Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Molly Hackett
Master Gardener 

Tomatoes, phosphorus and seed catalogs

Dirty Fingernails


Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Molly Hackett, Master Gardener

It is too early in the year to get a shovel into the ground but it is time to start preparing for this year's garden if it is going to be the best ever.

Q: What are your favorite tomato varieties?

A: I try at least one new kind of tomato every year. Most of them I never grow again but sometimes I discover a new variety that I keep on growing as long as the seed is available. I always grow one kind of cherry tomato because they are earlier than big tomatoes. This year it will once again be Sungold, for its unsurpassable flavor.

The big tomatoes are always a mixture of heirloom and hybrid types. Heirloom tomatoes have wonderful flavor but they have a couple of disadvantages. They are not immune to diseases and they seldom are heavy producers. Also, they may be strange looking.

Hybrid tomatoes usually are healthy plants with heavy production. I choose only those hybrids which I have learned have excellent flavor.

I grow all my tomatoes from seed and I choose varieties which mature at 70 days or less. I do not want to pick the first ripe tomato on Labor Day.

If I were setting out tomato plants after Memorial Day, I would not plant seeds for another month. But I start tomato plants in walls of water. With that protection I can put them in the garden during the first week of May. My tomato seeds will go into indoor pots next week.

This year, besides an experimental tomato, I am growing these large varieties: Early Choice, Legacy, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and Whopper. I do not grow Italian-type tomatoes (also called Roma or paste tomatoes). They have the advantage of low moisture content, which means that less cooking time is required to make a thick sauce. Unfortunately, these tomatoes have less taste. I am willing to spend more time cooking when my reward is maximum flavor.

Q: Is there a natural way to add phosphorus to my soil? Should I buy rock phosphate? Can I burn bones in my woodstove and use the ashes?

A: Fortunately, our soils have generous amounts of phosphorus and it is a stable element-not like nitrogen, which leaches down through the soil and evaporates into the air almost as soon as it is created. It is nearly impossible to find a natural source of phosphorus which would feed plants in our area.

Rock phosphate breaks down into a usable form only in acid soil and our soils are not acid. No matter how much you apply, it just sits there, out of reach of plant roots.

Do not apply ashes to local soils. Wood ash may have components useful to plants but ashes always are alkaline. Since our soils already are alkaline, raising the pH does far more harm than any possible good. I know of gardeners who, by adding ashes to their soil, created places where nothing would grow for a year or two. Try putting your ashes on the driveway. They will help to discourage weeds.

Q: What seed catalogs do you like best?

A: I have the best results from employee-owned companies and those located in the northern part of the country. Ones in central or southern states sell fewer varieties for our short-season climate with its cold nights. They are likely to tell me to plant seeds "when night temperatures are dependably above 50 degrees." In my garden, that is never.

I order seeds from catalogs that I have requested-by email, phone or letter. All seed catalogs are free. I do not order from any that come to me in bulk mailings, without my having asked for them. I have found quality problems in their products.

I do not give much thought to catalogs which promise inexpensive seeds. No seed is expensive when I consider the work that has gone into its production. I have learned that inexpensive seeds usually do not grow well. That results in expensive vegetables.

Hackett welcomes reader questions related to gardening, pest management, plants, soils and anything in between. Submit questions to, call 406-961-4614 or mail questions to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875.


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