Photo by Sylvia Ferry Smith

So here I am, cruising the aisles of a local greenhouse, looking for a few tomato plants to add to the 80 or so that Sylvia has started for our garden. I can buy the six-pack for only a bit more than the single plant in the red pot. What should I do? The six-pack? Or spend four or five times as much for six in individual pots? At first glance, looks like a no-brainer: Grab the six-pack. But let’s take a second, longer look.

The plants in the six-pack seem to be bigger than the solitary one; taller, with at least as many leaves. But there’s more to “bigger” than meets the eye. There’s not much room for roots in that six-pack container, probably about the same amount of room there is in the pot with only one plant. When the dealing’s done and we’re counting up our winnings, the tomato plant with the biggest root system is going to be the plant with the most tomatoes. The single plant in the big pot already has a huge head start toward that nice, big root system . And the “bigger” plants in the six-pack are taller because they’ve been growing in very crowded conditions; they have been getting taller and taller to try to get some sunlight. Their stem diameters are actually smaller than that of the single plant. And one more thing: Check out the color difference. The single plant is a much deeper green, meaning that it, unlike the other six, has enough nitrogen. The tomato plants in the six-pack have used up all the food available in the little potting soil they have to grow in; they’re already suffering from stress, and they’re not even in the garden yet.

So the “no-brainer” isn’t quite as simple as it first appears. I’m very likely to have a much more valuable harvest at the end of summer if I spend a little more now and buy seedlings that are compact, in relatively large pots, and showing no signs of nutrient deficiency (yellow/green leaves = nitrogen deficiency; purple leaves and stems = phosphorus deficiency; spindly stems = potassium deficiency).

Edward C. Smith

Edward C. Smith is the best-selling author of The Vegetable Gardener's Bible and The Vegetable Gardener's Container Bible. For more than 30 years he and… See Bio

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