Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why Are My Tomato Plants Smaller?

I heard this comment made a few days ago about starting Tomato and Pepper Plants. One of my readers said, "My plants are so small compared to the Nurseries and Big Box Stores. What am I doing wrong?"

My Answer:

My plants are also small compared to the Nurseries! Not to worry.

I think I start my tomatoes at the right time. From the First of March through Mid April. They will be plenty big enough to hold their own when they are planted out at the proper time after all chance of late frost is gone.

However, Nurseries and big box stores know we are all anxious to get our gardens going in the very early of Spring. We're so sick of winter! So they get their plants to market way too early - knowing you will buy them!

Usually these plants are also given a good shot of "Miracle Grow" so they will grow big fast and look enticing to you. To much of a good thing I think.

Too much Nitrogen can turn a tomato plant into a gorgeous Bush - with lots and lots of foliage. You may end up with a beautiful plant with lots of leaves that may never flower or grows fruit. It's been treated so well that it doesn't think it will Ever have to grow Progeny. It thinks Winter will never come! It's going to live forever. A nice delusion for the Tomato or Pepper Plant, but not for your Canning plans!

This is not good. And, most beginners will give the plant another shot of Miracle Grow etc. during or shortly after planting it! My advice. Wait a few weeks after planting to fertilize. About half maturity. Give it a little fertilizer. Then a little more After it blooms to help it develop fruit. That's it.

Of course, by early April, we're all desperate to start Spring aren't we. And we're chomping at the bit to start our gardens - Now! Tilling might be in order. Planting Not unless you live in the warmer zones and even there you might get a late frost to kill your plants. Listen to the weatherman. If you have plants out and a late frost is threatening. Even a light frost.

Cover your Tomatoes and Peppers if you put them out early. Cool Weather Plants like onions, Lettuce, etc., don't worry to much unless a hard freeze is predicted. They love cool weather!

Usually tomatoes and peppers get planted to early by beginning gardeners because of the beautiful plants found in the stores. Then they wander why their plants just sat there doing nothing for a month - or worse yet - died from the cold ground or even a late frost.

The stores are not to concerned. They are just giving people what they want. "A quick "Shot of Spring" to bring them out of the Winter Doldrums. Then comes the disappointment and long faces when these beautiful plants don't live up to their promise.

The beginning gardener assumes that if it wasn't time to plant their Tomatoes and Peppers, the Nurseries  wouldn't be selling them. Wrong!

It is a ruse perpetuated by some stores preying on  naive new gardeners. The only thing safe to plant in early spring of course is potatoes, onions, and other cool weather crops. Learn what they are and you wont get burned. Tomatoes and Peppers are warm weather plants - semi tropical even. They want and need warm soil - or they will just set there. It's just getting warm enough for Peppers in late May or even the First of June in zone 6. 

Of course, people with experience shelter their warm weather plants (if they set them out at all) in mid April or the first week of May.

But Yes. I am going to start mine in December too next year. I start my own because I have complete control. I plan to shelter mine for several weeks . I know how to protect them if I set them out a little early. You can too if you take special care to keep them safe from late frosts etc. It is not to hard.

The problem with starting really early say February, is when they are leafing out and getting tall and need real sunlight and fresh air in March so they can grow strong; where do you go with them?

I am currently working on a Mini-Greenhouse that can be heated on cold nights with a small electric heater or even a few 100 watt incandescent bulbs or may be adequately protected by a cold shed or garage until the plants can be wheeled outside in the spring.

Hopefully it will hold a Hundred or so Tomatoes or Peppers that are up to 1 foot tall. I am projecting the cost to build it to be somewhere between 50 and 75 dollars. And maybe 10 to 15 dollars a month to run. Not to expensive to raise a hundred tomatoes. I don't see anything like that on the market so I will attempt to build it myself. I don't consider the small grow-light setups to be adequate for a hundred or so plants - and they are very over priced!

However, even if you feel that your Tomato Plants and Pepper Plants are too small. When it warms up in May, and you think you are setting them out late; they will undoubtedly catch up Fast with the Nursery Plants - which were put out too early and that are now expending their energy trying to recover from the cold instead of settling down to grow as you "late" tomato plants are quickly doing.

Don't be discouraged. Your small Tomato and Pepper Plants may even bear fruit before the early-bird Store plants. Watch them and you will see. Your plants will soon catch up!


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