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4-Week Old Heirloom Tomato Plants & 10 Tips for Potting Them Up

4-week heirloom tomatoes in 4" pots

4-week heirloom tomatoes in 4″ pots

I’ve had a number of requests to show the growth stages of heirloom tomato plants and pepper plants, particularly at the 4-week stage.  The 4-week stage is fairly important, as that is typically when the seedlings are outgrowing their cells and need to be potted up into larger containers to continue growing strong and vigorous for their permanent bed in the garden or large pot.  Here are some photos of the 4-week growth stage of heirloom tomatoes and tips for potting up the seedlings.

Tips for Potting up Heirloom Tomato Plants:

  1. 4-week heirloom tomatoes still in flat

    4-week heirloom tomatoes still in flat

    As you get ready to pot up young heirloom tomato plants (or pepper seedlings), a better indicator of timing than the 4-week period, is to pot them up after they have two sets of true leaves (do not count the seed leaves at the bottom).

  2. Handle the seedlings by the leaves rather than the stems.  If you tear a leaf, the plant will still grow.  If you break the tender stem, the plant is ready for the compost pile.
  3. 5-week old pepper plants

    5-week old pepper plants

    I grow my initial heirloom tomato plants in 196-cell trays, and when it is time to pot up I take a butter knife and gently pop the plant out of the cell with the soil bundle (aka a plug) intact.  Have a 4″ pot ready with moist potting soil and make a hole with your finger in the center of the 4″ pot.  Place the seedling plug into this hole and gently press the soil around it to make contact with the roots.

  4. If you grow many seedlings in one container rather than in cells, you will need to tease apart the roots from each seedling and then place in the hole of the 4″ container.  Alternatively, you can snip off the weaker seedlings at the soil line and leave the strongest plant in the container to take advantage of the nutrients in the remaining soil.  Remember…don’t handle the seedlings by the stem!
  5. Newly potted up heirloom tomato plants may look limp and stressed the first day or two.  Don’t fret and do anything drastic like fertilizing them.  They will recover with a couple days rest in the same environment they were in prior to potting up.  Keep them out of bright sunlight for a couple of days.
  6. When potting the heirloom tomato plants up to larger pots, plant them a bit deeper than they were in the cell or original container.  Additional roots will form along the buried stem and give you a more vigorous plant.  You can cover the seed leaves and plant right up to the lower set of true leaves.
  7. Use the same potting soil that you used to start your seeds…not garden soil.
  8. Water the tomato seedlings in their cells or container well BEFORE you start to pot up.  Moist soil will cling to the roots and protect them from drying out.
  9. Depending on the weather and when you are going to put the heirloom tomato plants in their permanent bed, you may want to pot up a second time.  A good rule of thumb when deciding when to do the second transplant is to wait until the height of the seedling is three times the diameter of its pot (probably around 6-10″ tall).
  10. Trouble shooting:  If your heirloom tomato seedlings are getting tall and spindly, it may be related to:
  • the light source may be too weak or too far away from the growing tip;
  • the room temperature may be too warm (I keep my daytime temperature around 70 degrees and the night temperature around 50 degrees; or
  • you are using too much fertilizer.  Just use potting soil that already has fertilizer in it or use potting soil with compost.  Wait until they are outside before getting more generous with fertilizer.
April 19, 2013 in Forest Lake, MN

April 19, 2013 in Forest Lake, MN

This is the longest, coldest winter we have had here in Minnesota, and while my heirloom tomato plants and pepper seedlings are currently quite happy in their protected environment, they will be hurting soon if we can’t get them hardened off.  It is April 19th and 4″ of new snow on the ground, and still snowing!!  Ugh.  I haven’t given up hope that we will have a long warm summer, but spring is looking pretty doubtful.  As a farmer, you do learn to roll with the punches, but I have to admit this is getting pretty depressing.

Signs and Solutions of Nutritional Deficiencies in Heirloom Tomato Seedlings

Young heirloom tomato seedlings will often show signs of nutritional deficiencies in their leaves, and if you know what to look for you can remedy it fairly easily.  Whether planting your heirloom tomato in the ground or in a pot, starting off with a healthy plant is the best prevention of later diseases that commonly plague all tomato plants.

If your seedlings are compact and not leggy, have green leaves, and a short distance between each set of leaves (short internodes), you’re good to go.  If somewhere along the line before you’re ready to plant out in the garden your seedlings start to show signs of trouble, treating it right away will often save the health of the plant.

First Order of Defense when Starting Tomatoes from Seed:

If you are starting your own tomatoes from seed, there are 3 keys to preventing nutritional deficiencies:

  1. Use clean potting soil rather than garden soil.  You can purchase good garden soil from most stores.  Miracle Grow Moisture Control is a good one.  If you want to go completely organic with your potting soil, see this post for a formula.
  2. If you start your seedlings in a flat with small cells, or a small container, pot up your plants when they have two sets of true leaves.  I go from a 196-cell flat to a 4″ pot to the garden and it has been a successful gradation for 15 years now.  There is not much soil in a small cell, hence the nutrient supply is rapidly depleted from the growing plant.
  3. Carefully control your watering regime.  Dryness and water logging can both make it difficult for plants to take up soil nutrients.  I water the seedlings once a day or less, taking my cue from how dry the soil looks (i.e., if the soil is light in color, then water; if it is dark it is still moist and doesn’t need more water).  I also use an indoor watering hose to water, as you can regulate the amount of water you’re giving the little cells much easier than a watering can with a spout.  I’m currently using The Rumford Gardener GA1001 40 Foot Indoor/Outdoor Garden Coil Hose with Spray Wand, as it is the only one I could find.  It seems to work just fine, as long as you have the coil at a height higher than the nozzle.  My old indoor watering hose had a great nozzle that regulated flow better, but it is no longer available (I have to admit it was cheaply made and broke every other year but when it worked it was the best).

Symptoms & Solutions for Common Nutritional Problems in Heirloom Tomato Seedlings:

A.  Symptom:  Yellowing of lower leaves.

  • Probable Cause:  Magnesium deficiency or overfertilizing.
  • Solution:  Decrease the amount of fertilizer you are giving the young plants.  If you used the Miracle Grow Moisture Control potting soil, you probably won’t need any extra fertilizer until they are planted outside.  If you haven’t given any fertilizer, it could be a lack of magnesium and you can water with a weak solution of Epsom salts. Over-use of high-potassium fertilizers can cause magnesium deficiency, as plants take up potassium in preference to magnesium.

B.  Symptom:  Pale green leaves

  • Probable Cause:  Not enough light or a Nitrogen deficiency
  • Solution:  If the seedling is getting plenty of light (16 hours of light/day is good), transplant the seedling to a container with fresh potting soil that contains nutrients; mix some compost in with your potting soil to ensure a nutrient supply.

C.  Symptom:  Purple leaf-tints with bronze or brown leaf edges.

  • Probable cause:  Plant is overwatered or has a Potassium deficiency
  • Solution:  If you are not overwatering (see above tips), give the plant a dose of fertilizer that contains trace minerals or transplant to a new medium with compost.

D.  Symptom:  Reddish purple undersides of leaves, accompanied by slow or stunted growth.

  • Probable Cause:  Phosphorus deficiency due to cold soil or acid soil
  • Solution:  Soil that is too acid or too cold can make it difficult for the plant to uptake phosphorus.  Transplant to new soil and do not water with cold water.

Graphical Portrayal of Deficiencies:

The graphic below is helpful in pictorially describing the symptoms I outlined above.  Unfortunately, I copied the graphic a while back for my own information, and can no longer remember where it came from, so I am at a loss as to who to credit.  If anyone knows which site this graphic came from, please comment below and I will credit them.

Graphic of Nutritional Deficiencies

Graphic of Nutritional Deficiencies

Resource for More In-Depth Information:

A very in-depth look at deficiencies in essential minerals of plants can be found here.  Although Mr. Berry’s book is not focused on the young seedlings before they are planted out, he goes into great scientific detail on the causes and remedies of nutritional deficiencies in plants.  The most helpful part of his work might be the photos however.  They are great photos showing in detail what some of these deficiencies look like on the plant (fortunately I could not take these photos, as my plants have not succumbed to the diseases on our farm).

Comments and questions are welcome.

Heirloom Tomato Varieties: Flavor Profiles Related to Color

HeathGlen's Heirloom Tomatoes in September

HeathGlen’s Heirloom Tomatoes in September

The popularity of heirloom tomatoes is based around two characteristics – their stunning array of colors and the unique flavor profiles of each variety.  The sheer number of heirloom varieties with unique flavors can be overwhelming however.  Fortunately there are a few generalizations that can be made with regards to the relationship between flavor and color.

Taste Tests across the Country:

Many gardeners, chefs and  seed companies have performed taste tests on the most popular heirloom tomatoes, resulting in a wide range of opinions.  Because the flavor of heirloom tomatoes is so dependent on climate and growing conditions, the most reliable taste tests are those that were trialed as close to your home and garden as possible.  We do taste tests at HeathGlen Farm in Minnesota every year, both at the farm and at the farmers’ market in St. Paul.  The list of flavor profiles below are based on our farm’s taste tests.  Some notable taste tests that I have reviewed around the country include:

Six Keys to Selecting Heirloom Tomatoes for their Flavor:

  1. Flavor profiles are based on the most fully flavored fresh-eating tomatoes, not on which heirloom tomatoes are best to cook with.

    Heirloom Tomato Varieties

    Variety of Heirloom Tomatoes

  2. When a review notes that the tomato has a “classic” or “old-fashioned flavor”, it is referring to a balance of acid and sugar in the tomato, getting as close to 50/50 as possible;
  3. An important characteristic that plays into a tomato’s flavor is texture (aka “mouthfeel”).  Generally, if a tomato is said to be mealy, the texture is enough to detract from the flavor
  4. The flavor profiles based on heirloom tomato color are generalizations only.  For example, pale yellow tomatoes tend to be mild and low-acid.  Limmony, however is a yellow tomato that has a very strong acid background, giving it a robust  “lemon-like” flavor.
  5. I have not included cherry tomatoes or plum & paste tomatoes, as they cannot be as easily grouped into color-taste profiles.  In general the cherry tomatoes are sweet, the paste tomatoes are meaty and higher acid, and the plum tomatoes are juicy and mild.  I will put together a separate post on the pros and cons of various cherry and paste tomatoes later this season.
  6. Finally, flavor profiles of each variety are not only subjective to an individual’s taste buds, but are highly variable depending on growing conditions (heat, water, type & rate of fertilizer, number of growing days, etc.)

The Big Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

The large pink tomatoes offer up what most of us think of as a classic tomato flavor — a balance of acid and sweetness. The most well-known (not necessarily the best tasting) of the pink heirloom tomatoes is the Brandywine.  It has become the standard-bearer for the pinks, as it is a good size for slicing and typically has that bursting blast of tomato flavor most people want in a tomato.

  • Brandywine —   a sweet tomato, offset by a notable acidity that achieves a balanced rich, succulent, old-fashioned home-grown tomato taste.  Depending on growing conditions, it can also be low-sugar, low-acid and fairly bland.
  • Mortgage Lifter —   known for its mild sweet flavor and meaty texture, this pink-fleshed beefsteak can tip the scale at two pounds.
  • Caspian Pink — similar flavor profile to Brandywine, and frequently beats Brandywine in taste tests.  Pro is that it is earlier than Brandywine
  •  Prudens Purple — another early Brandywine type.  Considered sweet, juicy and meaty; doing well in short-season areas
  • Cherokee Purple — sometimes included in the “black” category, Cherokee Purple has a complex flavor with an initial smokiness followed by a slightly sweet aftertaste.   Often compared to a zinfandel wine.

The Black (or Purple) Heirloom Tomatoes

"Black" Heirloom Tomato Varieties

“Black” Heirloom Tomato Varieties

While often referred to as “black” heirloom tomatoes, most of these varieties are more of a maroon or purple-brown color. Black tomatoes tend to have an earthy, almost smoky sweetness to them, with a bit less acid than red tomatoes.  The flavor profile is often referred to as “smoky, complex and wine-like”.

  • Paul Robeson — of fairly recent popularity, Paul Robeson is getting  good marks all around the country for its “smoky,” “complex”  distinctive flavor.
  • Purple Calabash —  often compared to red wines such as Cabernet.  The taste is rich and full of old-fashioned tomato flavor with just the right blend of sweetness and acidity.  The flesh is smooth and meaty with evenly distributed seeds.
  • Japanese Black Trifele — a pear shaped variety. Flavor is deep, chocolatey, smoky, and rich.
  • Carbon — among the darkest of the black tomatoes.  Exceptionally rich and sweet flavor.  My favorite black.
  • Black Krim — intense, slightly salty taste.
  • Black from Tula — perceived by many as the “best-tasting black”, with thin skin and a sweet, complex flavor.
  • Vorlon — cross between Prudens Purple and Cherokee Purple resulting in meaty, rich, sweet taste.  Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s favorite black in 2011.
  • Purple Russian — the best black tomato in a plum variety.  Meaty, sweet and excellent for salads and sauces.

The Red Heirloom Tomatoes:

Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012

Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

Bright red heirlooms are often mistaken as hybrid tomatoes at market, as they look very similar.  Red heirlooms however, are more varied in their flavor profiles than hybrids, tending toward the robust, higher acid flavors.  The reds and the pinks are often what people are thinking of when they ask for that “old-fashioned flavor”.  Red heirlooms also tend to have thinner skin than hybrids, making them less amenable to shipping.

  • Costoluto — “old-fashioned tomato flavor”; performs well when skinned and used in slow simmered sauces.  The flesh is meaty with an abundance of juice and tart tomato flavor.
  • Druzba — smooth, juicy fruits with robust sweet-tart flavor; meaty and great for canning.
  • Legend — Introduced at Oregon State University as highly disease resistant variety. Nice blend of sugar and acid.
  • Aussie —  big, impressive beefsteak variety. Old fashioned, big robust tomato taste.
  • Stupice — best flavor I can find in an early tomato (early tomatoes tend to lack flavor); small
  • Thessaloniki — prolific crack-free heirloom with a meaty, classic flavor; sometimes considered “earthy flavor”
  • Carmello — considered by the French to have the “perfect acid-sugar balance” .  Productive, with juicy texture.  Dona is a smaller version of Carmello.

 

The Striped Heirloom Tomatoes:

Striped heirlooms (sometimes called marbled), are beautiful and they tend to have a rich, juicy, super-sweet flavor that is low in acid.

  • Striped & Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities - 2012

    Striped & Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities – 2012

    Striped German — almost candy-like flavor.  Sometimes a soft tomato.  Beautiful.

  • Big Rainbow —  considered one of the prettiest and most unique heirloom tomatoes. This meaty beefsteak tomato is known for its sweet and flavorful taste. The golden orange color with artful swirls of red and yellow are seen throughout the tomato
  • Gold Medal —  popular for its appealing sweet taste and marbled beauty,  originating from the Black Forest region of Germany.
  • Flavor Profile: rich, juicy, super sweet flavor that is low in acid.
  • Pineapple- Orange and red on the outside, and yellow with blushes of red on the inside. Very sweet, low acidity and nice flavor.

The Orange Heirloom Tomatoes:

Orange tomatoes (not yellow), are mild, sweet, and are low-acid. They are the varieties that will most remind you that tomatoes are, botanically speaking, fruits.

  • Persimmon — One of the best flavors of all the orange tomatoes. Meaty with few seeds.  Creamy meaty, texture.  .
  • Juane Flamme — small (large plum size), sweet and low-acid, bursting with juice.  Almost a tropical flavor.  My favorite small orange.
  • Kellogg’s Breakfast — vibrant sweet taste, meaty with few seeds.

 The Green Heirloom Tomatoes:

Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes

Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes

The commonality of green tomatoes is a bright acidity, but the degree of sweetness tends to vary quite a bit.

  • Aunt Ruby’s Green — bright with acidity, but well-balanced with sugar.  Incredible juiciness.
  • Green Zebra — tangy and zingy are adjectives often attached to Green Zebra.  Very popular for taste and eye appeal.

The Yellow (or White) Tomatoes:

White tomatoes aren’t really white. They’re more of a pale yellow. Yellow and white tomatoes  are noticeably less acidic than red tomatoes. Some consider them the sweetest tomatoes and some consider them the blandest tomatoes.  The common factor is low-acidity.

  • Yellow & White Heirloom Tomato Varieties

    Yellow & White Heirloom Tomato Varieties

    Great White- yellow on the outside, and pale yellow on the inside.  A very mild flavor with low acidity, and  a hint of sweetness.

  • Limmony — a yellow beefsteak with a strong, zesty, sweet citrusy flavor. It is also sometimes spelled Lemony.

 

Italian Pasta Recipe Highlighting Smoked Tomatoes: Puttanesca

Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese

Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese

Every time I open the freezer door I see the beautiful heirloom tomatoes that I smoked and then froze last year, just waiting for the perfect dish.  Smoked tomatoes have an intense aroma and flavor, and I wanted to use these in a dish that would be bold enough to hold up to their unique flavor.

For all things Italian my first inclination is to go to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipes, so I went back to one of her earlier cookbooks that focused on Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens, The Italian Country Table.  A recipe for a vibrant, spicy “streetwalkers pasta” sounded like a good starting place for something bold, except I did want a cooked dish for dinner rather than raw.  No problem.  Using Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s “Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese” as a starting point, it was easy to adapt it to my dinner needs.

Turned out wonderful!  The intense smokiness of the tomatoes, the salty umami from anchovy fillets, black olives, and Romano cheese,  and the bitter crunch of endive.  Hard to go wrong with those ingredients.  It did my smoked heirloom tomatoes proud.

Now, this summer the key is to use my new smoker of last year and smoke more!  More smoked tomatoes, more smoked chipotle, and more smoked salt!  Summer is around the corner…can you feel it?

Pasta Puttanesca with Smoked Tomatoes

(adapted from Lynne Rosotto Kasper’s, The Italian Country Table)

Smoked heirloom tomatoes from the freezer

Smoked heirloom tomatoes from the freezer

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp oil, grapeseed or olive oil preferred
  • 1 tightly packed Tbsp fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tightly packed tsp each fresh marjoram and Italian parsley leaves
  • 3-5 cloves garlic
  • generous pinch of hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 medium onion (about 1 cup)
  • about 3 lbs smoked tomatoes, thawed if frozen
  • 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed & quartered
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted & coarsely chopped
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. pasta, I used penne, she suggested orecchiette pasta
  • 1/2 cup Romano,  Parmigiano Reggiano, or Pecorino cheese, grated
  • 1/2 tightly packed cup curly endive leaves, coarsely chopped

Directions:

  1. With a sharp knife, mince together the herbs, garlic, and hot pepper with the coarse salt and set aside.
  2. In a medium to large pot heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic-herb mix and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the remaining 5 ingredients through the pepper and simmer until the sauce is thickened and slightly reduced (about 15 minutes).  This can simmer while the pasta is cooking.
  3. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling water, stirring often, until there is no raw flour taste (about 7-10 minutes for penne).   Drain into a colander
  4. Put the pasta pot back over medium heat.  Spoon most of the sauce into the pot (you do not need to use all of the sauce, just cover the pasta with as much sauce as you like and stir).  Cook a few minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.
  5. Taste for seasoning, toss with a little chopped endive and grated cheese and serve.  Place small bowls of extra sauce, extra endive, and extra cheese to pass around for individual tastes.

This was the first time I had heard of Puttanesca.  Do you have a version that is similar?  I see Mark Bittman includes a version in his How to Cook Everything book, but it does not include anchovies or bitter greens.  I’d love to hear from you!

 

Dinner plate of Puttanesca with smoked tomatoes

Dinner plate of Puttanesca with smoked tomatoes

Heirloom Tomato Relish to Accompany (and enhance) Brats, Chops, & Steaks

Heirloom Tomato Relish for Brats, Chops & Steaks

Heirloom Tomato Relish for Brats, Chops & Steaks

 

There are so many dishes that fresh heirloom tomatoes will enhance, and it seems a race sometimes to get them all in before the season ends.  This heirloom tomato relish is a snap to make and is a wonderful enhancement to any end-of-the-season grilling.  It will also take crock-pot pulled pork to new heights.  My most recent use of this flavor-filled relish was to layer it on tostadas with a carnita filling (see photo below).

 

 

Heirloom Tomato Relish for Brats, Chops & Steaks

(adapted from recipe in Bon Appetit)

Heirloom Tomato Relish

Heirloom Tomato Relish

Ingredients:

  • 3/4  tsp coarse kosher salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 lb. orange & yellow heirloom tomatoes, coarsely chopped  (high-flavor varieties to try include Juane Flamme, Persimmon Orange, Kelloggs, Manyel, & Limmony)
  • 1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed olives, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup capers, drained
  • 2-3 Tbsp fresh lime juice, squeezed juice of 1/2 large lime
  • 2 red jalapenos, chopped (use green jalapenos if cannot find red)
  • 1 tsp fresh oregano or thyme (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Place 1/2 tsp coarse salt on work surface and garlic cloves on top of salt.  Chop cloves into the salt, alternating with mashing the cloves into the salt with the flat part of the knife, until you have a fresh garlic paste more or less.  Transfer garlic paste to medium size bowl.
  2. Add tomatoes and the rest of the ingredients to bowl and toss to blend.  Season with salt and pepper
  3. Let stand at room temperature while preparing the meat that will accompany the relish.

 

Heirloom Tomato Relish with Carnitas

Heirloom Tomato Relish with Carnitas

 

 

Serve alongside steak, pork chops, or atop brats enclosed in buns.  I also used this relish as a topping or layer for these pulled pork tostadas and it was wonderful.

 

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