Growing Tomatoes, etc. in Early Spring – “Poor Man’s Hydroponics”
Q. I’ve heard about so many ways to grow tomato and other tender plants early – from using Wall-O-Water’s to taking the bottom out of wastebaskets, and they all seem to be a lot of work, with no guarantee of success. What do you suggest for someone who’s serious about growing the high-value crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants?
A. If you are only growing a few plants the methods you use may not be all that important. However, if you are wanting to grow a sizable garden or maximize your production, you should pay careful attention to the following procedures as taught by the Garden Doctor, Jacob Mittleider. Complete instructions and excellent illustrations are in Dr. Mittleider’s books at http://foodforeveryone.org/garden_books/. And if these instructions seem difficult or too much work, just remember that you are learning “The Poor Man’s Hydroponic System” that will give you yields of tasty and healthy vegetables between 3 and 10 times what your neighbors get. Here is a summary of the procedures:
1. Plant your tomato, pepper, or eggplant seeds 8 to 12 weeks before the average last spring frost date – 8 weeks for 8-10″ plants in 4″ pots, and 12 weeks for 12-14″ plants in gallon pots. Peppers and eggplant will take a little longer than tomatoes.
2. Prepare growing mix by combining 25-35% sand and 65-75% sawdust (or other clean material such as peat moss or perlite, etc.), and adding the Mittleider Pre-Plant Mix at the rate of 1 1/2 ounces per 18″ X 18″ X 2 3/4″ seedling flat. You can make your own natural mineral nutrient mixes by following instructions in the books, or look in the Fertilizer pages of the Learn section on the my website.
3. Using plain water, thoroughly wet the mixed materials, let sit overnight, then plant about 100 seeds in each of 6 or 7 very shallow rows in the flat and sprinkle sand over the top, just sufficient to cover the seeds.
4. Place burlap over the flat, water gently so as not to move the seeds, and keep the soil moist, but not soaking wet in temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees fahrenheit. No light is needed, but cold temperatures will kill germinating seeds, so pay particular attention to maintaining temperatures in this range if possible.
5. As soon as sprouts emerge, water through the burlap, then remove the burlap and place the flat in full light all day long. Waiting even a few hours will cause your plants to “stretch” looking for sunlight, and will create long, skinny, weak stems, from which your plants will never fully recover. Temperatures can now be cooler than for germination, but remember that your plants will go dormant if temperatures go much below 60 degrees for any length of time.
6. Begin watering daily or as needed to maintain soil moisture, with the Constant Feed solution of 1 ounce Weekly Feed mix in 3 gallons of water (16 ounces in a 55 gallon barrel). Continue with the Constant Feed watering until plants are placed in the garden.
7. When your plants have at least one set of true leaves (not the seed leaves), but before they crowd each other and begin to stretch, transplant at least 2″ apart in flats or 2″ pots.
8. When plant leaves begin overlapping, prune 2 or 3 leaves from each plant. This will shock the plant briefly, and it will make a thicker stem, then after a few days it will again extend the growing tip and produce new leaves. This procedure can be done twice without harming the plant.
9. When the leaves begin to overlap the third time, transplant into 4″ or gallon pots, depending on your time schedule for planting in the garden and the amount of space in your greenhouse or growing area. When leaves overlap again, separate the pots to provide unrestricted light to all plants. These procedures will give you plants with short, stocky and sturdy stems, very capable of handling the rigors of growing outdoors.
10. If your plants begin producing sucker stems, prune them all off, leaving only one main stem on each plant. And when the plants approach 12″ in height push a small stick or dowel into the soil near the stem and tie the stem loosely, protecting it from falling over.
11. When the danger of frost is past, transplant your seedlings into the garden. Harden off outside for 2 days first, and then immediately after transplanting, apply 8 ounces of ammonium nitrate to a 30′ row of seedlings – at a distance of 4″ from the plant stems, and water it in thoroughly. Three days later, begin applying the Weekly Feed mix in the same manner.
If you have limited space and cannot accommodate 4″ or gallon pots, or you just want to put your plants into the ground sooner than the ideal time, you may have success using the Mittleider “Mini-Greenhouses.” Cut 4′ lengths of 3/4″ Schedule 200 PVC pipe, then bend them into a capital A shape, with a 4″ flat top, 9″ sides and 13″ legs. Put both legs into the ground at the top of the ridges to a depth of 5-6″. Place a 4′-wide X 33′-long piece of 6 mil clear greenhouse plastic over the bed and bury the edges with dirt on all sides. Pictures are in the Photos section of the free gardening group at [email protected] as well as in several of Dr. M’s books.
Open the ends during the day for air circulation, and on warm days, remove the dirt from one side and lay the plastic in the aisle. Failure to do this may cause your plants to cook, as the mini greenhouses will heat up quickly with sunlight. On nights when frost is expected, put an extension cord with a couple of 100 watt bulbs near the ends of your beds, and for a hard frost use a small heater (be careful you don’t melt your plastic cover).
Jim Kennard, President of Food For Everyone Foundation – “Teaching the world to grow food one family at a time.”
www.foodforeveryone.org – Mittleider Gardening Magic
© 2003 – James B. Kennard