(Grow Your Own Food Indoors-Part 1) In much of the U.S., even as we tomato lovers and gardeners celebrate harvest season, we also lament that it’s almost (sigh) over. Well, keep your chin up, tomatophiles. Follow these 5 tips for growing flavor-packed tomatoes year-round.
Grocery store tomatoes. Rich red. Buffed to a waxy shine. Hard as balsa wood and every bit as flavorful. You can buy them all year. You probably don’t, however, until your garden’s tomato vines are empty, the local farmers’ markets are done for the year, and you have no other choice.
But you do have another choice.
Make this the year you decide to grow your own tomatoes in your own home, all year long if you want to. Consider these tomato-friendly growing techniques:
1. Choose tomato varieties that work best indoors
The best indoor tomatoes are often smaller varieties. These usually ripen faster and produce lots of fruit that isn’t heavy enough to pull vines down. Also look for “indeterminate” rather than “determinate” varieties.
Determinates flower once, produce fruit for a couple of weeks or so, and fade out. Indeterminates continue to flower and produce fruit for far longer, depending on the conditions.
In the “Gardening Know How” blog, Bonnie Grant recommends these varieties for growing indoors:
* Tiny Tim
* Toy Boy
* Florida Petite
She also recommends varieties that typically grow well in hanging baskets, such as Yellow Pear and Burpee Basket King.
The dimensions of your grow space are a major factor in which varieties you choose. For example, hanging baskets work best if you can hang them at least four feet off the floor of your grow space and still have room above and to the sides for proper lighting.
2. From Seeds to Seedlings: No Hurry
Starting with seeds rather than seedlings gives you more varieties to choose from year ‘round. Another advantage is that if something goes wrong and the plants don’t thrive, you just make some adjustments and start over.
That’s one of the great things about growing indoors: A “do-over” takes very little time or expense. You learn faster what works and what doesn’t.
Potting soil and fertilizer for tomatoes is a lot like barbecue spice rubs: People can’t wait to tell you their “secret” formula. I won’t spend a lot of time on that here, because there’s so much good info out there, such as this blog post at Just4Growers.
One thing to keep in mind about your potting soil is that keeping it moist depends on the type of grow lights you use. You’ll need to adjust the soil and moisture depending on how hot, and how close to your seedlings, the lights are.
Which brings us to…
3. Light Your Tomatoes Correctly: Close and Cool
A huge part of the challenge of growing good tomatoes indoors is the lighting. The first thing to understand is that tomatoes will flower regardless of the mix of light and darkness they receive (assuming the other conditions are good). But continuous light retards growth of the fruit.
Tomato plants do their best work in the dark. That is, they convert nutrients and energy into sweetness, color, and flavor in the fruit.
Most experts recommend about 18 hours of light per day. And it’s best if you have tomatoes in an enclosed grow room that blocks out all ambient light for the other six hours. Set the lights on a timer, if you can, so they get consistent light/dark periods.
High output (HO), full-spectrum fluorescent grow lights, such as a T-5, are ideal for tomatoes. HOs kick out four times the light of most incandescent bulbs, and twice the light of standard fluorescents, while remaining relatively cool and quiet.
It’s best if you position your lights about three or four inches above the tops of the plants. For seedlings, a cooler light such as a T-5 is important. Too much heat makes them grow too fast and become “leggy.” They’re less likely to become strong and healthy enough to hold fruit later.
If your grow area can also accommodate vertical side lighting, it’s easier to simulate the effects of natural sunlight.
4. Watering Indoor Tomatoes: Why Drip Irrigation Works Best
Experts consistently recommend watering indoor tomatoes via drip irrigation systems. These do several important things for tomatoes:
* Slow and steady: Tomatoes like slow, deep, regular watering–not occasional gushes.
* Watering the root, not the leaves: A drip tube can distribute the water directly into the soil. Watering tomatoes from above can lead to disease, and it simply wastes water.
Be sure the floor of your grow area can channel away waste water. Standing water encourages growth of harmful molds and pests. Your best bet is an enclosed grow tent with a gray water drainage system.
5. Transplant, Pollinate, and Support Your Tomato Plants
Start your seeds in small pots or cell trays, and transplant them to larger pots when they’re about three inches tall.
Tomatoes are self-pollinating–their flowers contain both the male and female parts–but they need a little help. Outdoors, the wind, insects and birds shake the pollen loose and distribute it. Indoors, you can give flowering plants a slight jiggle every so often.
Pollination also goes better with a fan or exhaust system that regularly circulates air in your grow area.
For upright varieties (as opposed to hanging basket) varieties, be sure to stake the plants as they grow and bear fruit, so the stems don’t keel over.
Enjoy Your Harvest — Again and Again
Wanna drive your family or dinner guests nuts? Let them smell fresh marinara simmering on your stove in mid-February. Plant your indoor tomatoes in cycles, according to the maturation rate of the varieties you choose, so you’ll always have a crop coming in.
Tomato fatigue? I’ve never had it. But I’ve heard it can happen. The great thing about tomatoes is they’re a perfect way to introduce yourself to the rewards of growing your own food indoors. Soon, you’ll find yourself moving on to all kinds of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and more.
Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?