Start Tomatoes in Winter in Styrofoam Cups

tomato seedlings in Styrofoam cups

tomato seedlings in Styrofoam cups

Several horticultural inquiries received during the last month should be of general interest to readers of this column.
Q: I grow tomatoes during the summer but really would like to grow them during the winter. I don’t like buying them at $3 or $4 per pound. Is there a way I can do this with plastic or something? I live in Northridge, so it does get cold and windy. We don’t have space for a hot house.
– Sue Hammarlund, Northridge
A: In the Valley, you can germinate tomato seeds indoors on a sunny window sill throughout the winter. Plant them in small clay pots or Styrofoam cups, making sure you punch drainage holes in the latter. Another technique utilizes peat pellets, peat pots or peat cubes for seed germination. Seedlings growing in these biodegradable starters can be transplanted into larger containers or directly into the ground without disturbing their roots.
Since the ground never freezes in the Valley, you can plant here virtually year around. However, seedlings of tomatoes and other frost-sensitive plants should be covered at night from late November through late February. The easiest way to do this is by covering each seedling with a 1-gallon plastic pot – that ubiquitous black container used for growing nursery stock.
To protect a vegetable plot from both cold and wind, you may wish to construct a makeshift fence out of shade cloth, available at most nurseries, and 3- or 4-foot wooden stakes. Staple the cloth to the stakes and put this protective barrier up at night and on windy days.
If you wish to have tomatoes during winter, you will have to plant good- size seedlings in the ground during August. Certain tomato varieties, such as Celebrity, Heatwave, Solar Set and Whirlaway, have been known to produce in the winter, as have many varieties of cherry tomato, when planted in late summer. The hybrid “Bingo” has often been classified as a perennial tomato and has proven itself by producing fruit in every month of the year when the winter is mild. However, as weather cools late in the year, expect a significant decline in production.
Q: I recently rented a home in Burbank, and the garden, if you can call it that, has not been touched in about five years. The house I just moved out of had an incredible garden. I had a front and back yard, so my dog (German shepherd) was not allowed in the back yard, and that is why it was so beautiful. I don’t have that luxury anymore. He is not a digger but loves to run. I would like to put a lawn in, preferably sod, and was wondering if you have any advice about which would be the best type of grass? He seems to run in specific areas; maybe I can do some sort of trail?
– Rita Fabra, Burbank
A: There is no type of lawn grass I know of, installed as sod or planted from seed, that is impervious to dogs. The only type of lawn grass that stands up to dogs is kikuyu grass, that ropy turf that has overtaken most public parks and school playing fields in the Valley. I have often wondered why no one gets into the commercial production of kikuyu grass. It is not only resistant to dog traffic but to insect pests, diseases and, most important, drought.
I would suggest that you follow a lawn mower cutting the grass in a public park and ask if you can have some clippings. Kikuyu grass, like Bermuda grass, produces runners or stolons, which root when they make contact with moist soil. If you plant these stolons all over your back yard, you should have a fine greensward of kikuyu within a few years. Take note that kikuyu grows lush in full sun but more sparsely in the shade.
If you decide to put in a more conventional and dog-sensitive lawn, you would want to install a dog run, perhaps in a side yard that could be closed off with a wooden or chain-link gate. One of the cheapest and best materials for a dog run would be decomposed granite, an attractive material which, compacted with a roller, is eminently suitable as a surface for canine calisthenics.
Q: I wonder if you can recommend some backyard trees for me. My yard is relatively empty along the back fence, and my view consists of my neighbor’s ugly roof and accompanying air-conditioning ductwork, etc. What kinds of trees/shrubs could I plant along the back fence to obscure the view?
– Erin Newman, West Hills
A: The most suitable tree for creating the screen you desire would be Italian cypress. These tall, narrow trees can handle almost any soil and climatic conditions the Valley has to offer. They also grow as tall as a two-story house. If the house is only one story, you have more options, including African yew pine (Podocarpus species), paperbark (Melaleuca quinqunervia) and bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) trees.

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