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Plant-a-palooza! Your Three-Day Planting Weekend Starts…Now!

My co-worker (and co-blogger) Makenna Goodman tells me this weekend is known as “the planting weekend.” Now, I don’t know how official that is, but her being an honest-to-goodness farmer and me being a clueless city boy, I’ll take her word for it. Makes sense. It’s warm, sunny, and spring-like—even in Vermont. And it’s a three-day weekend.

So what are you waiting for? Go plant something!

Note: This excerpt was chosen by Harmony Spencer, the Chelsea High School student who helped us out on Friday, with all her pay going to the charity of her choice, for a program called “Operation Day’s Work.” Thanks again, Harmony!

The following is an excerpt from Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses by Eliot Coleman. It has been adapted for the Web.

Starting Tomato Plants When raising tomato plants from seed we repot the seedlings twice to ensure uninterrupted root growth. We germinate the seeds in mini-blocks on heat pads at 70°F and move them on to two-inch blocks as soon as we can (seven to eight days). We leave the 2-inch blocks on the heating pads for ten days or so. Before their leaves overlap one another, we put them in their final 5-inch square pots. (This is the only crop for which we use pots because the extra soil volume guarantees sturdy, wellrooted plants.) These pots sit side by side until the leaves begin to touch, and then we start moving them apart. Adequate spacing, so the leaves of one tomato plant don’t shade the leaves of another, keeps the plants short. It is much easier to move and transplant younger plants, so we start tomato seeds only six weeks before we plan to set the plants in the greenhouses. We grow tomatoes using the same system of 30-inch-wide beds with a 12-inch path between them that we use for all other crops. There are eight beds in a 30-foot-wide house and the middle six are planted to tomatoes. (For the two edge beds, which do not have enough headspace for staked tomatoes, we have found that both early celery and Tuscan kale transplants grow well and are excellent companion crops in a tomato house.) We set out the tomato plants 24 inches apart down the center of the bed. We could put them closer (down to 14 inches if we had a better native soil) but we enjoy the ease of working with the plants at this wider spacing, not only for the pruning and harvesting but also for the monthly topdressing with compost. The monthly topdressing is very important since, as mentioned earlier, these plants will keep producing till late in the fall. The wider spacing also aids with air circulation, which is important because humidity can be quite high in a plasticcovered hoop house in April.Vertical Growing We support our tomatoes with plastic twine that unrolls from small spools attached to wire frames that hang from horizontal wires running the length of the greenhouse. This is standard equipment in commercial tomato houses. We prune to a single stem by removing all suckers between the leaf branch and the stem. We use commercial tomato trellis clips to secure the tomato stem to the twine, placing a clip about every 12 inches as the plant stem elongates. We limit the fruit clusters on beefsteak varieties to four fruits and those on the medium-sized varieties to five fruits by pruning off the extras. As soon as a cherry tomato cluster begins ripening the first fruit, we pinch off any further blossoms at the end of the cluster. By the time the plants’ growing tips reach the support wire, ideally about 8 feet above the ground, we have harvested the lowest fruit and removed the lower branches up to the height of the lowest fruit cluster. At that point we unroll a turn or two of twine from each spool, lower the top of each plant about 12 inches, and move the tops horizontally by sliding the wire frame that holds the spool along the support wire. At the end of the row, the plants are curved around the corner and over to the partner row that moves horizontally in the other direction. The paired rows resemble those circular trolleys for moving clothes in large dry-cleaning establishments. This dropping of the plant tops and moving them sideways is repeated every time the tops grow to the height of the support wire. The bare stems end up lying along the ground (some growers use low wickets to keep the stems from actually contacting the soil, but we have found no need to do that), and the top 8 feet of each vine keeps producing tomatoes. In this way a crop set out early in the spring stays in vigorous production until late in the fall. Managing Timing and Soil Temperature In our present rotation the largest greenhouse in which we grow tomatoes is occupied all winter by a mid-September-sown unheated spinach crop from which we get four to five harvests before the end of March. We pull the spinach crop in late March/early April just before it begins to go to seed (later-planted spinach in another house allows for uninterrupted production on through the spring) and then immediately refertilize the beds with an inch of compost. We set out the tomato plants on April 7. Since the house has been unheated, we need to warm the soil as much as possible before the tomatoes go in. To do so we pull back the inner covers protecting the spinach every sunny day during March in order to allow more direct solar heating of the soil. Once we remove the spinach plants, we turn on a propane heater for a few days before the tomatoes are transplanted to prevent the night temperatures from falling below 60˚F. In another greenhouse, we clear out the previous crop a month or more before we need the house for tomatoes. We remove the wickets and the row-cover inner layer. We then prepare the soil for the tomato crop and lay a sheet of clear plastic directly on the soil. This is the most effective way to trap incoming solar heat in the soil. It also stimulates weed seed germination, and we flame off the weed seedlings before transplanting the tomatoes (see chapter 14 for more on flaming). By using plastic laid on the soil to create an extra-warm inner layer we have gotten the soil temperature at the 4-inch depth up to 65˚F with only solar heat. We cannot get it that warm while continuing to harvest spinach, but we think the income from the spinach more than makes up for the slightly slower start of the tomatoes. These are the sorts of choices the multiple-crop grower must be constantly making.


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