Homegrown: Cutting back, early edible tomatoes

Is this the right time to be cutting back a blue mist spirea and a butterfly bush? Both are just beginning to leaf out.

— Donna

Now is the time to cut back plants, such as your butterfly bush and blue mist spirea.

Summer blooming plants like yours (and potentilla and Russian sage as well) benefit from a hard annual pruning back.

I usually recommend that it be done early in the spring (March) and to cut them back to 4–12 inches from the ground. Doing this keeps the plant smaller and more compact, prevents the build-up of dead woody growth that these plants tend to accumulate and causes the plant to bloom more prolifically.

Though you’re a tiny bit late, it’s still OK to do it.

How early could we get an edible tomato here on the Redlands if we were willing to do everything just right? Which varieties are the best? Could we grow the plants (not from seeds) in the house to begin with?

We enjoy your Sentinel column so much.

— Pat

If the earliest tomato is your goal, first choose an early bearing variety.

There’s a general correlation between the size of the fruit and how long it takes to mature. Smaller ones are usually earlier, and the big guys take longer.

If you want a globe-type tomato, Early Girl has been the standard for years now.

It’s a 60-day tomato. What that means is that under ideal growing conditions (that means nice and warm), this variety will start to bear about 60 days after setting out transplants.

This isn’t an exact date as individual plants can vary and it will especially vary with the environment. Other varieties to consider are Champion (62 days), Sweet 100 (A cherry-type, 65 days), and Red Grape (A cherry-type, 60-70 days).

As I mentioned earlier, the environment will play a big part in how long it takes to bear.

Tomatoes like warm soil and toasty temperatures. If the soil is cool or the temperature is not up to snuff, the plants will languish, waiting for warmer conditions.

One trick people do to accelerate their crop is to plant their tomatoes in a device called a Wall-O-Water. This thing is basically a series of plastic tubes connected in a circle. You fill the tubes up with water and put it in the garden for up to a week before planting your tomatoes inside that circle.

The Wall-O-Water helps to warm up the soil before setting the tomato out. The water in the tubes absorbs the warmth of the sun during the day and then gives it back during the night.

I personally have had tomatoes survive 22-degree temperatures with a Wall-O-Water. I’d probably set them out the first part of April (now).

This isn’t going to get you tomatoes months earlier, but you can usually gain two or maybe three weeks with one.

One last little detail to consider is how early you can get tomato transplants to set out in the garden. Most of the garden centers around town, including us, usually don’t have any available until the first to the middle of April.

You can grow them yourself, but that can be difficult without a greenhouse-type environment. Speaking of greenhouses, using one is probably the only way to get tomatoes significantly earlier.

To finally answer your question ... if you set your tomatoes out early, use a Wall-O-Water, have good rich garden soil, treat the plants well and the weather cooperates with you with warm (even unseasonably warm) temperatures, you could expect tomatoes the first part of July, maybe even the end of June.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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