How We Grow Tomatoes at Deer Isle Hostel

Reader Contribution by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
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Few other vegetables represent summer as a sun-ripe, homegrown tomato does. Even gardeners with limited space seem to prioritize tomatoes and we have many friends in urban areas that grow tomato plants in pots on their balcony or roof top. June here on Deer Isle has already been warmer than I would ever ask for. Our hostel – the Deer Isle Hostel – is picking up pace and most of the garden is planted. The tomatoes are all in the ground and now all we can do is to stand back with our fingers crossed that they will keep looking as good as they’ve done all along.

Starting Tomato Plants From Seed

I start my seedlings in my neighbors house around the 3rd week of April. Her house stays warmer than ours that at that time often gets down below 50’s at night. I start them in six-packs (pots with six slots) with two seeds in each slot. After about two weeks I transplant them to a 3 inch x 3 inch pot and at this time I also bring them home and have them on our kitchen table in front of a big south-facing window. It can still get pretty cold at night, but I consider that a benefit since my plants tend to be hardier and less prone to shock once planted outside compared to seedlings raised in heated spaces.

Spring can be cold and wet here in Maine and some years it’s hard to find a good window of nice weather for when to transplant the tomatoes to the garden. I use the 10 day forecast and once it’ll stay in the 50’s day and night I usually take the chance. Upper 40’s is ok, as long as it doesn’t get too wet. Tomatoes are fine with some cold, but reacts poorly to being damp. Most years the plants grow very big in the small pots before I can put them outside. If I had 10 or less plants I probably would move them to bigger pots if I couldn’t put them outside once they got big but I have too many for that to be practical. If I start them later that would not be an issue but then I’m running the risk of not having enough time to replant if the seed germination would be poor.

Instead I do my best to keep the plants healthy and to reduce stress. I keep them on our kitchen table at night and bring them outside in the morning. I have cold frames that I put the seedlings in so they get to be in a really warm space and even on cloudy days I bring them outside where it’s still brighter than in our house. I pick all the flower buds off to reduce the amount of energy expended by the plant. I also remove all yellowing leaves and if the leaves develop brown spots (a sign of early blight) I pick them off to and try to isolate that plant from the rest to not spread the disease. Even still there’s been years when I’ve almost lost all my plants to stress and disease caused by the cold weather and just because I couldn’t bring myself to pull them out the plants were left in the ground and as by magic came around and produced a beautiful crop.

How to Plant Tomatoes

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and we can maximize the yield from each plant by using one of the free, abundant and natural resources we have here on Deer Isle – the seaweed. We plant our tomato plants by digging a big hole – say 16 inches deep and about as wide across, putting a fork full of seaweed in the bottom and planting the tomato right in the seaweed. Most tomato growers probably don’t have a source of seaweed to utilize but the technique works just as well with compost or animal manure or any other mean for fertilizer – as soon as the roots starts to grow they grow straight into something rich. I avoid getting the seaweed up against the stem, since it might make it rot.

Dig the hole – add fertilizer – plant the tomato – fill the hole with soil. I dig the hole deep, and bury the tomato plant to their neck (usually just below the 2nd or 3rd set of leaves) so that the whole stem will turn into roots. We also use the seaweed as mulch and put a thick ring around each plant to keep the soil moist and weed free.

Once planted, the tomatoes don’t need much tending to until the grow big enough to need support for the vines. The one thing I do is to keep picking off all flower buds until summer solstice – in this way the plant have time to properly set roots before spending energy growing flowers. If I left the buds I’d probably get fruit a little bit earlier but I believe that strong roots makes for strong plants and that a plant can’t both set roots and fruit and the same time.

Come August and September I will have 6-8 feet tall plants heavy with that sure sign of summer few things are as a tomato on the vine. As June goes by under the cloud free sky, my dreams of freshly sliced tomatoes warm from the sun grows with each passing day.

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