Recently, I took some homegrown tomatoes into to share with my coworkers. One of them immediately began complaining of the expense and apparent impossibility of growing the things.
This left me rather confused, so I asked her how she'd gone about it. Her answer prompted this post.
First, she'd bought three plants when they'd become available in the spring, some fertilizer, and two bags rather pricey "Moisture Control" garden soil to mix into the 5 x 5 planting bed off of her patio.
She had then mixed this planting mix into her patch, planted the plants, placed her brand new tomato cages, and congratulated herself on a job well done.
A week later, frost killed the plants, so she'd gone and bought three more along with plastic frost guards that you fill with water. The plants survived the next frost, and soon grew beyond covers to be nipped by the frost after that. Rather than cut off the nipped parts and allowing the plants to regrow from the protected main stems, she'd instead pulled them up and bought new plants. These had finally grown. Like gangbusters. Tall, leafy and green. They'd even bloomed and formed a few small green fruits... which shriveled up and fell off the plant, no matter how much she'd fed them.
The problem was simple. I've been to her house, and I knew the planting bed she was talking about. Right outside her kitchen door, wedged between her house and a wooden fence, and shaded by the neighbors elm tree. I'm afraid I had a bit of a problem convincing her that no matter how much plant food you use, tomatoes still need sunshine. Quite a bit of it.
As a general rule, a tomato needs about 12 hours of sun to produce satisfactorily. That's why greenhouse grown ones are so expensive in winter. Between artificial lighting and heating, the electric bills can be huge.
And considering that my coworker is a single lady, she's already spent more on plants, soil amendments, and clever accessories than she would normally spend on tomatoes at the market in a year.
We're going to start with the plants themselves.
The most economical way to get the plants is to grow them from seed, no questions asked. For the price of a seed packet, less than $2.00, you can easily end up with 20 plants. And in our climate, with our long growing season, we have more than enough time to sprout them directly in the ground. As of this moment, I have a row of plants growing in the garden that were planted direct and they're bearing just fine, although they did bear 2 to 3 weeks later than the plants that were transplanted. I can live with that.
However, If you really need those tomatoes 2 weeks earlier, you sprout them inside, but even that can be more expensive than it needs to be.
You can certainly buy peat pots, peat pellets, and plastic sprouting trays, and all manner of things, but it's less expensive, and better for the planet I suppose, if you re-use and re-cycle something you already have. Egg cartons are a common choice, but I personally find that they're too small. Tomato seedlings are robust growers, and egg carton cells are too small... keeping them watered enough will be a challenge.
Cardboard toilet paper tubes can be stood on end in a tray of some sort, filled with soil, and used to sprout your seeds. Strips of newspaper can also be rolled into tubes, and used the same way. With both of these, you can basically plant outside later pot and all. You can also reuse those small square pots that you got other plants in, or you can use tin cans... I tend to reuse the styrofoam cups that coffee comes in.
Use any decent potting soil that has been sanitized by baking it in an oven or the microwave, plant your seeds, put them in the brightest window you got and keep them watered. They'll be ready to plant in 4 to 6 weeks.
However, many gardeners who habitually produce bumper crops of tomatoes, have never grown one from seed in their lives.
My Grandmother Nellie, bought hers at a local feed store, and considering that she was a widow raising 9 children in a 3 room house, she didn't have the time or much available window space to be sprouting seeds for her 1 acre garden.
When I was growing up, the plants were bought at K-Mart in small 6 pack cell pots for about 50 cents.
Now those small six packs are practically non-existent. What is commonly available are 2 1/4 inch plastic pots or 3 inch peat pots, and they're about 2 to 3 bucks each. The reason is simple marketing... Why would you sell 6 small plants when you could sell one large plant for double the price? This is a capitalist country after all, they're trying to make money, and the consumers are willing to pay it, so you certainly can't blame them for that. But it doesn't really help us save money.
Plus, these plants show up in the stores way too early, a good six to eight weeks before it's time to put them out. People eager for spring buy them up and either plant them out with disastrous consequences, or try to hold them inside where they suffer and possibly perish. If you wait until a more reasonable time to buy them, the plants are often picked over, or often stressed from being held in the wrong conditions, or maybe indifferent care from the high school kid in charge of the garden department.
For the beginning and inexperienced gardener, it can be expensive, frustrating, and enough to make you give up.
Fortunately, there is a way to work with this.
this post has been separated into parts due to limited computer space and to make it easier on the reader.