Sunday, May 23, 2010

Solanum lycopersicum

Flowers in bloom: Allium; Yellow Iris; Creeping Buttercup; Silver Dollar Plant

Late last summer, we saved seeds from our harvest of heirloom tomato plants. Many of our tomato plants were ringers of a sort: most of our own seedlings died in the year's inclement spring, and we had to resort to purchasing replacement heirloom starts from the weekly farmer’s markets at Uncommon Ground and in Evanston.

After this inauspicious start, the season improved, and we enjoyed a successful tomato harvest. The variety and quality of our tomatoes inspired us to save seeds for the next year. After cleaning, curing, and drying the seeds, we filed them away in tiny manila envelopes, keeping them cool and dry (and in at least one crisper section of a volunteer's refrigerator) until a couple of months ago, when we started them at Kilbourn.

Today, our volunteers (including groups from the DePaul chapters of Oxfam and Americorps M3C) transplanted the bulk of our tomato seedlings into three beds.

After weeding the beds, we loosened soil with our garden fork and graded the beds with rakes and hoes to establish a level planting surface. We then laid out our seedling pots in each bed, arranging them in a chevron pattern: two plants in one row, then one plant in the next, then two plants, etc. After sorting the seedlings, we dug holes deep enough so that the plants would extend no more than four or so inches above the ground level. We filled each hole with water from our rain barrel.

We then removed each seedling from its small plastic pot. We first loosened the soil in a pot by gently squeezing the pot’s base. We then turned the pot on its side and teased out the seedling in its soil plug by squeezing the pot and pulling slightly on the plant. When we were lucky, the seedling and soil plug emerged intact from the pot; when we weren’t lucky, we wound up with a handful of loose soil that threatened to fall away from its fragile cargo. We placed each seedling and its soil surround into the hole that, by now, had absorbed the water that we had poured in earlier. We pinched off any leaves that were below the soil line, filled in the holes with dirt, and "watered in" the seedlings.

We staked our seedlings after planting them. As the tomato varieties that we grow are all indeterminate , we must provide them with support as they grow. Right after transplanting, most of the seedlings were too small to require much support; it is, nevertheless, good to start early. We drove tomato stakes into the ground a few inches away from each seedling. If a seedling looked as if it needed support, we loosely secured it to its stake with garden twine, using a figure-eight loop that supports the stem without binding it.

Finally, we replaced the wire fencing that surrounded each bed to protect our seedlings from rabbits. Although rabbits don’t generally eat plants in the nightshade family (to which both tomatoes and potatoes belong), they have been known to take out the occasional tender seedling. Squirrels are also a problem, prone to the annoying habit of taking a single bite from a tomato fruit and then discarding it, as though they kept forgetting that they didn't like tomatoes, after all.

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. - Margaret Atwood