The tomato season is on!

Winter always seems too long and in January we have all those seeds patiently saved from the previous season, plus the packets with the new things we want to try, and little patience to wait for warmer days. In previous years we have sown our first tomatoes around January 20, but sometimes those early trays take so long to germinate that the seedlings are weak and easily surpassed by the ones sown a month later. 

This year, however, we had such a cold, rainy winter that we did not even consider starting anything in January. But as February went by with one rainy day after the other we counted the days and worried about all the work that was being postponed: soil preparation (impossible to do with soaked soil), sowing, transplanting. By February 15 we made a trial with our most robust tomato seed, and on the 22th we took the chance to prepare some trays and try to start the first sample of our favourite and also some new acquisitions. 

There are two ways we sow tomatoes: using old styrofoam trays (they are put away at the fishmongers) or the regular sowing trays. In any case we fill them with a germination substrate we buy at our vegetables nursery. If we use our regular soil it is so full of seeds we get all kinds of weeds germinated well before the tomatoes! 

So the first step is to fill the trays: the substrate comes dehydrated and compact, we have to loosen and hydrate it. After that it is easy to fill the trays and compress the soil in each cell.

Just to be sure we gave most of our favourite varieties a try, we prepared two 8x5 trays. We chose 8 of our tried-and-true varieties and also picked some seeds from the 8 new varieties we have ordered this year. For weekend gardeners, it is really insane to test for 8 new varieties in the same season, but as we go through all the wonders in the Real Seeds website, it becomes very hard to resist...

It is easy to get all the seeds mixed up, so we always prepare the labels and label the rows in the trays prior to laying the seeds. In this case, we used tongue depressors (also used for beekeeping tasks) cut in 4. The little white plastic labels are nice and easy to reuse but we buy a bag and they are soon spent. We need larger packs.

When each cell has its seed, it is time to slightly bury them (we learned the layer of soil on the seed should be approximately twice the size of the seed). Now there is a problem with seeds in the greenhouse: mice are hungry this time of the year and they like seeds. So some times we wait, nothing sprouts and we see that the seed is no longer there. Not so common with tomatoes, but almost certain with pumpkins, melons and watermelons: their favourite! So we already have some hardware cloth folded to the size of the trays. They can be left until the seedlings are 2-3cm high and there is no seed any more. By that time we have to be careful with snails, but we will talk about them later.

Now it's time to select a good spot on the greenhouse table, check the irrigation timer, and hope the next weeks will bring some sunny days. The greenhouse is not heated, but keeping the door shut and taking advantage of the longer days we have now, our average temperature in the past weeks has been 12.5º C, with 10º C minimum. Tomato seeds would appreciate some 5º extra, let´s see how they will do.

It has been a week since we made this sowing, no seedlings have sprout yet. But we expect to have some next weekend. As we have lots of seed from last year, we have put some in a pot a week prior to these. It has 2 weeks now, and a regular hair of good looking seedlings. 

So we are optimistic about our first batch of 16-variety tomato seeds.

We need these tomato plants to develop and leave rooms for all the other vegetables and flowers we will start in the greenhouse. We are just beginning the season and the table is already well stocked: besides the two tomato trays, there are two large styrofoam trays with our most common varieties: the large oxheart which are cherished in the neighbourhood and the heavy-production plum tomato we use for preserving and making sauce. Another tray is starting our first parsley. Two trays have echinaceas sown in autumn: they overwintered in the greenhouse, died back and are now sprouting. Hopefully in two or three weeks the weather will be warm and we will be able to take our seedlings outside, start new batches and get room for basil, zinnias, scarlet sage, ...

Summer recipes: pesto

We've been making pesto for a few years now and have tried every variation you can think of. This is the basic recipe on which you can experiment by adding extra ingredients if you like. We tend to prefer it simple or with macadamia nuts.

If you grow basil, it is very important that you keep the plants pruned regularly. We've managed to keep the same plants producing new leaves continuously throughout the summer and part of autumn this way. Basil plants need to be prevented from flowering until you are ready to collect seeds for the following year. Flowering means the plant is done with producing more leaves. To stop it you'll need to (at least) weekly chop off the top of the stems showing signs they are about to flower and any flowers already present. They should be pruned immediately over the place where you see two leaves sprouting, which will then grow into two more stems. See the photos for an explanation.

Basic ingredients:

  • Basil leaves
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Extra ingredients:

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Pine nuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Parmesan cheese (if you use it cut back on the salt in the basic recipe, parmesan cheese is pretty salty)


All you have to do is wash the leaves, add the olive oil and a pinch of salt and use a food processor to turn everything into a delicious mush. Just add the other ingredients in this stage of the process if you want. Just beware that macadamia nuts are a little harder and you need a little longer in the processor. As for quantities, we just fill the food processor cup with leaves, fill it to 1/4 with olive oil and add a few grains of salt. If you want a thinner pesto just add more olive oil. See the photos for the whole process:

We use pesto to season all kinds of salads as well as some warm dishes, like "chicken kryptonite" (coming up). We always look forward to the summer as it means pesto and basil every week.

Reproducing camellias from cuttings

Camellias are beautiful plants that look great in most gardens. Unfortunately they can be quite expensive and since there are a lot of different species it's hard to get the exact one you want. Thankfully it's relatively easy to propagate them using cuttings, making sure you get the same exact species cheaply.

(the farm's collection includes several varieties of japonica, sasanqua, sinensis (tea plant), and reticulata, see them all on our flickr)

This weekend we went on an expedition to a nearby family garden to get cuttings of some interesting camellias. We cut some small branches and set out to create cuttings to plant. First we cut the branches at nodes since that is where it's easiest for the plant to create new roots. Then we trimmed the cuttings to a reasonable size and trimmed the leaves so the plant has less to sustain. Any small branch can produce several cuttings.

Once we had our cuttings prepared we used a rooting hormone to increase the chances that the cuttings will grow roots and turn into a viable plant. To do this first we wet the cuttings in running water and then gently tapped the nodes into the hormone powder. We then tapped the nodes against the container to remove excess power. We did this one by one while being very careful not to spill the hormone as it's supposed to be quite toxic if inhaled.

Once we had our cuttings ready with the hormone we needed to plant them in an appropriate soil. We usually use a seed starting mix to make sure we have a sterile soil that won't immediately be overrun by weeds. We also use a plant cell tray to plant each cutting individually so that once we have viable plants it's easy to split them up and plant them in their own individual pots. After filling the plant tray with pre-watered starting mix we used an old large nail to open the wholes to put the cuttings in. This avoids scraping the rooting hormone all over the dirt while pushing it in, making sure the hormone is where it should be, in the cutting's node.

With the holes all opened it was a simple matter of putting the cuttings in and then pushing the dirt down so that the cutting is held on snugly.

Once we filled the whole tray it was time to clearly label them and then figure out where to put them so that they are regularly watered.

These were actually put in our outdoor nursery. It's a shaded area to protect plants from the summer heat and it has an automatic irrigation system that sprays the whole plant area twice a day to make sure everything is well watered.

Our success rate in the past has not been particularly good but since we are planting a whole tray of at most two species we will eventually get at least a few of each to survive. Once we have gotten survivors it will be time to transplant them into a larger pot still in the nursery until they are strong enough to be planted directly in the soil. We will do another post when it's time to transplant these ones.