Deb Babcock: Can we grow tomatoes indoors?

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At the grocery store last week, I bought tomatoes even though I knew they wouldn’t add much flavor to our salad, just some color. Why are tomatoes from the store so tasteless in the winter?

In order to arrive at the store in good shape, commercial tomato suppliers far from Steamboat Springs pick the fruit at the mature green stage. When they arrive, they are sprayed with ethylene, a natural plant hormone that promotes ripening. This doesn’t affect the nutritional quality of the tomato, but it also doesn’t give it the fresh, juicy, full-bodied flavor that we enjoy from vine-ripened tomatoes out of the garden.

So is it possible for those of us who crave tasty tomatoes to grow them indoors for harvesting during the winter months?

Yes, but it takes a little planning.

One of the first considerations is obtaining the tomato seeds. You need to plan ahead because they are not easy to find right now. When they become available at local garden centers in a few months, grab a few packets while they’re available and then store them in a cool place until the fall when you begin preparing your indoor tomato garden.

Colorado State University Extension agent Robert Cox suggests tomato varieties such as Pixie, Patio, Toy Boy, Small Fry or Tiny Tim as good choices for indoor growing. These tomatoes won’t be your big sliceable fruits, but they’ll be very flavorful in your salads and other dishes.

To grow tomatoes indoors successfully, your daytime temperatures should range in the 70s and nighttime temperatures shouldn’t drop below 60. Consider placing your plants in a south facing room that will provide heat from the sun and six to eight hours of daylight. Don’t place the plant too close to the window so that the outdoor coldness radiates from the window to the plant. If needed, you can use plant grow lights or warm fluorescent lights to provide the necessary light or heat. Be sure to turn your plant every so often so that all sides of the plant share the sunlight.

Place your tomato seeds just under the soil in a small pot filled with lightweight soil. Ideally, this should be a mix of equal parts potting soil, vermiculite, peat and perlite. Never use regular garden soil as it compacts, no matter how good it is, and can harbor insects you don’t want in the house. You should start to see sprouts in five to 10 days.

Your tomato plants probably will need to be watered every day. And because this frequent watering can wash away some of the nutrients in the soil, they’ll need a balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer every couple of weeks.

Once the tomato plants bloom, you can help with pollination by tapping the stem and larger side branches of the plant lightly to allow pollen to drop or use an artist’s paintbrush to distribute pollen from one bloom to another.

Then when the fruit ripens to a nice, bright color, harvest what you need for your evening meal and savor the taste of tangy tomatoes in the middle of a Steamboat winter.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 or email CSUMGProgram@co.routt.co.us with questions.

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