21 May 2008
i know some gardeners around here have not yet dared to put their tomatoes in the ground, for fear of a late frost. i am not one of those gardeners. i transplanted 4 of the tomatoes i nurtured from seed, into the garden on april 23. it was early, and a big risk, so i constructed some protective systems. i had heard of using a "wall o' water" for early planting, so i got a package from a big box store. it was a burpee brand, called hydro shield. when we filled the first one up with water, to test it out, the cell dividers started breaking, and the thing wouldn't stand up. i wasn't about to put one of those things around my precious little plants, and risk it collapsing, and crushing their fragile stems. so, i took them back, and poked around online until i found a brilliant solution: do it yourself wall o' water using plastic bottles in a ring around each plant. we don't really use a lot of plastic bottles, and i needed a bunch of them, so i went to the recycling center, and snagged a bag full of 1 and 2 liter empty bottles. i made a ring of them, taped them together, placed them gingerly around the newly transplanted tomatoes, and filled them with water. the theory is that the water heats up during the day, and keeps the soil and the plants warmer at night. thermal mass. so, the larger the bottle, the more protection. i didn't have enough bottles for all four plants, so one of them just got a couple of layers of bubble wrap.
my plants were really tall and leggy. i didn't have proper lighting conditions indoors, so they just kept getting taller as they reached for more light. when i saw the hundreds of healthy, short, stocky tomato plants they were selling at the farmer's market, i wondered why i had even bothered starting my own from seed. then i remembered how much fun i had watching them grow from tiny sprouts, right before my eyes in the office, next to the desk. and i learned that i could bury a significant portion of the stem when i transplanted, and that roots would form along that stem, which would strengthen the root system for the plant. so, that is what i did.
i put stakes and cages around them right away too, so as not to disturb the roots later on, and i gave them some food about 5 days later.
they did really well in their homemade "hydro vests" (as my neighbor lara was calling them), and showed no signs of transplant shock. i filled the holes with sun-warmed water as i was planting them, and they had also been spending some time outside for several days, "hardening off." we had two nights when i worried the temperatures would drop below freezing, and on those nights, i covered them, along with the peonies, and some nasturtiums (cosmo helped out, and thought the tomato "ghosts" were funny). none of the plants were damaged, not even the one in the bubble wrap.
after that last frost warning on april 29, it has been consistently warm here in bloomington. i planted 5 more tomatoes in a sunnier spot in the back yard. i did not protect them with anything, nor did i enrich the soil with compost or peat. so, we'll see what happens. so far, they all look great.