Things I Wish I’d Known: Quarantine Gardening Chronicles
December 26, 2020
One thing is for sure; collectively, we sure did a ton more home gardening in 2020! As I look back through plant photos and published columns from the past year, I’m reminded of how much I’ve learned, and relearned, and re-relearned.
Back in February, I reprinted a 1997 column by Dr. Curtis Smith on how to keep your tomato starts from getting too leggy. The trick is placing seedlings in a sunny spot early on, so they’re not reaching up, looking for light.
I knew that, and yet, within weeks, I had some of the leggiest tomato starts you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you figure it—I don’t take many photos of my biggest blunders. Maybe that’s a good resolution for me in 2021: document even the sorriest gardening mistakes. I’ll quote my year’s end gardening poem from 2018: “But we try try again, and we dust off our pants, for they say the best gardeners have killed the most plants.”
At the beginning of quarantine, I was determined to turn my extra bathroom into an official seed-starting headquarters, complete with a space heater, a humidifier, and a max/min thermometer. It worked. After years of failed attempts at starting seeds, I’d finally learned how to keep those tiny seed starting trays from drying out.
In the past, I couldn’t for the life of me keep seedlings alive. Heating pads placed strategically under the trays helped the seeds sprout, but they’d be baked to a crisp within no time. I’d leave them alone for one second, and 100% of my sweet baby plants would shrivel. It seemed that the longer I spent cutting plastic plant markers out of recycled milk jugs to keep track of all of the different varieties, the quicker they’d all kick the bucket.
At long last, I’d “discovered” the key combo: heat helps, humidity helps even more. And now that I was home all the time keeping the humidifier filled every 6 hours wasn’t so difficult.
The problem was I started too early. Or, maybe the problem was that I didn’t have enough light. In either case, I had hundreds of tomato, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, eggplant, and tomatillo starts without a place to put them. It was too early to move them outside. But I didn’t have enough south-facing window room to get them sufficient light. So, in spite of my best efforts, they got leggy.
Luckily, tomatoes can root out along the stem, so they like being planted too deeply. This is a great way to handle the leggy ones—all 200 of them.
Please note: this is not true with most other species. A common reason for tree failure in urban landscapes is that they are planted too deep. We should be able to see the root flare and even the topmost root just above the soil surface after planting. Remember: “No flare? Beware.” (I just made that up, but still, remember it.)
Now that you know my tomato seed starting tips join me this year in a citizen science project run by the University of Florida’s better-tasting-tomato research team. With a $25 donation, you’ll receive seeds from new hybrid tomato varieties to test in your own yard or patio as part of their Citizen Science Initiative. Or you can donate $10, like I did last year, to support tomato research and receive seeds from a mix of Garden Gem, Garden Treasure, and Garden Ruby tomato varieties. Over 14,000 people have participated so far worldwide.
For more info, check out my August 2019 column titled, Tomato Flavor: Where Did It Go and How They’re Bringing It Back.
Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.
Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!