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Starting Tomatoes From Seed

Specialized Kit Ensures Success for Master Gardener

Jack Davey
Master Gardener Jack Davey uses a stepladder to tend his plants, which are protected from deer in the area.

You could call Jack Davey a tomato fanatic. The retired naval officer and current Master Gardener from Virginia Beach, Va., starts between 150 and 400 tomato seedlings each year. He keeps just 20 plants for himself, giving the rest to friends, or selling them at the local Master Gardener plant sale each spring.

Though Jack has used other seedstarting kits over the years, he now relies on the APS systems to get his young plants going. The reason is simple: guaranteed success.

"If I don't get 100 percent germination I definitely get 99 percent," he said. "I use the APS-24 and I plant two seeds per cell. I always get two plants."

Jack starts his seeds under lights in December, and is still sowing seeds right into February. Though other gardeners in and around Virginia Beach sometimes transplant their tomato seedlings outside as early as mid-April, Jack learned his lesson one year when there was a late frost.

APS-24
The APS makes seedstarting easy.

"Now I don't put my plants in the ground until the 10th of May and I use water jackets (such as Tomato Teepees) to begin with," he said. Jack usually begins harvesting his tomatoes in mid-July—if not sooner.

Jack also grows roses in his yard, and has recently fallen in love with scented geraniums. He grows a number of different herbs both inside and outdoors. But his passion is heirloom tomatoes.

Heirloom plants—which include tomatoes as well as other vegetables and flowers—are time-tested cultivars that have been grown for 50, 100 or even 200 years. Gardeners who save their own seeds from one year to the next help keep these cultivars from extinction. Though heirloom vegetables are often not suited to large-scale production (they may be less productive or unable to withstand long-distance transport) they offer a wider range of colors and flavors than many modern cultivars.

One of Jack's favorite tomatoes is 'Pink Ponderosa', which was rediscovered at the York Market in York, Pa., in the 1980s. The tomato hails back to 1891 and is known for having thin skin, few seeds, and a mild sweetness. He also plants 'Russian 117', a heart-shaped, meaty red tomato as well as 'Red' and 'Yellow Pears'. "Those are just wonderful with a salad," he said.

For 10 years, Jack lived in Colorado where he worked as a ski instructor. While there, he had to quell his gardening desires. "The only thing you can grow there is mint," he said.

Today, Davey lives two miles from the ocean. Because his home is situated near wetlands, he must contend with a host of critters, especially deer. He has devised a unique solution to keep these long-legged pests out of his garden. His raised bed stands four feet off the ground and is completely surrounded by fencing. Weeding and watering is a bit of a challenge, but Jack manages to do it all from a ladder.

Each morning during the growing season, he is up by 6 a.m. and out touring his gardens to see how his tomatoes are doing.

"The thing I enjoy most is growing large tomatoes, 2-pounders and up," Jack said.

And he puts his garden's bounty to good use. Ever year he makes and cans sauces and salsa, and also cans tomatoes whole. You won't find him in the grocery store buying any extras.

"I can't bear these awful things that pass for tomatoes today," he said.

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