Thursday, April 14, 2016

Grow Bigger Tomato and Pepper Plants

Tomato in leaves covered with pine needles and river rocks

Tomato plants start appearing in the markets in April, usually large, blooming plants in 6” pots first.  They are there to tempt the ignorant into planting too big, too old and too early.  If the soil is not warm enough, they just sit and get eaten by bugs until it warms up to 70 degrees.  Plant sellers make a lot of money off people who don’t know any better and they have no interest in teaching them.

The first step to growing a big tomato plant is to plant 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 it will grow, but it is better to start with a younger plant.  If it has fruit forming while in the pot, it has pretty much stopped growing.  This rule applies to all large annual bedding plants.

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 available in the stores.  I have found that the smaller the pot, the larger the plant grows, as long as there are no buds. But I prefer larger 2” x 2” x 4” pony packs to smaller 2” x 1” x 2” 6-packs; the smaller ones are easily root bound.

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

Some peppers are early in the stores, but it pays to wait until June for peppers.  They prefer warmer soil.  Nights colder than 50 degrees will stunt them.  In recent years, I have had a hard time finding pepper plants even in 4-inch pots that are not showing buds, and wait for 6-packs.

Spread compost 4-6 inches deep where you want them to grow, unless the soil there is already rich.  If you piled 6-12 inches of leaves on the soil in the fall, an inch of compost will help warm and rot the leaves and the plants will root well in the rotting leaves. 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. 

Tomato in leaves with large rocks for warmth, maybe two weeks after planting. 
The sand in the foreground is the path cover.
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.

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 thicker the rocks, the more they temper the daytime heat and warm the soil at night.  Night warmth is critical to good root growth.

April-May issue, revised 2018. Like Garden Grants Pass on Facebook.  
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040