This heirloom tomato, Early Jewel, planted in Petersen's outside greenhouse, sports a thick, strong stem from successive burying of the stem during transplants.
These 65-day-old tomatoes and cucumbers have an increased chance of success inside Petersen's enclosed solarium porch, which stays much warmer than outside.
Story last updated at 6/12/2013 - 2:05 pm
Ask any gardener which vegetable they primarily want to grow and chances are the answer will be tomatoes. Vine ripened and fresh, the delectable tomato represents the very essence of vegetable gardening but like two other favorites -cucumbers and peppers - it requires higher temperatures than plants like broccoli, cabbage, carrots, radishes, lettuce, peas or potatoes.
Here in Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island, my greenhouse-film-covered hoop house may reach adequate temperatures for tomatoes to grow tall but without an additional heat source, mature, ripe fruit can be elusive. Tomatoes need 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit for best results daytimes and nighttime temperatures of 60-70 degrees.
To improve the odds for heat loving plants, I've enclosed my porch with double-walled greenhouse film, adding a layer of rigid foam insulation on the floor. Moreover, the sliding glass door can be opened on chilly days to add heat from the woodstove and it's fun to have all those great smelling plants growing right off the living room. For comparison, I also planted several tomatoes in the outdoor greenhouse this year.
Although the solarium porch works great, container gardening can be tricky and time consuming. Large pots work best since it's easier to keep them consistently, evenly moist-not too wet or too dry-which is very important. The amount of moisture needed depends on wind, heat, humidity, size of pot and type of soil. With a little practice, it's becomes easy to estimate adequate water quantity by lifting each container and evaluating the weight. Too much water and roots rot; too little and plants become weak as well as prone to blossom end rot resulting in darkened areas at the blossom end that eventually become sunken, black, and leathery.
Other factors from improper fertilizing or pH of soil can also cause blossom end rot so application of the right amount of nutrients is crucial in containers. Along with a slow release fertilizer that I sprinkle under the top inch of soil, I supplement with compost/comfrey leaf/steer manure tea. Avoid too much nitrogen unless you prefer large, lush plants with little fruit.
When transplanting tomatoes, remove lower branches and bury the stems with at least two or three sets of leaves left on top. Roots will sprout along the buried stem to help the plant grow sturdy and tall quickly. By the time my plants reach their final large pot, I've buried the stems three or four times with each transplant into a bigger container and have stems that are often one half inch thick.
Cucumbers, which usually have male and female flowers on the same plant, also are grown in containers on the porch. Female flowers are identified by what appears to be a tiny cucumber growing below the flower (actually the ovary). Don't worry if the earliest blooms fall off; the males often bloom and wither before females start appearing. If both male and female flowers cover your plant but fruit is not developing, you can improvise for the missing pollinators (bees, insects) by gently transferring pollen to female flowers with a small artist's brush.
Unless you're growing certain hybrids, most cucumbers contain compounds that cause a bitter taste, which you may not detect at low levels but increases with stresses such as insufficient or uneven moisture, temperature extremes and poor nutrition. These compounds apparently repel aphids and spider mites but who wants bitter cucumbers? The bitter compounds concentrate on the stem end and skin and don't penetrate the entire fruit so peeling and cutting off an inch or so of the end takes care of the problem at harvest time.
Sun-loving peppers get to live on my solarium porch as well. Be careful when transplanting since, like cucumbers, pepper roots don't like to be disturbed. An even amount of moisture is, once again, essential for good growth and lack of water can lead to a bitter taste in peppers.
Most sweet peppers become even sweeter when mature but it's good to harvest some before they've turned from green to red when early in the season since mature fruit can send a message that it's time to stop production. When harvesting peppers, cut, don't pull them from the plant. If frost threatens, the whole plant can be pulled up and hung in a cool, dry place to continue ripening. Conveniently, peppers can be frozen without blanching - I like that in a vegetable!
We may not have as much sunshine or heat as locations further south, but with a little ingenuity gardening in Southeast Alaska can be both satisfying and productive. Best of luck with your gardens and let's hope the sun will not be shy this summer!
Carla Petersen writes from Thorne Bay. She is a freelance writer and artist. Visit her website at whalepassoriginals.com or she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.