Monday, May 21, 2012

The Tomato Saga

To say that I have trouble growing healthy tomato seedlings would be a grave understatement.  Once, many years ago (I think it was 2009?), I grew some healthy, happy, beautiful, vigorous tomato plants, which I planted in containers in my backyard and fought the squirrels for all summer.  "This is a breeze!" I said to myself.  "Why does anyone buy nursery plants when they can grow their own for a fraction of the cost?"  And ever since I have been plagued by sickly, off-color, miserable little runty tomato seedlings.  The first year I went ahead and planted them, hoping for the best.  (Ahh...innocence.)  Their performance that year was sufficiently awful that it drove me to vow I would never plant sickly tomato seedlings again.  The following year I was extra careful, throwing out all the seeds from the previous year and starting in fresh, clean pots and soil.  But disaster struck again, and at the last minute I bought seedlings from the nursery to plant instead.  (Inspecting them ever, ever so carefully.  Except that damn (ahem) paste tomato plant that I knew was sick but they only had one kind of paste tomato and they all looked sick and I really, really wanted one.  (I'm not so good at this vow stuff.)  And I got excellent results - but no paste tomatoes.

So you'd think I'd have learned my lesson.  But no.

This year I started with all new seeds from excellent suppliers.  I scrubbed my pots in bleach water and used the last of my store-bought potting soil for the tomatoes.  I set up the seedlings in a drier, warmer room with no rats to nibble on them.  I babied them with fancy fish emulsion.  And what happened?

A leaf from one of my sick seedlings

Sigh.  "Where did I go wrong?!" I wondered.  I tried moving them outside, reducing the water, a nice dose of fish emulsion.  No improvement, plus they kept getting tipped over by the wind and the damn (ahem) squirrels.  Finally I decided it was time to either throw them away or plant them.  I couldn't make up my mind, so... 

A half-staked row of tomatoes
Runty little seedlings barely outpacing the weeds

I planted half of them and threw the other half away, starting new ones in the ground from seed.  When I planted the seedlings I removed all of the affected leaf stems, burying the plants deep underground.  For a while, they just stayed sickly looking, yellow and stubby and rather as though they wished I had thrown them out.  I began mentally re-arranging my garden so I could stick in nursery starts somewhere else and grow squash or cucumbers or anything other than tomatoes in the soil that had touched the untouchables.  "Why?!  Why did I do this to myself again?!"

And then, recently, the former seedlings have started to look...downright happy.  They have grown several inches, put out lots of suckers, and even set a few blossoms.  Last week I decided it was time to commit.  I put plastic over the soil and staked the first several plants.  I'm still suspicious of those plants.  I will pluck an entire leaf branch off at the least hint of imperfection.  But now I have to admit I'm wondering why on earth I ever started them from seeds in the other bed, and wishing I hadn't thrown the other half of my seedlings away.  Those other plants are just so small.

I know, I'm incorrigible.  But you knew that already, right?


  1. Oh, that sound so trying. But home-grown tomatoes are about the best thing you can get from a garden, so I can see why you don't give up.

  2. I have never had any luck with growing tomatoes. Last year, it seemed somewhat promising (regularly producing tomatoes and no hornworm infestations) but all of the tomatoes from my garden were as tasteless as store-bought ones from the middle of the winter. And like you, I still hold out hopes each year and try again.