Tips for tomatoes and comfrey magic

A tomato plant shows two trusses, or branches with fruit and flowers. Tomato plants are heavy feeders and need to be fed weekly during the growing season. The red tie-ups are recycled exercise bands. (Marion Owen photo)

Celery is an eat-as-you-grow food. In other words, you don’t have to wait until the plant resembles a perfect, what-you-see-in-the-catalogs before you eat it. Rather, you pull stalks (and their corresponding leafy tops) off the main plant — rhubarb style — as recipes for soups, salads, dips and salmon salad sandwiches call for them.

Celery has a reputation of being a fussy, hard-to-grow vegetable, but such reports usually originate from warm climates with — how should I say — water issues. True, celery takes a long time to grow, up to three or four months for plants to reach full size, but the good news is that it prefers cool weather. Give celery a steady supply of water and compost, or compost tea and you’ll be rewarded with large, tender plants.

Consider yourself warned, however. If you ignore your celery plants whereby they starve for water even for a short time, you’re in trouble. The roots of celery plants are limited, stretching just six to eight inches away from the plant and only two to three inches deep. Which means the top part of the soil not only has to have enough moisture, it must also contain all the nutrients the plants need.

By early to mid fall, your celery plants might be getting tired, which signals time to pull the plants, trim the roots and continue harvesting the stalks from the refrigerator drawer.

So that’s how you treat the main season crop. If you plan on storing celery in a root cellar or even in a spare fridge, though, then do not cut off the roots and nestle the roots in a bucket of damp sawdust and sand (root cellar) or keep the roots damp, wrapped in a moist towel and keep the tops cool and damp (but not completely sealed) for the refrigerator. In either case, keep tabs on how it’s holding up. You should be able to store celery for many weeks or even months.

Mid-season tomato tips 

I’m a newbie at Tomatoes 101, as I’m only in my third year of trying to grow them. So I’m all ears, turning to experts like Walt Loewen and the British, who are crazy about growing veg (vegetables). Whether you grow them directly in the soil, hanging planters or tubs, tomatoes don’t like wet feet and they won’t set in temperatures below 50 or 55 degrees. Thus, they are best grown in a protected environment such as a hoophouse, greenhouse or kitchen windowsill (Deb Darminio is the expert here).

The name of the game is growing tomatoes, not foliage (leaves), though the tomato is naturally a bushy plant. Left to its own devices, it would spread along the ground, producing many side shoots, which would make more side shoots, and so on. Such a plant would not make that many tomatoes as its energy would be going into growth.

Thus, to channel the plant’s energy into producing fruit rather than foliage you need to remove the sides hoots, also called suckers. These sprout in the angled notch between the leaf and stem. The earlier they are removed, the less energy is wasted. And this is a job to be done at least once a week. 

Be careful not to confuse these shoots with a truss. A truss is the branch that carries the flowers, which, if all goes well, turn into tomatoes.

If you let a side shoot grow to about 6 inches or more, don’t despair. You can cut it off, pop it into a pot of damp potting soil and grow another plant — useful if you find yourself short of plants and it is too late to start more from seed, or if you want extra starts for growing indoors.

Stopping tomatoes

Stopping a tomato plant’s growth is a topic of much controversy, but something to consider for short growing seasons like ours. In Britain, stopping a tomato is standard; in the U.S., — well, we’ve a lot to learn.

When the plant has set four or five trusses (branches of flowers) it is time to stop it. To stop a tomato’s vertical growth, find the leading (main) shoot at the top and cut it off. This causes all the plant’s energy to be diverted into fruit, which will hopefully mature before the end of the season. If you let the plant just carry on you will find yourself with a lot of tiny green tomatoes at the end of the year.

Feeding your tomatoes

When the first truss of fruit has set, which means the flowers have gone and you can see little green tomatoes beginning to form, it’s time to start feeding the plant. Tomatoes are greedy, (and we want lots of juicy fruits, don’t we?), so you need a good tomato food. A weekly dose of compost tea gives plants an excellent boost. In England, many tomato foods are based on comfrey, which contains high levels of the basic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) nutrients. Having discovered comfrey’s many uses as a fertilizer, I now grow it in halibut tubs. (I go into comfrey and other organic fertilizers in greater depth during my organic gardening class, taught at Kodiak College, starting in September).

Comfrey is easy to grow and is useful as a chicken feed and a compost activator. It is so rich that it not only enriches your compost piles, it encourages them to heat up. Chopped up and added to the base of potatoes when you plant them, comfrey feeds the plants as they grow. Comfrey is excellent as a mulch and as a liquid feed for tomatoes, runner beans, annual flowers, herbs, broccoli, kale and all root crops.

To make liquid comfrey, here is how the Brits do it: “Take a barrel or tub, add comfrey leaves, fill with water and leave for three to five weeks. Warning! It will smell like an open sewer when finished.” Dilute the liquid to use as a foliar spray. Otherwise, use as is.

Best tips of the week

What to do with the dead flies on your windowsill: Place them on top of the soil in your indoor plants. They will break down and feed your plants.

What do the following items have in common: Liquid drained from a can of kidney beans, hair trimmings, feathers collected on the beach, container of white rice left (forgotten) in the fridge for three weeks, tea bags and stale Raisin Bran cereal? Answer: They can all be added to the compost pile.

Garden happenings:

The Annual Garden Tour is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 6, for town gardens and Sunday, Aug. 7, in Bell’s Flats. This is always the highlight of summer, seeing what others are doing and talking with the gardeners. If you are interested in sharing your garden, greenhouse or hoophouse, or know of someone that is interested contact Patty Holmes (486-3074) or Kate Loewen (486-8134).

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