At Bonnie Plants, we love to help folks learn to grow their own food. So, we thought it would be fun to track some beginner gardeners so others could benefit from their experiences. We asked four young Alabamians to let us help them grow their first tomatoes. All of them are in their 20s, just starting out, and busy with school, creating homes, and building careers. Their spare time is limited and precious, but each one was enthusiastic about the project. We got them started with a pot, a plant, some liquid plant food, and some basic tips. Then we waited. When we went back at summer’s end, these new gardeners were all smiles and picking tomatoes — and talking about what they would grow the following year. So if you’ve been wondering what the experience of growing your own food would be like, read on to find out!
Their First House
Newlyweds Julia and Johan Stiegler moved into their bungalow last spring and wanted to grow tomatoes. At ages 24 and 27, neither of them knew much about gardening, or even how to begin. Julia said, “We’ve got neighbors up the street that have this great vegetable garden during the summer. We wanted to have something like that one day but didn’t where to start.” She continued, “My mom grew tomatoes in the front yard, but I didn’t eat tomatoes back then…. Johan is from Sweden and says it’s too cool there for tomatoes to grow well.”
At first we planned to have them grow the tomato on the porch, but as it was shaded by a big tree, a sunny bed on the side of the house seemed more appealing. We just set the container on top of the soil.
We chose ‘Solar Fire‘ tomato because it is a determinate variety, meaning the plant would not grow too large. Bred to produce fruit even when high temperatures cause other varieties to stop, this type of tomato gave Julia and Johan the best chance of success in the Alabama summertime.
To support the plant, we turned a 4-foot tomato cage upside down for better anchorage, set it in a 20-inch diameter container, filled the pot with potting mix (burying part of the cage), and bound the legs of the cage together with garden twine to create a tepee. Julia and Johan set the tomato in the potting mix, removing the lower leaves and planting deeply, burying two-thirds of the plant to encourage rooting along the stem. Finally, they watered the plant in with Bonnie Herb, Vegetable & Flower Plant Food.
Julia’s expectations weren’t very high. “Honestly, I just really hoped we wouldn’t kill the plant,” she said. “I’ve read that gardening is easy, but whenever I’d tried to grow things before, I’d end up over- or under-watering, or the plant would rot or die in the Alabama heat. We followed the instructions we were given, and it was actually so easy. I hoped we’d get nice tomatoes, but I really didn’t expect it.”
When we returned toward the end of summer, we asked if there had been any problems. Julia confessed, “This is embarrassing. When our tomato plant first bloomed I remembered my mom telling me you had to cut flowers off of herb plants.” (Of course her mom was correct, as basil will be much more productive if the buds are removed.) “I figured the same concept applied to tomatoes,’ said Julia, “so I went outside and cut those first blooms right off. Needless to say, we didn’t have any early tomatoes. One Google search and a few weeks later, and we had more tomato blooms that turned into tomatoes.”
Looking back, Julia commented, “I learned how easy it is to take care of a tomato plant if you have the plant set up correctly. We planted the tomato in a much bigger pot than I’d ever used before and put some fertilizer on it. After that we just watered it on the schedule we were given and soon after we had big healthy tomatoes. It was much easier than I thought it would be.”
Then she said what we were longing to hear: “We will definitely be planting again. It was really easy and the tomatoes were very tasty!”
Rachel “Levi” Levinson and Mia Markris enjoy a second floor apartment with a balcony that catches the afternoon sun, a perfect set-up for growing a tomato. Levi (24) is an artist, and Mia (23) an analyst. Mia had never grown food, but Levi’s family grows the ingredients to make their own salsa, a skill they brought with them from their former home in New Mexico. However, Levi had never grown her own tomatoes. “We really hoped to grow a plant that would produce healthy tomatoes we could eat,” she said. “We feared it wouldn’t last long, or that it would only produce a small amount of fruit.”
Because there was a balcony railing that they could use to support the plant, we gave them an indeterminate cherry tomato called ‘Super Sweet 100’ and a roll of green hook-and-loop tape (available at garden centers) to gently hold the growing vine in place.
Looking back, Levi and Mia learned a lot just by watching their plant and taking care of its needs. Mia recalled, “Before the plant was too large to move, we would rotate it around our balcony to achieve maximum sun exposure. We were amazed at how fast the plant grew and produced fruit.” They added, “The only real issue we encountered was with birds eating our tomatoes.” Their ingenious solution? Using thread, Levi hung old CDs from the beam above the pot; they turned in the breeze, reflected the sunlight, and scared off the birds.
Levi and Mia were astonished at how much, and how long, their single tomato plant produced. (See image at the top of this page.) Levi said, “Our plant literally produced fruit until we stopped watering it in December. It probably would have produced throughout the winter!” That actually wouldn’t have happened, given the cold. But the fact that the plant produced through the early frosts that killed tomatoes in other gardens is a testament to the warmth of a sunny balcony. Walls, railing, and floor were warmed by the sun during the day, then that lingering warmth protected the plant from cold at night.
Mia and Levi kept a bowl of tomatoes on their kitchen counter all summer and fall, and ate them for a healthy snack. “We definitely plan to grow this plant again, as well as others, because it fit well into our schedules and lifestyle. For Levi, who deals with health issues involving foods, it offers a tasty, healthy, alternative! We really enjoyed the process of growing our own food.”
Article written by Linda Askey.