August 25, 2015

Urban Gardening: Growing Tomatoes (Part 1)

For your reference, here is a list of entries under the Urban Gardening series:

Several weeks ago, I decided to venture into another hobby. Albeit less expensive (hopefully) than fountain pens, this hobby would require more patience and skill. Ladies and gentlemen, my new hobby is...


Gardening! The Sims IRL!

Courtesy of Google Images.

I've been putting off writing about this as I've yet to gather more documentation on my progress. Now, I think I have enough pictures, but I still have a long way to go before successfully raising a fully mature and fruit-bearing plant.

All these being said, allow me to narrate my journey on raising my first plant from seed: the tomato plant.

Day 1: Plant your seeds

You can by seeds in hardware stores (by the gardening section); there are supermarkets that have a section for seeds within the vegetable area. I was too lazy for those, so I resorted to removing seeds from a bunch of tomatoes I bought in the grocery and started planting them on a container.

My tomato seeds were planted on a rectangular plant box;
I've also tried planting them on a
DIY self-watering planter made from a Coke Zero bottle.

In retrospect, I should've planted the seeds in a proper seed starter tray (or DIY using an egg carton) so I have better control in spacing the seeds in preparation for sprouting. Needless to say, it is possible for even the most average of tomato seeds to germinate, given the right conditions.

Day 5: Germination AKA Sprouting

The following are important, in order for tomato seeds to properly germinate into sprouts:
  • Well-draining soil mix. There are special mixes being sold specifically made for starting seeds, but in general, the soil should only hold on to the water it needs, expelling any excess.
  • Pots/ containers with drainage holes in the bottom. This is so extra water will not sit inside the container, risking molds and rot.
  • Moist and humid environment. Luckily, I live in the Philippines, where the weather is a steady 25-30C all year round.

First stages of tomato seed sprouting.

There's nothing much to do, really, while waiting for your seeds to germinate. Just ensure that the soil is moist and eventually little sprouts will start to appear on your soil bed.

Day 9: From Cotyledon to True Leaves

As I recall from elementary science, tomato seeds are dicots, exhibited by two "baby" leaves that form from sprouting. These aren't proper leaves just yet, but more of seed casings that open as the stems and roots start to grow. At these point you can already predict which of the seeds may result to a better, potentially stronger plant.

Seedlings are sprouting, bit by bit.

If you happen to overcrowd your pot (like me), you can already choose which sprout to retain and which sprout to sacrifice. To do so, simply snip off the stem of the sprout you've chosen to sacrifice. The sprout will simply wither and die, sacrificing its life to give space for the others.

Within a span of a week, the sprouts will continue to grow, and true leaves will soon emerge. For dicots, true leaves will look branched, originating from the main stem. At this phase the root system will also form, strengthening its hold to the ground. During this phase, it is best to harden your plants, making them withstand the outdoor weather.

True leaves are starting to emerge from the tomato sprouts.

What do you mean by "hardening your plants"?

Seeds that are started in a controlled environment (e.g. inside a greenhouse, indoors, wrapped in plastic, etc) need proper weathering before moving them outside to be planted in the garden or in a container. The hardening process makes the seedling tolerant to the changing weather conditions of the outside world--wind, rain, harsh sunlight, and in other countries, the changing seasons.

Start by placing the sprouts by a window that gets the most morning sun. This way, the plant will get accustomed to the warmth of the sun. Then, for a couple of hours each day (ideally mid-morning on a partially cloudy to a sunny day), take the sprouts out for them to experience more direct sunlight and some breeze as well. By the time true leaves start to emerge, the sprout should be able to take more time outside to experience mid-day and the afternoon sun. As the plants grow taller, they should be able to withstand the outdoors from day to night.

True leaves, Fig. 2.

Other important notes to grow happy seedlings:

  • Water only on the soil or at the base of the plant, not on the plant's stem or leaves.
  • There is no need to water the plant everyday as this may weaken the roots. Water only when the top part of the soil looks dry; water by soaking the soil with moisture (remember to use well-draining soil mix) then letting it drain.
  • To prevent soil molds because of extra moisture, water during the daytime (preferably at morning) rather than at night.
  • Once the plant has been hardened enough, give them four to six hours of direct sunlight. Tomatoes thrive in sunny environments.
  • You will notice that your sprout will tend to grow facing the direction of the sun. To prevent seedlings that significantly bend to a particular way, rotate your container every 24 hours.

True leaves fully emerged. This is a proper seedling.

When the seedlings have formed several leaves and when the stems have a sturdy green color to it, you may start preparing for transplanting.

Day 21: Transplanting

Tomatoes are a type of plant that can grow roots on its stem, depending on how much of the stem is planted below ground. Because of this, it is important that you re-pot your seedling a couple of times before planting it to its permanent home. By re-potting, you can ensure deeper root growth, resulting to a sturdier, healthier plant.

Because I wasn't able to correct the spacing of my seeds during planting, it was a challenge for me to re-pot the seedlings. The roots of the seedlings were so entangled that it took a while to separate each plant from each other. Also, I must have damaged the roots significantly that my first attempt to pot the seedlings resulted to a droopy mess.

What my my seedlings look like, the night before transplanting them.

Transplant Shock: The Struggle is Real

Plants weren't created to be man-handled so roughly. Their nature is to take root on whatever surface they've been sown into, and grow from there. Thus, it is understandable for them to experience stress whenever they are uprooted and transferred into a different container, no matter how gentle the handling or how fertile the new bed.

Here are some tips to ensure utmost care for your plants while transplanting:
  • A well-hardened plant should be able to withstand transplanting under a variety of weather conditions, but at best choose an overcast non-breezy day for transplanting.
  • Keep the root as intact as possible. Clear away the old soil as much as possible, but take care as not to tear away the roots. Tomatoes have especially fragile root balls.
  • Plant deep. At minimum, plant until the cotyledons are barely skimming the top part of the soil. If the seedling has an exceptionally droopy stem, you may pinch away the cotyledons and plant a little more deeper. Remember that tomato stems can grow roots.
  • Moisten the soil generously after transplant. If your soil mix is right, watering it after re-potting will make your soil hug to the roots more tightly, ensuring a sturdier base.
  • If you purchased a growth hormone, this is the best time to use it!

To ensure proper root growth, transfer the seedlings to separate pots.

As I only have limited space in my balcony (also, there are other plant varieties that I plan to grow), I can only choose a handful of seedlings to transplant. 

If you have limited space and can't transplant all your seedlings,
choose the strongest seedlings for a smaller risk of transplant shock.

What happens next?

Based on my research, I have to wait one more month before moving my plants to their final container (and ideally one more transplant before that), and six more months before witnessing the first fruits. Until then, I just have to ensure that my seedlings are well hydrated and are getting enough sunlight. Good job planting at the peak of the wet season, Iam.

There you have it, the current state of my tomato urban garden. It's been a couple of days since I've transplanted my chosen eleven, and so far they're still standing strong amidst the current monsoon season in my country. Here's to hoping that my efforts and patience pay off; cheers to sustainable living!

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