I love tomatoes…. I love growing them and eating them fresh off the vine. My 5-year-old calls them “sports candy” and eats them, well… like candy! The problem is, we live in the Pacific Northwest of the US and we only get about 3 months of warm weather (if we’re lucky). And if you know anything about tomatoes, you know that they like sunny weather. It takes lots of solar energy to go from sprout to fruit-bearing bush in just a few months, so roughly three months of sunny weather means tomato success can be hit or miss.
Some of the problems I’ve run into quite regularly are: root rot, mildew, gangly plants, stunted growth, snail and slug damage. They might seem unrelated, but they’re all a result of weather that is too cold and damp.
So, I’ve decided that my tomatoes need sweaters. Unfortunately I’m not very good at knitting, and I imagine that my tomatoes probably wouldn’t thank me for outfitting them with actual woolen garments… but I have found some other effective (and inexpensive) ways to keep my tomatoes warm and help them grow big.
First off, I don’t plant tomato plants unprotected in the garden until I’m absolutely certain that the outdoor temperature won’t regularly drop much below 60˚F. For us here in the Willamette Valley and many other parts of the Pacific Northwest, that’s not until mid-late June.
Second, if I do plant early or the weather has an unexpected cold snap, I am prepared with a ghetto greenhouse or redneck row cover!
What on earth are ghetto greenhouses and redneck row covers and how do I make them?
A Ghetto Greenhouse is a tiny greenhouse made out of a soda bottle to help keep a small plant warm during cold spells. These are easy to make and useful to have on hand. All you’ll need is a clear (not green or dark colored) plastic 2-liter soda bottle, a 2-foot dowel or slender stick. Cut the bottom quarter off of the soda bottle and place the top of the bottle over the plant. Put the dowel through the top of the soda bottle and push it into the soil (carefully avoiding the base of the plant) to secure the bottle. (If you don’t drink soda and prefer to purchase one, you might find something similar for sale in the season extension section of your favorite garden store under the name “Glass Bell Jar.” Or if you’re in France–where the bell jar originated–you could ask your garden shopkeeper for a “Cloche.”)
A Redneck Row Cover is a temporary greenhouse made out of sticks, stakes or dowels and plastic sheeting that you can place over larger plants to protect them from cool weather. To build one, you will need a length of clear plastic sheeting (preferably the kind that has been treated to withstand sunlight) which you can buy many local nurseries, some pretty heavy duty stakes or sticks, some twine or yarn and in some cases a roll of duct tape. Once you have those, there are a number of different ways to build a row cover… here are my three favorite:
The Classic Redneck Row Cover: For a stand-alone cover, you can push two stakes into the ground at an angle so they meet at the top, forming an “A” shape. Tie the “A” shape at the top with twine or yarn to help secure it. Make these “A” shapes between each plant and at the ends of the row you’re covering.
The Make-Do Lean-To Greenhouse: For plants that are situated next to a fence, you can build a temporary lean-to greenhouse to help keep your plants warm. Press your stakes into the ground a little and lean the other ends up on the fence. Wedge the top of the plastic between the fence and the top of the stakes. If you’re worried about the plastic blowing away in the wind, put a pot, stepping stone or something else heavy on the bottom of the plastic.
The Hippy Tepee Greenhouse – For individual plants, you can make a tepee out of several long stakes or sticks. Take five or six stakes and insert them into the ground, meeting at the top several feet above your plant. Secure the stakes at the top with some twine or yarn. Drape the clear plastic around the tepee frame and secure with twine or duct tape. Ta-da! A nice cozy home for your tomato plants!
I hope that sharing these ideas for capturing solar energy help you grow happier tomatoes… without the need for knitting know-how. 😉