had a tartly sweet and cold cherry tomato for a snack.

 Almost every summer we enjoy cherry tomatoes grown on our deck in containers.  As long as there are six to eight hours of full sun, water, and fertilizer, they will thrive and yield the sweetest fruit from July through October.  The cherry types are early, heavy producers on compact plants; and most importantly, reward us daily with snacks and salad toppers–with minimal maintenance.  They are one of the easiest plants to grow. 

The first year we had tomatoes in pots sitting on the deck.  The first few were so delicious and sweet.  Then they never seemed to ripen.  We discovered the dog was munching them down as fast as they turned salmon-orange.  They are now grown in plastic hanging pots, well above her reach. 

We typically hunt for the variety ‘Sweet Million’, and find it in 3” or 6” pots at the Puyallup Farmer’s Market (Courthouse Square, downtown), where numerous varieties of tomatoes are available from a long time grower-vendor. 

‘Sweet Million’ is perfect for hanging containers.  They have densely compact leaf internodes on sturdy branches that cascade well.  Fruiting clusters are numerous with 8 to 20 tomatoes in each cluster.  Their one failing is fragile fruit stems, so a couple green tomatoes may drop from a cluster of twelve or more having one or two ripe tomatoes that we are picking. 

The nursery plants need to be hardened, exposed to weather for a week or two before being sold.  Hardened plants typically have a dense canopy, and deep green tough feeling foliage.  We get ours in June when a 3” size pot will have 3 branches up to 12” in length and flowers, or buds.  The first picking will be middle to late July. 

A quick primer on planting tomatoes:  The plant described above likes at least 3” of its exposed 12” height buried. These are a vining plant and most vines grow better when deeply buried.  Because these will be in hanging pots and expected to cascade, the plants are put into the pot at an angle, stems even resting on the pot rim.  Fill the pot to the rim with soil.  Then using finger tips stab the soil around the nursery ball and stem.  Flood the pot with water to the container rim and let it drain.  There should be about 1-inch clearance between soil and rim.  That’s it. Over the course of three years when I was a student, I potted and watered over a quarter million greenhouse plants this way.  It works. 

Water, water, and more water-

Potted plants in Seattle thrive or die in direct proportion to container type and size versus canopy size versus watering regimen in late July through late August.  Tomatoes are tolerant of some wilt but fruits split when wet-wilt cycles are extreme.  Leaves will burn, often turn yellow and die when too much wilting occurs. 

Plastic is optimum for hanging containers.  It’s light weight and thin-wall construction is easy on supports.  Plastic also prevents water evaporation when the greatest retention is needed. 

Here are my growing conditions, with some fruit splitting, caused mostly by unseasonable summer rain.  Two 10” diameter by 6” deep plastic pots grouped together, hung from a post with full August sun exposure.  Each pot had two nursery plants with 4 to 5 main branches for the pot, and a final canopy about 24” diameter by 30” vertical.  The pots were hand watered by flooding every morning with an additional flooding in the afternoon when temperatures exceeded 90-degrees–they wilted by afternoon.  Twice daily watering occurred during the peak production weeks.  These two pots produced enough fruit for two people. 

A thin solution of liquid fertilizer is used twice a week.  I just mix up Miracle Grow concentrate in a quart milk jug and splash some into the watering can I fill at the kitchen sink. 

The plants were controlled in size by pinching tip growth at the desired mature length, about 24” to 28” branch length.  The branches were pinched just past a flower cluster.  Most suckers, or new branching—there’s one between every leaf node—were pinched off, except ones near the soil to replace older stems that would lose leaves and exhaust fruits later.  The suckers that grew were then pinched after a flower bud, also.

 Soil-

Purchased potting soil mixes tend to be too high in peat, or other under-composted organic content.  The soil drains well but needs more mineral fines to retain more water.  Also, when green (under composted) organics, especially peat, dry out rewetting them is a pain.  If this happens (you will know), a few drops of dish soap in the watering can as a wetting agent can help.  Typically, flooding the pots two or three times is necessary to re-wet soil.  I will blend garden soil into bagged soil at about 1/3 volume of on-site soil. This increases the water retention without being too heavy, or causing water-logged conditions.

I usually salvage potting soil and mix the previous summer’s container soil into my own compost pile that has fifty-percent mineral soil and aged compost.  I’m a cheap gardener. ‘Dirt’ is free—excluding mortgage—and home composting is using excess vegetation from expensive water on lawn and trees.  I compost; and avoid mixed bags that usually have a hole that dribbles dirt down my neck while humping the bag around the yard. 

Having delicious cherry tomatoes for lunch or dinner is as easy as brushing teeth every morning.  Water, and then admire the deck garden with that first cup of java.

2009-November

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