Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Buy better tomato and pepper starts

Tomato warmed with rocks and pepper in 4 x 8 sand and rocks a week after planting, May 2014: they doubled in size quickly

Tomatoes and peppers are most easily grown from starts, though volunteer tomatoes can sometimes beat even the best planted starts for fast growth.  But if you want big plants that produce a lot of fruit, you need to plant small plants, and never buy a plant that is blooming in its pot.
          A plant that is blooming in its pot has gotten the signal from roots hitting the edge of the pot, wrapping around and touching other roots, that it is not going to get any bigger and it’s time to flower and make seed.  Fast growth stops and flowering and fruit growth begin.  A plant with fruit in a pot will grow hardly at all.
          The larger the pot you buy, the more the roots have been deformed by a succession of pots.  Seeds are not planted straight into large pots; they are planted in small pots and transplanted into larger pots, often starting with less than a cubic inch.  The smaller the plant you put in the ground, the less its roots have been distorted.  Six packs grow better than 4” pots and 4” grow better than 6” pots.  But larger “pony packs” are better than smaller 6-paks.  The potting soil in any pot should be light and loose, without excessive perlite or pumice.
          It is rare to find a 6” pot of tomatoes that is not already blooming, and sometimes it’s hard to find 4” pots not blooming.  This goes double for peppers; it is best to buy them in 6-paks, and look carefully for buds.  Six-packs of tomatoes usually are not blooming, but beware of plants too big for their pots.
          There is no point in rushing the season.  Your plants won’t grow until the soil is warm.   Don’t plant deeper than needed to cover the roots.  If you are choosing plants that are not root-bound, you don’t need to grow roots from the stem for good growth.  The deeper you plant, the colder the soil is beneath the roots.  Laying them down to bury the lower stem just puts the top growth closer to the pill bugs that eat plants in cold soil.  You can pre-warm the soil by covering it with 4 x 8 sand and placing larger rocks around the plants.

Watermelon and peppers grown in 4x8, corn and sunflower in leaves, 2014

          It’s best to wait until May to buy tomato and pepper starts in Grants Pass.  This year, it may be safe to be an April fool, and plant tomatoes in April, as spring weather has been consistently a month ahead of schedule and tomatoes are volunteering.  But we have had a week of cold showers and frost, and we won’t be safe from frost until May.  And yet, we already have 6” pot tomatoes appearing in the markets, which make good money from April fools having to replant because the soil was too cold and the bugs ate their cold-stressed plants.
April 2015 issue, online at and at the Mail Center, 305 NE 6th
Follow @AnRycke on Twitter; GP Gardener on Facebook; check out for blogs

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040