tomatoes growing in container indoors (13730 bytes)

Grow Your Own Tomatoes Indoors This Winter

By Robert Cox, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Agent, Horticulture

Tomatoes here, tomatoes there, tomatoes everywhere. When we're adrift in a sea of tomatoes, why a column about growing more tomatoes?

Think about the taste of those store-bought facsimiles you purchased last January and you have the answer. Those pale, hard, tasteless, imitations made you long for the real thing. This winter, you can have it.

You don't need a green thumb or a greenhouse to grow vine-ripened tomatoes indoors. "Window-sill" tomatoes will do well in 6-inch pots filled with good potting soil. You'll also need the right tomato seed, seed starter mix, fertilizer, and plant stakes. Presto! Tomato salad comin' up!

Window-sill tomatoes are smaller than their outdoor relatives -- quarter-to-half-dollar-size. But don't let their small size fool you -- they come with a big tomato taste. They aren't "slicers," but they are perfect for salads or snacks.

Here's how to grow a winter tomato garden:

You can grow one plant in a 6-inch pot or two plants in larger pots. For a continuous winter supply, start one or two new plants from seed every two weeks. Recommended varieties are Pixie, Patio, Toy Boy, Small Fry or Tiny Tim. These varieties will produce small plants, but they still may need to be staked, especially when they begin to bear fruit. Quarter-inch dowels make good stakes.

Germinate seeds in a small pot with starter mix. Plant seeds about 1/4 inch deep and water. Keep starter mix moist but not soggy. Germination should occur in 5 to l0 days.

Transplant from starter mix into potting soil when seedlings are about 3 inches tall. Fertilize regularly, but lightly, beginning about two weeks after transplanting. Water plants thoroughly, but not too frequently. A catch pan under the pot will keep windowsills dry.

When plants bloom, help Mother Nature along: Tap the main stem and larger side branches with your finger. This moves the plant slightly and encourages pollination. As you tap the plant, you might see a small cloud of pollen falling from the open flowers.

Turn plants occasionally, so all sides get a fair share of sunlight. After each plant has provided a bumper crop and has become unproductive, cut it off at the base, saving the potting soil for future transplants. Toss the old plant in the compost pile.

THE STORY BEHIND STORE-BOUGHT TOMATOES

To satisfy our year-round demand, commercial suppliers plant tomato varieties suitable to production and shipping needs. Often, these tomatoes lack the taste, color or texture that most people prefer. To better withstand shipping, they usually are picked at the "mature green" stage. To complete ripening at their destination, they are gassed with ethylene, a natural plant hormone that is part of the ripening process.

A United States Department of Agriculture study found that ethylene gas has no effect on the tomato's nutritional quality. Surprisingly, such tomatoes provide only slightly less beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, and vitamin C than the tastier vine-ripened fruits. One 5-ounce tomato -- whether home-or-greenhouse grown -- provides a third of our daily needs for these vitamins, along with some iron, fiber and B vitamins.

Photograph courtesy of Northbeach.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010