Start Planning Your Spring Garden

So we're in the deep freeze of winter and the growing season is still months away. Don't despair, there's still plenty of gardening that can be done. Now's the time to start thinking about starting your garden seeds and what better place to start than with heirloom tomatoes?

There's really nothing better than biting into a fresh, juicy, homegrown tomato, straight from the garden. It's a little bit of heaven. And anyone who's tried them can tell you that old-fashioned heritage or heirloom tomatoes taste even better.

What are heirloom tomatoes? They are simply older varieties of tomatoes grown for years by families or communities and which have fallen out of favor with the commercial world. They either don't ship well, grow untidily and they may not ripen all at the same time or come in uniform sizes. They can be weird colors and shapes.

Ah, but the taste of an heirloom tomato far outweighs its supposed growing shortcomings. It's one of the main reasons the seeds get saved year after year.

Nowadays you can even buy some heirloom varieties of tomato plants from garden centers and "big box" stores. Many retailers sell Brandywine, for example. This is a good-tasting, pink, large-fruited variety.

But if you really want to explore the amazing world of heirloom tomatoes, you have to start your own seed. The choices can be bewildering. Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that specializes in collecting and distributing heirloom seed from around the country, has over 60 varieties for sale on its Web site, and thousands more in their member-only catalog. The tomatoes have amusing and colorful names like Mortgage Lifter, Roman Candle, Nebraska Wedding, and Black Sea Man. The hard part is deciding which varieties to try.

Ok, you have your seed, now what? Don't be intimidated if you've never started plants from seed before. It's easy. Plants, after all, want to grow.

For materials, you'll need small pots or 6-pack pots, a tray to hold them, a cover for the tray, something to label the 6-packs if you're starting more than one variety, and seed-starting medium. You'll also need a small tub, bucket or dishpan to moisten the medium. Most garden centers and hardware stores sell the trays, 6-pack cells, and the transparent covers as a unit. You'll also need a very sunny window, once the seeds germinate. I recommend using an additional light source if you don't have a bright enough window. Without enough light, the seedlings can become leggy and spindly.

A note about the seed-starting medium: regular potting soil is not well-suited for seed starting. You should try and find something that has been specifically formulated for seeds. Any brand will do. The medium is usually very dry and dusty when it comes out of the bag. I moisten it by pouring some into an old dishpan and watering it down until it feels moist, but not too wet. It shouldn't be dripping.

Another thing I like to do at this point is add about a half-tablet of aspirin to the water I'm using to moisten the medium. Research has shown that aspirin is very beneficial to plants and can aid in seed germination. I like to use some sort of generic Alka-Seltzer like product, as it is made to dissolve in water and is only aspirin and baking soda. But if I don't have that, I crush the aspirin tablet with two spoons before mixing it into the water.

Sue Stephenson is a 1990 graduate of the University of Rhode Island's Master Gardener program, and the "Tomato Captain" of the North Stonington Garden Club. She has been growing tomato plants and enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of her labors for 20 years.

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