Where’s the Tomato?

Philly’s cold wet spring (remember that?) has been immediately replaced by a hot, dry August. Er. June. A few weeks ago, in a flurry of pre-littlest deckhand productivity, spindly-looking seedlings were planted and just today the minder managed to thin, snip, and top off those tomato pots.

Incidentally, it appears as though the newest (and littlest) deckhand isn’t much help after all. When asked to haul up a bucket of water she said, “pbbbbtttt.” Go figure. But, thanks to an hour-long walk with Appa, the tomatoes got a second helping of dirt.  The goal here, by the way, is that new roots will form along the newly submerged stem and the plant will grow big and strong. The tomatoes even got the first complex sentences of the day. Not once did their minder say, “Where’s the tomato?” Progress.

And plenty of tomatoes, there are. Here’s hoping this year’s crew, which includes patio princess, sweetheart of the patio, tomande, and good old gold nugget (all determinates this year) fare well — ’cause thinning means repotting, in POD’s book. Now we’ve got three tomandes, two gold nuggets, one patio princess, and two sweethearts.

There’s the tomato.

Sweetheart of the PatioSweetheart of the Patio


Uh Oh, Tomatoes

Tomato seedlings pre-pricked
Tomato seedlings pre-pricked

They’d hit a wall. And looked leggy. And as it’s getting close to that time when all the plants on deck need to be on deck, it was time to do something. Like pricking out. Why, you ask, is it “pricking out?”

No clue. Sorry.

But, regardless of whatever silly name gardeners have given the process, it seems to make good sense. About a month ago, Tomande, Princess of the Patio, Sweetheart of the Patio, and Gold Nugget were planted. And since then they’ve glowed the night way in front of wide-spectrum fluorescent bulbs and on sunny days, soak up the rays on a warm, south-facing South Philly window sill.

tomato seedlings true leaves
True Leaves

Last week, though, they hit a wall. The first set of true leaves had appeared — those jagged leaves that sprout just above the “baby” (cotyledon) leaves — and the leaves are a bright, happy green (indicating they’re receiving enough light), but the old nemesis, “legginess” had also joined in on the party.

So, overcoming inertia and general gardening laziness, the poor little things made a trip the the little blue deck for some early transplanting.

pricking potsFirst fill new, larger pots with seedling soil, making a deep well for the plant in the center of each container. Using a fork, gently loosen the dirt around the seedlings.

pricking tomatoes

Then, very gently grasp the seedling by its baby leaves and prick it from the soil. (Hey, maybe that’s the reason. Why it’s not “pulling,” “uprooting,” or “early transplanting” remains a mystery.) Gently lower the seedling into the hole. The leggy stem should be well-submerged tomato prickinginto the new container — new roots will sprout along the newly-buried stem.

Return them to their indoor location.  Water and resume light therapy.

And hope for the best.

tomatoes pricked

Bad Blogger

Bad blogger. Bad gardener. The past couple of weeks have been nuts in PODland. It’s good to be back. And it only makes sense that these hands would dive into the dirt today, with yesterday marking the bi-yearly sojourn to the nail salon for a delightful (and much needed) little mani/pedi action.

So we’re off to a late start, but that’s okay, as it seems spring in South Philly is off to late start, too. While these tomatoes should have probably been started a couple of weeks ago, we’ll just have to make do.

Sweetheart of the Patio, Tomande, Gold Nugget, Patio Princess
The Lineup

Introducing Patio Princess, Sweetheart of the Patio, and Tomande. Welcome back, Champ (Gold Nugget). Grow well.

Dirt Bag
Dirt Bag

And instead of relying on whatever leftover soil that could be excavated from the little blue deck and the basement, this year’s collection enjoys a lux home. And while while peat pots aren’t POD’s favorite, here’s hoping this year’s experiments with bottom-watering will keep them happily moist.

Too Many Tomatoes

Seed List, Tomatoes

You didn’t think Plants On Deck was going tomatoless, did you?

After last year’s abundance of well-documented tomato woes (and not such an abundance of tomatoes), this year’s hybrid fixation/experiment includes tomatoes, too. Here’s hoping these compact determinates produce more vigorously than last year’s bug-ridden indeterminates.

Patio Princess Hybrid: “Just the right size for small pots, while 2-3 plants will file a large tub. Each 24″ plant produces an abundance of 2 1/2 – 3″ fruits.”

Sweetheart of the Patio Hybrid: “This compact super producer bursts with snack-ready supersweet  baby cherries about 1″ round.”

Tomand Hybrid: “Tomato connoisseurs rave about the flavor of these broad-shouldered beauties. Fleshy, juicy and flavorful, ‘Tomande’ will treat gourmet gardeners to both heirloom taste and abundant hybrid yields.”

(Of course, Champ is heading back into the ring for another round.)

WARM! Be patient, POD. Don’t transplant those seedlings until Philly’s enjoying open-window 60° nights. 60°. pH 6.0-6.8. Well fertilized (esp. phosphorus, potassium, and calcium.) Consider plastic “mulch” in the early part of the season. 60°.

What’s a Determinate?

determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoesIf you ignore the yellowing, early blighted leaves (which were snipped moments after this photo was snapped), you’ll see a still-producing Isis Candy cherry tomato towering above its neighboring Gold Nugget.

It towers because it’s an indeterminate — that is, it keeps going and growing and going. Until diseases finally fell is, that is. The Gold Nugget, one the other hand, has about had its day. It has reached its determined height, produced a couple pounds of tomatoes, and is about to expire.

The determinate vs. indeterminate is an important consideration for gardeners, especially those with limited space. Like, for instance, this particular roof deck gardener.

This year, POD selected two indeterminate varieties (the late Chocolate Cherry and the ailing Isis Candy) and two determinate varieties (Gold Nugget and Tumbling Tom). Because POD’s seduced by the idea of an ever-growing, ever-producing tomato, the larger and ungangly and space-hogging indeterminate is quite fetching. However, because disease is a constant lurking threat, the short(er)-lived and compact determinate has its merits.

Yup, it’s Early Blight

The wonderful Colorado State University Extension provides a terrific online tool for diagnosing a myriad of tomato diseases. Take, for example, the following:

Early Blight, Colorado Sate University Extension image
Early Blight, Colorado Sate University Extension image
POD gold nugget, early blight
Early Blight, POD Gold Nugget

So, okay, POD has Early Blight. No surprise there — it’s a recurring theme on deck.

Yeah, you may have thought you were off the hook. Your tomatoes were thriving and then, suddenly, they weren’t.
Symptoms become more obvious during the hotter months, so June and July spell tomato doom in Philly.

Now, what to do?

  • Prune diseased leaves (as POD does oh-so-conscientiously) but keep an eye out for sunburned fruit. If you have to harvest it early, wrap it in newspaper and it’ll ripen in a few days.
  • Since this is a fungus (soil, wind, or seedborne), sanitation is your best best: Remove all diseased plant leaves from the soil, clean your trimming tools, space your containers judiciously, avoid touching healthy leaves with the sick ones, wash hands before touching healthy plants.
  • At the end of the season, clean and dry containers and drainage materials thoroughly.
  • Use fresh potting soil each year. (POD dumps her used dirt on the local community pocket park…is this bad? No vegetables are grown there, the park desperately needs something besides city-provided wood chip mulch, and it truly hurts to throw the soil away.)
  • Good air circulation is key, but the gusty winds on deck do a good job of ensuring this.
  • Water the soil in the morning — avoid watering the leaves. Philly’s cold, rainy May and June didn’t help with these efforts…at all.
  • If the infestation is heavy, use sulfur dust, Neem, or copper spray — it may help protect new leaves from infection.
  • Fertilize! POD could be much more diligent on this count. Next year, POD’s gonna’ stick a calendar on the fridge and use an organic 5-6-5(ish) fertilizer every couple of week.
  • Demonstrate patience: properly harden-off seedlings, transplant when evenings are consistently over 55 degrees, and trim leaves before sinking them into the soil. Refer to Return of the Fungi.

Happy Meals

panzanella ingredients

It’s high summer. The tomatoes, cucumber, and basil have hit that wonderful stage: panzanella.

For some of us summer begins in March, when the seed catalogs arrive and the shopping sprees begin. For those same folks, summer begins winding down with the fourth of July’s flowery fireworks. For others, panzanella marks the true beginning of summer. Who’s the optimist/pessimist here? POD or her wonderful garden widower? Discuss.

Either way, panzanella is a happy, happy meal.

serves 2-3
basil, a nice handful or two, cut into a chiffonade
tomatoes, we’re using a healthy 1/2 lb of tumbling toms and gold nuggets, chopped
2-4 cucumbers, sliced (POD’s first lemon cucumber is pictured above)
1 ball (1/2 lb or so) fresh mozzarella, cubed
leftover crusty bread, a dozen 1/2- 3/4″ slices
3 tbs. high-quality balsamic vinegar
3 tbs. olive oil
salt & pepper

1) Toss the basil, tomatoes,  cucmbers, and mozzarella in a large bowl.
2) Combine your vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a jar. Shake like crazy — until your vinaigrette appears almost creamy.
3) Rub the bread slices with garlic and olive oil. Grill until toasty and golden.
4) Break the bread into bite-sized pieces and add to the vegetables and mozzarella.
5) Pour on the dressing, toss thoroughly, let it rest for 5 minutes, eat.

Choosing Cherries

Tomatoes, that is.

Tomato quiche with 2008 farmers' market cherry tomatoes.
Tomato quiche with 2008 farmers' market cherry tomatoes.

The smooth, juicy, sugary flavors of heirlooms are, by far, POD’s preferred tomatoes. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a plate of glistening multi-colored tomato slices with just the lightest dash of quality balsamic vinegar, a teeny pinch of salt, and a sprinkling of fresh basil.

Cherries? No way! Small, sour, acidic, red and boring. Or so we thought. We were wrong. And nearly went broke buying buckets of them at the farmers’ market last summer. Seriously, it was like an addiction.

Given the various tomato frustrations last year’s crop of full-size heirlooms brought, cherry tomatoes seemed like a fine way to go. Prolific, earlier yields seem appealing. Furthermore, the little blue deck gets a decent amount of summer sunlight (5-10 hours), but given the houses that surround it, the hours of sunlight vary widely from May to August and containers are constantly shifting locations to keep up with maximum sun. Cherry tomatoes, evidently, are a little more flexible than their full-size brethren.

This year POD’s sprouting a yellow Tumbling Tom, Chocolate Cherry, Gold Nugget, and an Isis Candy.