SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 14, 2014

North Shore Gardener: Roses are red, tomatoes will soon be, too

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Thought you’d enjoy this. One of our readers sent it!

“Lettuce Be Valentines”

“You may turnip your pretty nose

When I yam near you

You may not carrot at all for me.

But please, my honeydew,

We might share the endive dreamed,

And your heart beet with mine.

Shallot not then be thyme to say

Have a happy St. Valentine’s Day!”

If you are into the old pre-Victorian flower language of love, you might have been sent a whole message with the bouquet that you received for Valentine’s Day. The Victorians loved fantasy and assigned a meaning to many varieties of flowers. So, when you sent flowers to a friend — or foe — they really meant something, and you could send a whole message with a bouquet — remember, this was long before cellphones. But be careful when you send flowers. You might not mean what your flowers are saying:

Hyacinth: It’s just a game you’re playing.

Forget-me-nots are for true love.

Primroses are for young love.

Lilac is for innocence.

Ferns are for fascination.

Daisies are for gentleness.

Be sure you speak the language, because here is where it gets very dangerous:

Tulips are a declaration of love; phlox is a proposal of marriage; and good, old tuberose is for “dangerous pleasures!” I think my favorite is garlic for courage and strength. Happy Valentine’s Day!

You will be proud to know that more than two-thirds of the roses we buy are grown right here in New England. The rest are trucked in from California and flown in from South America. I like the idea of a rose that doesn’t need a passport. You have to know it’s fresher if it’s grown in New England.

Warning: You take a huge chance when you buy any flowers, but especially roses, from street vendors during cold-weather months. They look perfect when you buy them on that icy street corner, but they turn black and mushy as they defrost in a warm room.

Is it Valentine’s Day or Valentine’s Week? Florists and growers have been trying for years to expand this day, but it just won’t fly — Valentine’s Day is Feb. 14, and everyone wants flowers on that day. No wonder it’s a florist’s nightmare — and the florist’s busiest day of the year.

This certainly won’t come as a surprise: 80 percent of the 80 million roses sold on Valentine’s Day will be red. During this cold month, we will purchase more than 3.1 million roses. By contrast, it takes about 15 million roses to make 60 floats for the Rose Bowl Parade. Remember: Flowers are better than chocolates — no calories!

Q: All my friends talk about growing tomatoes and brag about it almost as if it were some great secret. So, what’s the big secret?

A: Now, down to the business of planting prize-winning tomatoes — it’s no secret. Tomatoes are a warm-loving, sun-loving crop — keep that in mind as you plant indoors and choose the space for your garden. Tomato growing has become a neighborhood contest. The person at the next desk at the office and the mom in the carpool will all be bragging about having picked their first homegrown tomato. Do you want to be first gardener with a homegrown tomato this year? Here’s how to grow your plants so that you can have the first tomato in the neighborhood — and all the bragging rights that go with it.

Meanwhile, there is some work to be done outside. Prepare your permanent tomato garden as soon as possible and let it settle. Choose the sunniest spot you can find and dig the plot well, mixing in a generous amount of compost, well-rotted manure, and a 5-10-10 fertilizer. Next month; in late May, harden off plants well before planting outdoors. This will mean seemingly endless trips to carry the small plant out into morning sun and back into the house each afternoon as it cools — necessary to adjust the plant to life in the great outdoors. Well hardened-off plants won’t suffer a setback when they finally get transplanted in late May.

Choose a cloudy, overcast day to move the plants outside permanently. If transplanting must be done on a bright day, plant late in the day and shade the plants for a few days. If the weather is cold, gain additional warmth from solar heat-collecting water caps. Gallon milk containers filled with water and placed near the plants will collect heat and disperse it overnight. A paper bag will help break the wind, but black roofing paper will attract the heat and break the wind. Bushel baskets can be overturned and placed over the tender plants, too.

When tomatoes bloom, spray the flower clusters twice a week with blossom set spray, which contains a hormone that will help the fruit set as early as possible. Side dress the plant with fertilizer after the plant has blossomed.

Why didn’t we start our tomatoes in January and get a really good head start on summer? Growing tomatoes indoors is timed precisely because tomatoes can’t stand being in the house any more than you can. By starting them this month, they’ll be perfectly grown and ready to transplant outdoors at the earliest possible date, having had the advantage of a few warm weeks in your house. They’ll be far ahead of any plants started outdoors from seed in May in the still very cold soil. You’ll be sick of watering, moving, turning and tending those tiny pots, but you’ll be so glad you did it.

Start with one of the early varieties, such as Early Girl or Big Early. Plant seeds indoors about 10 weeks before the average last spring frost date for your area. Re-pot the tiny seedlings when they are 3 to 4 inches high. At this time, pick off all the lower leaves and replant up to the leaves. Re-pot again when the plants are 8 to 10 inches high, again pinching off the lower leaves to prevent rotting.

Now, I know you have been told over the years never to re-pot any plant deeper than it was growing. We’re told that the stem will rot. Tomatoes are one of the few exceptions to this rule. By burying the stem, you allow the plant to grow additional roots, which will nourish and stabilize a tall plant. A good, cheap container for tomato plants is a tall, one-quart paper milk carton. Punch holes in the bottom for drainage and use a clean packaged soil mixture to avoid molds and mildews. Keep your tomato plants in the sunniest location in the house that you can find. If you are growing under lights, keep the lights about 2 inches above the tops of the plant, and at that level by raising them as the plants grow. Remember that plants grown under lights need to sleep about eight hours every night, so set a timer. Give the plants plenty of water through the fruiting process. Don’t ever let them get dry. Water early in the day to avoid rot, mold and mildews. Watch out for insects. Spray, following directions carefully, or handpick the critters from each plant. Some gardeners swear by root pruning after three or four clusters of fruit have formed. This is done by digging a shovel into the ground once, about 6 inches out from the stem. The plant panics when some roots are severed and quickly ripens the fruit. It’s self-preservation because the fruit contains the seed for the next generation. Try it if you have an extra plant to experiment on.

Will you have the first tomato? You can try, but what difference does it really make if your tomatoes are a week later than your neighbors’? They will taste especially delicious because you grew them.

It’s not too late to buy seeds locally — or even order from a catalog — but do it now.

This week’s dirt: Sick of all the cold weather? Don’t believe in groundhogs? Next time, we’re going to tell you how to make spring come a little sooner — guaranteed.

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North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at nsgardener@comcast.net or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.