Gardening Tips: Tomato Time

Editor’s Note: We’re dipping into Michelle Smith’s archives to provide timely tips for gardeners.


What to do this week

It is time to think about seeding lettuce, tomatoes and peppers, and other summer annuals, but we don’t plant before taking the first step of thinking about what varieties suit your taste — and your space.

Tomatoes on the bush. (Photo by Sanbec

Tomatoes on the bush. (Photo by Sanbec, CC by SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The first step is to take my Tomato Quiz: What kind of tomatoes do you like? Do you like sauce, salad or sandwiches? Then I want to know, are you an experienced gardener or a beginner gardener? An experienced gardener can grow anything they want but if you are a beginner gardener, I suggest that you grow mostly salad tomatoes, mostly determinate plants (bush as opposed to vine tomatoes), even ones that will go in pots, and ones that are somewhat cold tolerant. I think it is important for beginner gardeners to start with success. If you are successful the first year, you can get more ambitious next year. So let’s start with success.

Next, I want you to think about how much space you have to grow things. Do you have little containers and pots? Do you have a big garden? Do you have a small backyard plot? It is important to be realistic about the amount of space you have, especially thinking about all the different things you want to grow. Even a determinant tomato plant needs between two and three feet of space all around it.

Tomatoes can grow in containers, and container gardening is a good thing but it is more work, too. You have to watch the water and pay more attention to fertility. So if you only have a small garden, think seriously about how many tomato plants you can reasonably grow. If you plant things too close together, you are asking for that overcrowded situation that is perfect for disease.

It may be a little early to plant tomato seeds, but not too, too early. In another week or so you could certainly start. If the plants get too leggy, and the weather is cold in June, you can plant them a little later and bury the stems. They will send roots out from the buried part of the stem. They are very clever that way. So don’t worry about starting them too early.

Peppers can be started now too, and eggplant. They need a fairly long head start. So, in the next week or two you are going to want to start them, and your tomatoes, indoors. They should be planted by the first week of April at the latest.

Back to the space you have, these same principles apply to squash and beans. It is better to think about what that plant is going to look like at the later stages, not just at the beginning.  If you don’t have some way of erecting a trellis against your house or in the garden, one that is going to be firm in the Cape Breton wind, you probably shouldn’t grow pole beans. Otherwise, you are going to have to think about the support they are going to need down the road. If you are a beginner gardener, or maybe a lazy gardener, and you don’t think you are going to want to be erecting trellises, stay away from pole beans, and really tall peas. There are all kinds of bush varieties of these things that don’t take the same kind of effort.

For the small-scale, home gardener, when it comes to squash, you want to think about bush varieties over vining varieties. If you want to grow winter squash, it is unlikely you will want to choose a large Hubbard unless you have a large family. Otherwise, you are going to want squash that are maybe a three-pound maximum, more suitable for a smaller family. The buttercups are usually quite good in that case. There is one called Dave’s Dakota Dessert that is even smaller than the full-sized buttercup you often see, and it requires a shorter season. There are also some new varieties of butternut squashes that might be good. I really like butternut because they have a very narrow and tight stem. Even if you have to pick them early because of frost, they will ripen indoors if you handle them carefully.

Nutterbutter are like little butternut squash, and they are a much more manageable size — probably about two or three pounds — and that is a nice size for a small family.

Also related to space, and productivity, and squash, do you like zucchini? While zucchini is a wonderful thing, sometimes one plant seems like too much for a family of four. If we could figure out how to grow half a zucchini plant, that would be good. As it is, you will be sharing.

I have talked a lot about the space needs of individual plants but it is also a good time to make an overall plan for what to plant where, considering everything together. When you first plant a garden in spring it looks so empty. You put in these little transplants so far from each other, and you think, “Wow, I can plant 20 more,” but you can’t. A month later they will all be crowding each other and getting sick and miserable. Don’t plant things too close together. Don’t plant too many. They will fill in the space. If you don’t like the bare look of it in the beginning, you can plant things like lettuces, spinach or herbs, or low growing flowers in between these other plants that will need more room later. This will fill in space with things that will be harvested and removed before your other plants need the room.

Next week, I will talk a bit about special considerations around spacing if you want to have a little fun with seed saving.

And speaking of seed saving, don’t forget that this Saturday is the Seedy Saturday event at the Farmers’ Co-op on Keltic drive, 10am – 2pm, FREE. I would be happy to administer the Tomato Quiz personally, swap seeds, talk about seeds or just answer your random gardening questions.

Featured image by AnRo0002, own work, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



This article was first published on 22 March 2017.