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Best equipment for growing, weeding and harvesting tomatoes and vegetables

Gifts for the Gardener, Part Two: Tools and Other Goodies

By Cyndy Crist

Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)

Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)

Because I’m a gardener who loves tools and gadgets and all kinds of garden-themed items, I never have trouble selecting gifts for the gardener.  But I can imagine that someone who primarily enjoys looking at the results of another gardeners work, rather than engaging directly in it himself or herself, might be at a bit of a loss when it comes time to select a present.  To provide a little assistance in completing that task, here are some of my suggestions for gifts that I think will be used and enjoyed by a friend or family member who likes to dig in the dirt.

Watering Cans

Variety of Watering Cans (Cyndy Crist)

Variety of Watering Cans (Cyndy Crist)

Anyone who gardens, inside or out, needs to provide plants, at least occasionally, with the water that Mother Nature can’t or won’t give them.  That makes watering cans something that every gardener can use. Happily, they come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, colors, styles, and materials, which means that they can be found at just about any price that fits the giver’s budget. For example, one of my favorites is an inexpensive green plastic vessel that I found at Target for less than $10, while another is a pricier copper container shaped like a beehive (sadly, this one is in need of repair, having sprung a small leak in the base, so it’s currently serving a decorative purpose only).

Before making a selection, in addition to the aesthetics of color, shape, and design, you’ll want to think about at least two practical things:
How much water the can holds. For example, very large ones, when filled, can be quite heavy to carry, which may make them difficult to use for houseplants set on shelves or tables, but excellent for large outdoor beds.
How the water will flow from the can. Some watering cans come with a detachable or permanent “rose” that distributes water over a wide expanse, while others have a single spout. I find watering cans with roses difficult to use with potted plants but great for watering newly seeded garden beds or small seedlings that need a gentle watering.
In short – consider both form and function when choosing a watering can.

Plant Markers

Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)

Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)

For gardeners who want to be sure they remember the names of plants, keep track of which seeds were planted in which bed, or inform garden visitors about what is growing in the garden, plant markers can be very useful.  These, too, can be simple or ornamental.  One of my favorites, and an easy and inexpensive DIY project, is rocks on which plant names are written with permanent markers.  These fit naturally into a garden design and can be easily repositioned as plants grow or are replaced.  Other options include copper, plastic, slate or ceramic markers in an array of styles.  I’ve also seen some fun “upcycled” markers made from vintage pieces of flatware (with the proper tools, these, too, could be a homemade option). I like to combine several small items into a single gift, so suggest you combine something like a book about botanical plant names with a set of markers.

Garden Tools

Gardening Gloves & Pruners (Cyndy Crist)

Gardening Gloves & Pruners (Cyndy Crist)

Even a gardener with an array of tools on hand will likely appreciate the gift of a new one.  This might be a tool to replace one that has become bent or rusty; a tool that will add a new size or design to the tool basket (e.g., a trowel with an angled, ergonomically appropriate handle); or a beautifully hand-made tool just a bit beyond the price range that generally guides the gardener’s own purchases.  An example of the latter might be a beautifully handcrafted English gardening trowel with a wooden handle, a fine Felco pruner, or a well shaped Japanese weeding tool.  Here, too, it can be fun to combine a tool with another garden-related item, like a weeding basket, a garden tool belt in which to carry the new implement, or a colorful pair of gloves.

Gardening Apparel

It seems just about every hobby has its own options for specialized clothing. For gardeners, this includes footwear, gloves, and hats.  My favorite footwear for the garden is Crocs, including the traditional clog style and sandals (I have one pair of each and like them equally well).  They’re comfortable, inexpensive, nearly indestructible, come in a wide array of fun colors, and can simply be hosed off when they get dirty.  Then there are the iconic “Wellies” and various knock-offs, some covered in lively floral prints, for those who muck about in more mud and mess than I do.  The key is footwear that keeps feet dry and protected from whatever might be underfoot in a garden and can be easily cleaned after a muddy day in the garden.

Gloves come in a number of materials and designs, from very simple to more “fashion forward.”  I generally prefer to garden with my bare hands so that I can really feel what I’m doing, so I’m not the best guide here, but I know a number of gardeners who swear by the gloves made by Woman’s Work.  Gardeners who specialize in roses will appreciate gloves made especially to resist prickly thorns; rose gloves also often are made to extend further up the arm.  There are also rubberized gloves to keep a gardener’s hands dry and gloves made of breathable materials to keep hands cool. Since the fit, feel, and use of gloves is highly variable, I recommend including a gift receipt with a gift of gloves for easy exchanges if needed.

As for hats, choices should be guided by the style of the gardener receiving the gift, but keep in mind that keeping the sun off a busy gardener’s face is generally the most important purpose for a garden hat.  Netting to protect the gardener’s face and neck from insects can be useful, especially in areas with heavy mosquito infestations or at times when black flies are especially pesky, or for those who are allergic to insect stings or bites. Finally, a breathable material that helps keep the head cool will undoubtedly be appreciated for use under full mid-day sun.

Don’t Forget Gift Cards

I used to think that giving cash or gift cards was a cop-out for a giver lacking the imagination or commitment to select a good gift, but I gave up that notion some time ago.  Frankly, I suspect we’ve all gotten enough gifts that have sat unused for years to help us recognize the value of letting the recipient select something that he or she really likes, needs, or wants.  Besides, they can be lots of fun for the recipient.  I remember a year when I received several gifts cards and spent a very enjoyable day after the holidays shopping at no cost to myself, a fact that was greatly appreciated since the bills for my own gift purchases had begun arriving.

For a gardener, a gift card or gift certificate from a nearby nursery will never go unused.   Many gift shops and bookstores also have merchandise to offer the inquisitive and curious gardener. The gift of a purchase from a seed company or other mail order or on-line source of seeds, plants, and gardening paraphernalia can open up options for choices by the recipient. Finally, the gift of a membership to a local arboretum or conservatory will offer the potential for many hours of learning, inspiration, and vicarious pleasure.

Gift giving can be something of an art, but with a little thought to the recipient’s tastes and interests, it needn’t be difficult, especially for gardeners who seem always to be looking for something new to try.  So don’t be afraid – get shopping!

Herb Rocks (Cyndy Crist)

Herb Rocks (Cyndy Crist)

Late Fall Garden Pruning: Finishing Preparations for Winter

Good Pruning Tools

Good Pruning Tools (by Cyndy Crist)

By Cyndy Crist

To prune or not to prune – this is an important question to ask in late fall as we prepare our gardens for winter.  And it’s the kind of question I’ve been pondering as a strange fall has left me struggling to decide when to complete the final tasks in my garden.  Yes, the trees are nearly bare, Halloween is over, and our county compost sites are crawling with folks dumping leaves and sagging jack-o-lanterns.  But even though we’re nearly a week into November as I write this post, I still have a few annuals growing in pots and some perennials that I have yet to cut back because they still look fresh and green.

I have cut back perennials that will be a mushy mess if left until spring, and I have mounds of leaves and some marsh hay waiting to be settled onto garden beds to protect them from the damage of freezing and thawing cycles.  As a result, the woody structures in my garden are now more visible, challenging me to consider what, if anything, to do to them.  To refresh my memory, I re-visited a few reliable sources (primarily Extension Services here in Minnesota and across the country) to review guidance about late fall pruning.  Here are a few tips from that research.

Cutting Back Perennials

I don’t think of cutting back perennials as pruning, but whatever you call it, now is a good time to proceed with this task if you haven’t already done so.  I leave perennials that have sturdy stems and full seed heads to provide some winter interest, help hold snow in place, and feed birds whose food sources are rapidly diminishing.  By contrast, I cut back plants that are flattened by snow and get messy when they thaw (a good example is day lilies).

In contrast to woody plants, most of those we call perennials are herbaceous, putting out all new growth each spring.  Exceptions include some vines (for example, some varieties of clematis bloom on old vines) and plants like Russian sage, which is classified as a subshrub and puts out new growth on old branches. To know which is which, keep a list of the botanical names of your plants or save the tags that were in the pots and look them up if you’re uncertain about what to do.

Pruning Woody Plants

Pruning Illustration

Pruning Illustration (by Cyndy Crist)

If you’re considering pruning anything woody, proceed with great caution.  Some sources I consulted were blunt in advising no late fall pruning, while others offered more nuanced guidance.  Specific weather conditions, plant types, and plant health or conditions are elements to consider.

Specifically:  Don’t prune anything that blooms on old wood.  If you look at your lilacs or azaleas, for example, you’ll see that they have already set buds for next year’s flowers.  If you prune those branches now, you’ll get nothing but leaves next year.  However, flowering shrubs that bloom on new wood (like shrub roses and some hydrangeas) will still flower next year if pruned now.
Don’t prune anything that is still actively growing.  If you do, you risk stimulating new growth that will be more susceptible to damage from winter freezing.  Complete leaf drop is generally a measure of dormancy, but if in doubt, wait until mid-winter to prune trees and shrubs (February is often suggested as a good time to prune).

Like any good rule, there are exceptions to the guidance above.  If a shrub or tree has any damaged or broken branches, it can be a good idea to remove them before snow or ice can cause more damage. Damage can result, for example, if the weight of wet heavy snow tears a branch off, pulling down the bark and exposing the tender inner layers important to the health and growth of trees and shrubs.

Regardless of what or when you prune, be sure to use tools that are clean, sharp, and appropriate for the task at hand.  Keeping your pruners clean will help eliminate cross-contamination from diseased to healthy plants.  Sharp blades help ensure clean cuts and reduce the likelihood of torn bark.  And use of a proper tool will help ensure that you’ll get a good result that might not be possible if, for example, you try to use too small a tool for the task (which can also damage the tool).

Pruning Resources

Pruning Resources (by Cyndy Crist)

When you do prune, do a little research first so that you know how much to prune and where to make the cuts.  For example, the correct cut will generally be made at a 45 degree angle (a steeper angle leaves more exposed surface that can, for example, allow easier entry of disease).   Patterns of branch growth on a shrub or tree can help you determine where to prune in order to get the shape or size you desire or to “open up” a tree or shrub whose branches have become too dense. Lots of good photos and drawings are available on extension websites (my go-to site is University of Minnesota’s Extension Service website), other gardening websites, in free government brochures, and in books at the library.

A Few Last Words on Pruning in Late Fall

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, none of this is as complicated as it may sound.  There are a wealth of good resources available on the internet and at public libraries showing you where, when, and how to prune and what tools to use.  They’ll take you through it step by step, sometimes with great videos that “show and tell.”

If, after a bit of research, it seems wise to proceed, do so carefully and remember that there are worse things you can do than to prune something earlier than you should.  If you prune a lilac now, for example, you may miss those beautifully scented blooms next year, but you may end up with a nicely shaped shrub that will reward you handsomely another year out.

On the other hand, you don’t want to jeopardize a mature tree or special shrub that won’t be easily replaced.  So if you are in doubt, just wait. While we sometimes learn best from our mistakes, some outcomes are just too costly to justify the risk.  Here’s where the cliche is true: better safe than sorry.

Tomato Cages, Stakes or Trellises: Which is best for Supporting Heirloom Tomatoes?

Trellis system Aug. 14 - Green Zebra

Trellis system Aug. 14 – Green Zebra

Many people who are new to  growing heirloom tomatoes in the ground start with a tomato plant, a bag of fertilizer and a tomato “cage” purchased at a garden center.  Many people also come back the next year to buy tomato plants from me and have sad tales to tell about their experience with the cages.

Range of Methods for Supporting Heirloom Tomatoes:

I too started with cages, and tried them out in a variety of ways…none successful, I might add.  I also tried the “basket weave” method of trellising, letting the tomatoes sprawl on a bed of straw, staking them to posts of rebar, and using large homemade cages of concrete reinforcing wire.  After years of trials (and tribulations), my husband rigged up a system for growing our heirloom tomato plants that has proven easy, efficient, and successful.  I’ll show you what it looks like below, but first here is a list of pros and cons from my experience with other methods.  Some of these may be very effective for the small garden and not for a larger garden.

Caging Heirloom Tomato Plants:


  • Empty tomato cage in greenhouse

    Empty tomato cage in greenhouse

    You don’t need to worry about pruning, pinching off the suckers, or training the plant.

  • There will be plenty of foliage to provide shade for the fruit and prevent sunscald.
  • Due to plenty of leaf cover, the soil will stay shaded and retain more moisture.  Keeping the moisture level more consistent will help prevent cracking and blossom end rot.
  • You can easily adapt the cages to do double duty and give the tomatoes a head start in the spring. Wrap a circle of one-foot-high plastic around the bottom of the cage at ground level and secure the overlapping ends.  This will give the plants some extra heat, protect them from winds, and may help protect them from cutworms.


  • Cages fall over.  Tomato plants can get quite large (both in height and width), and they can become too heavy for the cages.  This is especially true with some of the larger heirloom plants, where it is not uncommon to get one and two-pound tomatoes.  The weight and size can, too frequently, topple the cage to the ground – especially in the light-weight commercial cages.
  •  Takes up space.  Larger cages in particular can take up quite a bit of space in a small garden.  They also take up space in storage, if that is a concern.
  • Longer time to ripen.  By late summer, the cages are so full of foliage that the fruit is shaded and doesn’t ripen as readily.


tomato cage made with concrete reinforcing wire

tomato cage made with concrete reinforcing wire


  1. Make your own cage.  The cages garden centers supply are simply too small and skimpy to support a healthy tomato plant all summer, especially the larger heirlooms.
  2. The cage should be at least five feet tall and 24 to 30 inches in diameter.  It needs to be strong, made with something like concrete reinforcing wire.
  3. Make sure the cage has a large enough grid that you can get your hands through it to harvest the tomatoes.
  4. Either fasten stakes to the cages that can be driven into the ground, or cut your mesh grid so the spikes will enter the ground (see photo).
  5. Set the cages over the plants shortly after planting the seedling so you don’t break the plant trying to fit the cage over the plant later (under the right conditions, tomato plants grow fast).

Staking Heirloom Tomato Plants


  • Staking takes up little space.
  • Simple to install.
  • The vines & tomatoes are up off the ground, resulting in cleaner fruit and less rotting.
  • Early harvest.  Staking requires you to prune the plant more frequently, which results in more of the plant’s energy directed toward ripening fruit;
  • each individual tomato will be larger due to the pruning effect mentioned above
  • it is easy to see the tomatoes and easier to harvest.


Sunscald on heirloom tomatoes

Sunscald on Heirloom Tomatoes Grown Outside


  • it’s a hassle to stake, train and prune, and you have to be diligent about it (not everyone’s strong suit);
  • the lack of heavy leaf cover makes the tomatoes more susceptible to sunscald problems
  • total yield is often lower, since staking requires pruning which lowers the total leaf surface of the plant.  Less leaf surface affects the total yield
  • staked plants require more water, as they are exposed more to the sun and drying winds.


  1. Purchase a tall (6-8 foot), spiral tomato stake or use existing materials around home.  I have used a six-foot piece of rebar fairly successfully, as it is quite sturdy, goes into the soil easily and has a rough texture that the plant ties adhere to.
  2. Try to put the stake on the downwind side so the plant will lean into it when the wind blows.
  3. Drive the stake into the ground right after transplanting so as not to disturb the roots.
  4. Set the stake in the ground about 3-5″ away from the plant, and set the stake deep (at least a foot) into the soil so it will not topple over during storms.
  5. As the plant grows, tie the stem of the plant to the stake with a soft tie.  The coated wires they sell at nurseries work well, but nylons or cloth is fine also.  Leave a couple of inches slack so the tie will not cut into the stem as it increases in width.
  6. As the plant grows up the stake, add more ties when it starts to flop over (you will know when).
  7. Regularly pinch off the unwanted, outward suckers and branches.

Sprawling Tomato Plants on the Ground:


  • Least amount of work. No staking, pruning, tieing or training.
  • More tomatoes. This method allows for the most leaf growth and the most amount of the plant receiving the sun.  The plants bush out quite a bit and develop tomatoes on the side stems.


  • Although you will get more tomatoes, many of them may not be edible.  Sprawling results in tomatoes rotting from the moist soil or getting nibbled by animals and bugs.  We tried several different mulches to let the tomatoes rest on, but the straw attracted mice and slugs and the plastic got wet and promoted mold.
  • Space.  You need at least one square yard for each tomato plant.


  1. Plant the tomatoes in a weed-free area, water, fertilize and have a cool drink.

HeathGlen’s Method of Trellising Heirloom Tomatoes:


  • Early Spring Heirloom Tomato Plants in Trellis System

    Early Spring Heirloom Tomato Plants in Trellis System

    Space.  The trellis requires very little space and tomatoes can be planted close together.  My tomatoes are planted about 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating on each side of our trellis in a zig-zag formation (see photo).

  • Maintenance.  You can easily weave the tomato plants through the grid of the trellis as they grow.  It doesn’t require a lot of training, pruning or tieing.  I will initially tie the plant to one of the wires when the plant is about two feet tall and then just weave it through the grids after that.
  • Reusable.  You can leave the trellis up through the winter and just come back in the spring and add compost along the side of the trellis.  Many gardeners believe you have to rotate your tomato plants constantly.  I think you only need to do this if you have disease in your soil.  I have grown heirloom tomatoes successfully every year for nine years in the same spot with the same trellis.  Same spot – new compost – healthy seedlings – great tomatoes.
  • Trellis & heirloom tomatoes on August 14, 2012

    Trellis & Heirloom Tomatoes on August 14, 2012

    Less cracking, less disease, less nutritional problems.  The trellis allows for a lot of foliage, which shades the soil while still keeping the fruit off of the ground.  When fruit are up off the ground, they don’t come into contact with soil-borne diseases or ground pests.

  • Easy harvesting.  No reaching through small grids on your hands and knees trying to find the ripe tomatoes that you can’t see inside the mass of leaves in the cages.
  • Fruit tends to ripen one to two weeks earlier.  More leaves are exposed to the sun which results in efficient use of the tomatoes food supply.
  • Sturdy support.  During our first three years of growing tomatoes, we would start off with beautiful organic plants in our “well-designed” tunnels and cages… and then the storms came.  Consistently.  Every year.  We finally went to iron and steel and built a heavily buttressed structure (tunnel) and hog panel trellises secured with iron T-posts.  No more problems with wind, storms or hail.


  •  Start-up time.  It does take some time to build a good trellis initially.  The amount of time depends on what kind and how long of a trellis you’re building.  We took a half of a day to pound in the stakes and attach the hog panels to them, but we ended up with approximately 500 lineal feet of trellis that has never been taken down or modified since the initial building.
  • Expense.  It is more expensive than caging or staking.  I don’t remember the amount, but it didn’t seem like that much for something that will last the lifetime of the farm.
  • Time.  It does take some monitoring of the plants, and some time to tie them up initially and weave them subsequently.  More time than a cage would take and less time than staking.


  1. Trellis system for heirloom tomatoes using T-posts and hog panels

    Trellis System for Tomato Plants Using T-posts and Hog Panels

    Equipment needed:  5-foot T posts, 16-foot hog panels, aluminum wire ties, two-handled post-driver, electric hacksaw, a good strong man or woman and a patient assistant.

  2. Allowing 1 1/2 feet between each tomato plant, use the hacksaw to cut panels in desired lengths.  We used the full 16-foot panels, which allowed 10 plants per panel.  We placed posts 9 feet apart down the length of 72 feet of panels, overlapping the panels slightly to add stability.
  3. Lay the panels down flat on the ground where your trellis will stand.  Laying the panels on the ground will help you determine where to pound in the posts, and help you keep your posts in a straight line.
  4. Trellis system for heirloom tomatoes - outside setup

    Trellis System for Tomato Plants – Outside Setup

    Starting 3″ in from one end of the panel, pound in a T-post approximately 18″ deep.  Go to the other end of the panel and pound in a T-post 3″ in from that end.  Go to the middle and pound in another T-post.

  5. Lift the panel 6″ from the ground, with the narrower parts of the grid at the bottom (towards the ground).  Have your assistant hold the panel in place while you secure the panels to the T-posts with the aluminum ties.
  6. Till in compost on each side of the panel and plant you tomatoes 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating each one to a different side of the panel.
  7. Run some T-tape or a soaker hose down the row of tomatoes so you don’t have to water from above.  This helps keep moisture consistent and prevents disease from soil splashing up onto the plants.

Other Popular Methods of Supporting Tomato Plants:

Many commercial growers use a method called “Basket Weave”, and many others use a “Stringing” method where the plants climb up the strings secured to the top of the greenhouse.  I am not covering these, as they are designed more for the commercial grower and they require more in-depth information than I can present on a blog post.

Tomato Varieties that don’t require support

Raspberry Lyanna Determinate Tomato Variety

Raspberry Lyanna Determinate Tomato Variety

Most tomato plants are considered either determinate or indeterminate (a few varieties are also considered dwarf).  Most heirloom tomato varieties have an indeterminate growth habit, which means they will continue to grow in height throughout the season (sometimes considered a vining habit).  If you have a long growing season, and continue to fertilize, indeterminate tomato plants can get quite tall, anywhere from six to 20 feet high (in Minnesota, mine will usually grow to around six or seven feet).

Determinate tomatoes sill stop growing at a certain height, usually around three to four feet.  Determinate plants tend to be quite bushy and have thick stems that will support them without the need of stakes or cages.  Determinate varieties will produce a large amount of fruit in a relatively short timeframe, whereas indeterminate varieties will produce a lesser amount of fruit over a longer period of time.

I usually recommend determinate varieties to people who want to grow tomatoes in containers, as it is a little more difficult to place larger cages in pots.  If you want to grow indeterminate tomatoes in containers, it is best to grow them near a trellis or fence that you can train them up, or use very large pots that will allow large cages.

Determinate varieties that I have grown and found to be sturdy enough to not require staking include:  Bush Champion (hybrid), Raspberry Lyanna (heirloom), Principe Borghese (heirloom), and Oregon Spring (hybrid).  Determinate varieties also tend to be early.

Dwarf (or patio) tomatoes never need staking, but they only grow two or three feet tall and produce small tomatoes (cherry size).  I have not grown the dwarf tomatoes before, but popular varieties in the catalogs seem to be Pixie and Small Fry.

Conclusion on Supporting Heirloom Tomato Plants:

Early season basket of heirloom tomatoes

Early season basket of heirloom tomatoes

Grow some tomatoes.  Experiment.  Do what fits your space and your personal comfort level of maintenance.  Grow some tomatoes.

Growing Heirloom Tomatoes Upside Down in the Topsy Turvy Planters

Tomato Varieties Selected:

Raspberry Lyanna variety 2 weeks after planting

Raspberry Lyanna variety 2 weeks after planting

So many customers at the farmers’ markets have asked me which heirloom tomato plants would grow best in the upside down planters called Topsy Turvy planters.  These planters always seemed kind of odd to me, but I realize a lot of urban and apartment dwellers want to grow tomatoes and simply don’t have access to the space, the soil, or the sun, so I thought I’d give it a try this year to better answer people’s questions.

I decided to try two different heirlooms that I thought would be successful in this type of planter due to their smaller fruit size which would not weight down the planters with heavy fruit.  I planted Prescott and Raspberry Lyanna. 

Prescott Tomato Variety 2 weeks after planting

Prescott Tomato Variety 2 weeks after planting

  • Prescott is a small grape heirloom which is considered an early tomato (69 days) and is determinate.
  • Raspberry Lyanna is a medium, pink, fairly early (75 days) slicing tomato which is described by some seed catalogs as determinate and by some as indeterminate.  From the looks of the plant, my bet is on determinate.

Two weeks after planting, the Raspberry Lyanna has small fruit (see photo) and the Prescott only has flowers at this time.  The Raspberry Lyanna was also planted in the greenhouse and the tomatoes are about twice the size of the same variety planted in the Felknor Ventures 82506 Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Planter.  It is also interesting to note that the fruit on the Raspberry Lyanna is further along than any other tomato varieties planted in the greenhouse, including those traditionally known as “early”.  The Raspberry Lyanna is a new variety for me, and depending on the taste, it may become a staple of mine.

topsy turvy planting prep materials

topsy turvy planting prep materials

How to Plant:

  • Rather than use my organic potting mix and aged horse manure, I decided to use materials that the typical urban apartment grower might have easier access to.  Miracle Grow potting mix with moisture control seems to be a very successful medium for container plants.
  • the directions included with the planter are pretty clear on how to insert the seedling tomato and secure it.  Just be sure the seedling is old enough that the tomato stem is sturdy enough to be handled with breaking it, and make sure your plant was hardened off.  The photos here show a plant that is approximately 6 weeks old.

    Inserting plant into bottom of planter

    Inserting plant into bottom of planter

  • It is a little clumsy to hold the planter upright and scoop in the soil at the same time.  I balanced the edge of the planter on a table while using a large metal ice scoop to add the soil.  Alternatively you could get someone to help you, but it does get heavy, as it takes quite a bit of soil.
  • My biggest problem was finding a post or garden trellis that was sturdy enough to hold the planter once the soil was wet.  It does get quite heavy and I imagine it will get even heavier as the fruits start to mature.
  • They did not supply large hooks with the planter and it would be helpful to have these.  The planter should hang freely away from the post or wall and it should be high enough above the ground that you don’t get spashback from any diseased soil on the ground when it rains. I moved my planter several times before finding a spot that worked.
  • Don’t forget to water.  There is quite a bit of soil in the planter and the plastic sides, along with the moisture control in the potting soil should be enough that you don’t have to water daily like a plant in a clay pot.

Progress after 2 weeks:

Both varieties in the planters seem to be doing well and they look quite healthy.  Neither are as large or as far along as the plants that were planted outside, but they appear to be doing just fine.

Raspberry Lyanna planted in soil in the greenhouse (unheated)

Raspberry Lyanna planted in soil in the greenhouse (unheated)

  • With all the rain that we have had, I have not watered these planters once since planting two weeks ago.  Watering has always been the downfall for me with container plants in the past, so I am encouraged that these might help the sometimes neglectful gardener.
  • The Raspberry Lyanna planted in the soil in the greenhouse has much larger fruit at this time and it appears it will ripen earlier, but the leaf coverage is approximately the same.  I should note that the plants in the greenhouse were also planted with a good dose of aged horse manure, which could account for their larger fruit.  As noted above, I used Miracle Grow Potting soil in the planters.

I will report back in about 3-4 weeks with photos to gauge the growth of the tomatoes planted in the Felknor Ventures 82506 Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Plantercompared to the greenhouse tomatoes.  And, of course, report on the taste of these particular varieties!

How to Start Heirloom Tomato and Pepper Seeds for Best Germination


Pepper Seedlings One Week After Germination

Pepper Seedlings One Week After Germination

Healthy garden-ready heirloom tomato seeds can be easily started at home, but success is more likely with some tried and true practices.  My first three years of starting heirloom tomatoes and peppers by seed were rather angst-ridden.  I was depending on selling hundreds of plants at market and I had never done anything like this before. I read, and watched, and worried, and called the seed companies and MN Extension Service ad-nauseum.

Fast forward 14 years and I am much more trusting of these  heirloom tomato seedlings to take care of themselves with just a little help from me.   Maybe all the fretting paid off in a cumulative knowledge of methods that offer seedlings optimum growing conditions.  In this post I’ll  pass on what I have learned over the years , in hopes that it will help you on your way to growing healthy plants in your garden or farm.  It’s a lot of information, so I’ve organized it into three sections:

I.      The Germination Process

II.     The Seedling Growth Stage

III.   The Potting Up and Hardening Off Stage

I’ll cover stages I and II today and Stage III in next week’s post.  Caveat:  I grow around five thousand heirloom tomato seeds each year now, but the principles of seed starting are the same.  Of course, you will have to modify your set-up if you are only starting a few seeds for a small garden or for pots (more on pot growing later).

I.  The Germination Process for Heirloom Tomato Seeds: 

Useful seed starting supplies

Useful seed starting supplies

1)  Timing:  It is important that your heirloom tomato plants be at the optimum stage of growth when you plant them outside.  This means stocky plants, with thick stems, about 5-9 inches tall, with good root growth (preferably in 4-inch pots so they are not root-bound).  You do not want tall thin plants with weak stems, because they will not transplant well.  Nor do you want huge plants in small pots that already have blossoms on them, because this means they have spent too much energy forming those blossoms, leaving them somewhat depleted and hence not able to yield as many tomatoes.

It takes about 6 weeks for a heirloom tomato seedling to reach this optimum growing stage (about 8 weeks for peppers).  So, wherever you live, determine when your weather is likely to be stable enough to plant in the ground and count 6 weeks back from that date.  In Central Minnesota, where I live, I start all of my tomatoes March 14th through March 16th, and I start the peppers about 2 weeks before that.  In mid-May, after they have been hardened off thoroughly, they are primed to get in the ground and start doing what they are destined to do….grow.

2)  “Soil” for seeding:  If you are a totally organic grower, you can make your own potting mix (but it is a bit involved).  I have tried several, but my favorite combination is as follows (you will need to scale down proportionally for smaller batches):

  • 5 gal. compost
  • 5 gal. peat
  • 3 – 5  gal. mix of vermiculite & perlite
  • 1/2 c. lime (don’t use this if your compost is horse manure as the beds are often limed)
  • 1/2 c. bonemeal
  • 1/2 c. bloodmeal
  • 1/2 c. greensand (or 1/4 c. sul-po-mag)

If you’re not worried about being totally organic, Miracle-Gro Moisture Control is a potting soil that gives consistently good results.  The main thing is, use a sterile potting mix, not garden soil.  Starting seeds in garden soil frequently leads to “damping off” of the seedlings, where they start to grow and then just keel over and collapse at the stem.  Garden soil carries disease-promoting fungi that is hard on young seedlings, not to mention the weed seeds prevalent in garden soil.

3)  Trays/Flats/Containers:  I use sturdy, reusable, 128-cell flats that have lasted a minimum of 5 years (and I am not gentle with my equipment).  Any container will work, including yogurt cups, peat pots, etc. as long as there are holes in the bottom.  One of the reasons I start my seeds in flats with small cells is to fit as many seedlings as possible under the grow lights, but an equally important reason for me is that the seeds will germinate faster in smaller cells.  The small amount of potting mix in each cell heats up more quickly, and there is not as much of a danger of over-watering.  It is worse for the container to be over-watered rather than under-watered (that damping off condition again).  *Note:  if you are using a grow light setup similar to mine, make sure your bottom tray that the cells sit in does not have holes in it or it will drain onto the grow lights below and short them out.

4)  Seeding Process:

Potting Mix Moisture Level

Potting Mix Moisture Level

  • Pour your potting mix into a large, shallow tub.  Add hot water in increments and mix well with your hands.  Take a handful of the mix and squeeze.  You want the potting mix to be damp enough to form a ball, but not so wet that you can wring water out of it with a gentle squeeze.
  • Fill the flat with the potting mix and then hold it slightly above the floor and let it drop to the ground to make sure the mix compacts a bit and gets into all the cells.  If the mix is too fluffy, the seed will not make good contact with the soil particles.  Refill any of the cells that are not full after dropping the flat.
  • Mark the heirloom tomato variety and the date on a small but sturdy tag (I use cut up venetian blinds I get at garage sales), and place the seeds on top of each cell individually.  Some people pour the seeds out carefully onto the cells, but it really doesn’t take that long to seed the cells individually (good time to listen to music or podcasts).
  • Now go back to the first cell and use the pencil with one hand to poke the seed slightly down into the mix and use your other hand to firmly cover the seed with a small bit of the soil.  If you are only starting a few seeds, and using individual containers, don’t poke the seed down too far into the soil.  It just needs to be slightly covered, about 1/4 inch.  The main thing is to make sure the seed has been firmly pressed into the soil.  Good contact with the soil is important to germination.
  • Cover loosely with plastic to keep moisture in and the seeds warm.  The clear tops that come with some of the flats are fine, but you don’t really need them.  The plastic is only on the seeds for a few days and then you are done with it.  Easier to fold up a piece of plastic and store it for next year than store the hard plastic covers.
Using 100-watt bulbs for Heat Source

Using 100-watt bulbs for Heat Source

4)  Heat Source: Warm soil is more important than warm air, which is why I use hot water when mixing up the soil.  My seed-starting shop is not heated, so I do use a small electric heater to keep the ambient air around 70 degrees during germination, but the main heat source for the soil is 100 watt bulbs placed under the trays.  A  heating pad placed under the flat would work also, but these lights were something I had on hand 14 years ago and they worked so well I never found the need to upgrade.  The 100-watt bulbs put out quite a bit of directed heat and the seeds all germinate within 3 days.  I do check the flats once a day and mist the cells with water if they look dry.  I will also turn the flats around if the germination is uneven.  Remember that germination time also depends on the seed variety and how old the seeds are.  The date on the seed package is a packaging date, not the date the seed viability was tested.  Buy seeds from a credible company and don’t keep them over for too many years if you want 100 percent germination.


Indoor/Outdoor Hose for Seedlings

Indoor/Outdoor Hose for Seedlings

5)  Watering/Misting:  Heirloom tomato seeds in the process of germinating  do not need a lot of water!  This is important because too much watering can lead to the damping off situation described above.  The plastic covering the flat should actually be enough to keep the cells moist until germination, but you should check the edges where it tends to dry out first.  I tend to keep the peppers on the dry side and the tomatoes a bit more moist.  When I do water them, it’s more of a misting with a gentle spray than a watering.  I use a small coiled hose attached to my shop sink.  The indoor hose pictured to the right is no longer available and I have switched to the  is a Water Right MCH-050-FG-6PKRS 50-Foot x 1/4-Inch Mini Coil Hose With Wand – Forest Green, which has a small nozzle, and it is perfect for misting the seeds at this stage and watering the seedlings with a larger stream of water later on.  I love this hose, but it does get clogged occasionally with the minerals in our water (we’re on well water) and needs to be cleaned regularly.

You’ve got seedlings!  Now the next stage:


II.     The Heirloom Tomato Growth Stage

End View of Light Set-Up

End View of Light Set-Up

Front View of Grow Lights Set-Up

Front View of Grow Lights Set-Up

1)  Grow Light Set-Up:  My husband set up a grow light system for me that involves five 4-tiered metal shelving units with 20 fluorescent light fixtures attached to each shelf (see example to the right).  Whether you have one light fixture or twenty, there are several key components to remember:

  • The distance between the light and the seedlings will change as they grow, so make sure the light can be easily adjusted up and down.  When the plants are very young, they will need to be fairly close to the light (about a 1-2 inch distance).  This is to ensure they do not get leggy and develop weak stems trying to reach for the light.  As they get bigger you can increase the distance so that the light source covers more area (around 4-6 inches distance).
  • Use two different types of fluorescent bulbs in the fixture; one warm bulb and one cool bulb.  You do not need to buy the expensive gro-light bulbs, the combination of warm and cool bulbs is really effective.
  • Keep the lights on the plants for 14-16 hours per day, but turn them off and let them rest at night.  A timer that you can plug the lights into is a must if you want to sleep peacefully.

2)  Day and Night Temperatures:  Once germinated, I tend to grow my heirloom tomato plants fairly cool to encourage slow steady growth that will give you sturdy, stocky plants.  I keep the daytime temperature around 65 degrees and the night temperature around 55 degrees.  At this stage it is important not to have wide fluctuations in temperature.

3) Watering:  Keep the soil moist, but not wet.  Heirloom tomato seedlings will need more water at this stage than when germinating, but it is still important to have a light hand with watering.  The plants are still very tender and should be watered gently.  I do love the The Rumford Gardener GA1001 40 Foot Indoor/Outdoor Garden Coil Hose with Spray Wand for this task because the small nozzle and stream of water allows you to easily water “around” the seedling rather than on top of  it, making sure you don’t break the stem.  The nozzle is also adjustable so you can use it for misting at the germination stage and watering at the growth stage.  It connects to the shop sink and the coil expands far enough that I can take it outside to water the plants when they are hardening off.

Thinning the Seedlings

Thinning the Seedlings

4) Thinning the seedlings:  Even if you have carefully hand-seeded, it is not uncommon to get 2-3 seeds germinate in one cell.  Make sure and snip off all but one (the straightest, strongest one) right at the soil line, so that they won’t compete for the same soil and water.  It’s difficult to snip a seedling sometimes, but it is worth it.  Do it.

5)  Air flow:  Some of the literature recommends running your hands across the seedlings periodically, tickling them, to make the plants stronger.  A fan works much better.  An overhead fan is ideal, but a floor fan or a table fan will work fine also.  Keep it blowing across the seedlings for most of the day and turn it off at night.  It really does wonders for the strength of the plants.  They must think they are outside in the gentle breeze of spring.  Just don’t let them experience the roiling  thunderstorms of spring at this stage of their growth.

6) Re-potting:  This is really important, and a big reason why your home-seeded heirloom tomato plants will be healthier than the heirloom tomato plants you often see for sale that have long since outgrown their small container.  When the seedlings are 3-4 inches tall and have their second pair of leaves, it is time to gently take them out of their cell and move to a larger pot.  I use a dull kitchen knife to slide down the side of a cell and pop the plug out without disturbing the roots.  I pot them up into a 4-inch pot filled with more of the potting mix that you used for germination.  If your seedlings have become leggy, plant them a little deeper in the pot, but do not cover the green leaves, as they are needed to provide energy.  Water the heirloom tomatoes well “before” you repot so the soil will stick to the roots and protect them from drying out.

7) Keep the re-potted plants out of bright sunlight for a few days so they can ease into the transition.  The next stage before planting in the ground is Hardening Off, which I will cover in next week’s post.

Comments are welcomed.  Share your tips and tricks…….this is what has worked for me, but I’m always learning.

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