Thursday, April 14, 2016

Grow Bigger Tomato and Pepper Plants

Tomato in leaves covered with pine needles and gabion rocks

Tomato plants were being sold on April 1st this year at Growers Market and Bimart, and you wouldn’t have been an April fool to plant them in April this year.  Corn, sunflowers, and the first tomato volunteers were growing in my compost bed.  The soil was warm enough, and the danger of frost seemed remote. 
Fortunately, most of the smaller plants in the markets are not yet blooming in their pots.  The first step to growing a big tomato plant is to plant a small one that is not yet blooming or even budding.  Examine the tips carefully for buds.  Buds or blooms on a plant in a pot are a sign that it is root bound and has moved from growing mode to trying to make seed while it still can.  You can take small buds off a start, cut the roots and bury the lower stem to grow more roots, and hope it is shocked back into growth mode, but it is better to start with a younger plant.  If it has fruit forming while in the pot, it has already stopped growing.

To grow a big plant, buy a small one.  Most plants in 6 inch pots are already blooming.  Plants in 4-inch pots are less likely to be, and pony packs of 4 or 6 plants are almost never blooming, but there is less variety.  I have found that the smaller the pot, the larger the plant grows, as long as there are no buds. But I prefer larger pony packs to smaller 6-packs.

Peppers planted in gabion rocks.  It was a mistake to plant them three to a circle.

Some peppers were early in the stores, but I held off buying until May.  They prefer warmer soil.  In past years, I have had a hard time finding pepper plants even in 4-inch pots that are not showing buds.  I looked at some jalepeno 6-packs at Bimart, but they looked like they had a fungus deforming their leaves, a problem with store-bought jalepenos the last two years.  But the latest 6 packs and 4-inch plants are looking good and I bought some of each.
Spread compost 4-6 inches deep where you want them to grow, unless the soil there is exceedingly rich.  Afternoon shade is good for tomatoes; peppers want full sun.  Cover the compost with coarse mulch like bark, pine needles or shredded leaves to protect it from drying out. Plant your starts into the compost or soil no deeper than they were in their pots.  If your plants are not root bound and blooming, there is no need to cover the lower stem to grow more roots, and doing so just puts them that much deeper into cold soil that will slow their growth and closer to the pill bugs, slugs and snails who will eat them.

Tomato in leaves with large rocks for warmth, maybe two weeks after planting. 
The sand in the foreground is the path cover.
Surround those young tomato and pepper plants with a few large rocks, or a large circle of smaller rocks, to absorb heat and transfer it to the soil.  The bigger the rocks, the more they temper the daytime heat and warm the soil at night.  Night warmth is critical to good root growth.
April 2016, online at  Like Garden Grants Pass on Facebook.
Gardening is easy if you do it naturally.  Litter is tagging, marking the territory of the disorderly.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040