We’ve got seedlings in greenhouse and we can’t wait for spring 2019. Click the EVENTS tab above to check out our current Event Schedule for the spring!

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No Elephants, but the Circus IS in Town

I always did want to run away with the circus. I think it was the horse acts that most tempted me. In a way I really have.

This week our events begin in Southern California. Early for most of the country of course, but for us it’s truly been a subtle winter at best. My one rescue seedling that’s forged through the cooler months has done quite well through the last bit, though ill-timed and certainly not impressive. Yet.

And no, I don’t recommend a November planting, this just seemed, well, right.

But I digress. It’s event season, that time when dinner parties and birthdays, last minute trips and leisurely afternoons in the garden are out of the question – or more likely postponed until “after Tomatomania”! I guess I should make AT a thing.

And in their place we run around the state with fantastic tomato seedlings, greeting enthusiastic gardeners all over CA who share our zeal for that new dwarf tomato plant that offers great color and production, or the strongest tomato cage, or the newest and best tomato book on the market. (I do hope they’ll be after that one!)

I run down our extensive list and wonder if folks will rally round Sweethearts, a wonderful cherry/grape find of last season or opt for First Mate, Marz Round Green, Siletz, Lavender Lady or Captain Lucky. Yes, tomatoes all, each with a different twist that will excite and entertain us through the summer.

It’s a wonderful time for us and we hope for you too. I’m so grateful to the many people who prop me/us up and make it all go as it should and to all those (you) gardeners who inspire us each season.

Sorry we can’t provide elephants but will a new selection called Giant Buffalo Heart do?

Seedlings at Cornerstone Sonoma

When is early too early?

So it’s getting to be tomato season. Finally.

Mother Nature starts the season in my Ojai garden...

As the calendar days tick away and we feel the season arrive it gets harder and harder not to run out to the nursery and start the garden in earnest. Right? Sometimes we can ignore that urgency but other times we just can’t resist.

If your season is teasing you a few weeks too early (Gulf Coast ‘Maniacs you know what I’m talking about – freezing temps interrupt spring urges right?) and temperatures seem to be pointing toward the ground where your tomato garden will go, you have a choice to make. You can plant an “early” tomato, sure, but planting a short season variety like Stupice, Siberian or Oregon Spring doesn’t ensure that this plant will do any better than others when temperatures take a dangerous dip.

Parts of the south and southwest are feeling the season advance now. If you live in the Midwest? New England? Don’t even think about it unless you have an industrial-strength greenhouse or very reliable cold frame. And even then you have a while to go. Start your seedlings inside 6-8 weeks before your last predicted frost date.

Where the season is imminent you’d be well advised to use these last frosty days to start thinking about compost and conditioning soils rather than planting. However, if you do jump ahead and put any plants in the ground make sure you’re armed with plastic or cover of some kind. Or grow in containers that you can move when they need protection!

If you’re the kind of tomatomaniac who plants over 50 plants, protecting those babies during the early part of the season can be a real trial. It will test you but you can do it. If you are planting a couple seedlings behind the house just to get your season on that should be pretty easy to protect. Be creative! I have friends who drape plastic over clotheslines or unused swingsets to make terrific temporary greenhouses.

A tomato cage or tower becomes a support for plastic or other cover.

So here’s a story I heard some years ago. A gardener in Sonoma, (Northern California), rumored to grow the greatest tomatoes around, started all his seedlings on Christmas Eve. (The season there truly begins in mid to late April) 6 to 7 weeks later, in early February, he planted those seedlings out in the garden. Now, he didn’t just plant those out like most of us would, he used a post hole digger to dig 3’ deep holes, then planted seedlings in 6 inches of compost at the bottom of the hole. Using plastic laid right across the surface of the ground he created a greenhouse effect to urge the seedlings along. Given the soil in this region at this time of the season is warmer than the air, the seedlings prospered and as they grew he filled that hole, covering the stem as the plant grew. By the time the growing season really arrived the seedlings were visible above the ground level, with 2 to 2 1/2 feet of amazing, sturdy root growth already supporting them. Longer days and higher temps urged strong fast top growth, resulting in the earliest and best tomatoes anyone had ever seen.

I’ve threatened to try this for years. Never have. Maybe you’ll give it s shot?

It’s all about a good start. So if you want to try planting early as you see last year’s “volunteers” begin to pop up in the veggie garden, make sure your soil is perfect, make sure you can protect those seedlings and maybe, try a whole new kind of growing process. Good luck.

Pinching tomato plants. A summer lesson in “winter”.

I pinched a tomato plant today. In February.

No, I didn’t steal it. I used scissors, yes, small sharp scissors (I couldn’t find my clippers and they worked just fine) to thin out the branching and leaf growth of my tomato plant.

Maybe I should back up.

Stake your tomato claim in a different area each season...

I bought (maybe rescued?) a tomato plant in November, late November, at a nursery that probably shouldn’t have had tomato plants on the shelf at that stage of the season even though it’s in Southern California. But that’s beside the point and I guess their prerogative. It looked really healthy. Really REALLY exceedingly, you-need-to-take-me-home healthy. And, well, I did. It goes without saying that I’m an easy sell when it comes to tomato plants.
My new baby found a home in a raised garden bed on the west side of the house that hadn’t yet been planted for the fall season (I never did get around to that) and it’s been very happy there. I haven’t even covered it during our ten minutes of cold weather this “winter” and it’s gotten though just fine. Sorry Boston, don’t mean to rub it in. But there it is, thickening up and looking greener and greener each week.

I’m being realistic and don’t expect fruit set right now even though there have been plentiful flowers. I imagine if it’s an early variety I might see some fruit very early this spring. We’ll see. It suddenly occurs to me that I don’t even know what variety it is. Gee, I really AM a sucker for a healthy tomato plant.
Ok, so the plant is growing. Not as fast as new plants will in the spring mind you but it’s about 18 inches tall and getting thick with new branching and larger leaves. In tomato world that means it’s time to make the decision: To pinch or not to pinch?

In truth, and in the regular season, I never pinch my plants. I think most home gardeners, while they might not admit it, don’t either. I flat grow too many of them. The growth that many call a “sucker” is actually side branching that will flower and fruit. I generally opt for the “grab another stake and the velcro” version of plant management.

Is pinching essential? Obviously not, since I’m happy with tomato production in my tough love fields most years. You may get more but smaller fruit if you don’t pinch or prune given the finite energy of a typical plant but that’s not an issue for me. You will definitely end up with a larger – often monstrous – plant in very short order but that never causes elevated blood pressure in this camp either.

On this particular day, however, as I noticed the burgeoning fleshy plant growth I had a unique thought. I should pinch this puppy. There’s only one plant in my tomato world at this point – an oddity, to be sure – and it won’t take that long. It will be a fun experiment. I could do this.

This little guy was ready for a trim

This “haircut” took me about seven minutes. I probably removed half the mass of the plant. All downward facing leaves touching or nearest the ground came off first. The central blob of crossing leaves and stems had to be carefully examined and thinned out. (Yes, this will remind many of you of pruning out roses, perennials and large shrubs or lacing out your favorite trees.) In most cases I left the main stems, as there were about six good strong ones, and pruned out the smaller or less significant pieces. The stems that remained were stretched out and separated as much as possible across this new tomato trellis. The small new side branching too, the axial growth for which the word “pinching” was perhaps coined, came off easily with slight thumb and forefinger pressure in most cases.

The result is a leaner, meaner tomato plant. The flowers and flower stems are still there. The overall shape of the plant has not changed noticeably but the function should. The plant looks brighter, and it truly is, as a larger percentage of the leaves now feeding the plant are getting full sun. This is pedal-to-the-metal tomato growing. If you grow in a shadier than you’d like situation or where summer seasons are cooler, pinching is a good idea for you since you need to get as much sun as possible onto and into your plants. In areas where high heat and brutal sun are the problem be careful to prune judiciously since your plant, and eventually growing fruit, will need some shelter from hot sun and high temps.

On a plant left to its own devices and attached to an upright support the lower third, or even half, of the plant is shaded by the leaf growth above it (read: cooler). That’s one reason leaves yellow and drop off during a given season – they simply have nothing to do given the lack of, well, fuel. This is another reason I like to use flat trellises, fencing or similar to spread the plant out in planar fashion as it grows. More sun on more leaves makes more tomatoes.

My little plant really does look happy. The next months will tell if my careful attention yields results. Of course in a perfect and much more scientific world I would have revisited my sixth grade science project self and planted 2 tomato plants in this spot to see how an unadulterated plant fared and produced against this newly revved up version. Maybe I’ll get to that next year.

I knew I should have bought two plants.

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