Q: Can I grow tomatoes in the house?

A: Because I love tomatoes and consider the winter commercial types a different vegetable entirely, indoor tomato growing is an experiment I have been carrying out for many years. I have been successful with several different tomato varieties. I have also failed spectacularly with others. At the moment I have in the house five tomato plants of various ages.

I like to start seeds every three weeks or so, in order to have some fresh tomatoes throughout the winter. Since it takes four months or longer from planting seed to the first ripe tomato, I sow the winter's first indoor seed in late July. It will produce the first ripe tomato for Thanksgiving. I end the seed planting series in late January; after that I switch back to seeds for outdoor tomatoes.

I have had the most success with two kinds of tomatoes: both tall plants bred for greenhouse growing and dwarf plants for containers. Most tomatoes developed for gardens have not done well indoors. They were susceptible to damaging insects like spider mites, or they grew into enormous plants with hardly any fruits. I would not try experimenting again with the kinds I grow in the summer garden.

I grow indoor tomatoes in a south window to give them the most light possible. I also turn on nearby lights during the late afternoon and evening. During the shortest days I also turn on lights when I get up in the morning, so that my "in house" tomatoes always have approximately 16 hour days and eight hour nights. This year I am also trying for comparison a pot on a plant table with grow lights. Necessarily, it will be a dwarf plant which can fit between a shelf and the lights above.

Of the several greenhouse tomatoes I have grown, 'Boa' was my favorite. When it disappeared from the market I started a new series of experiments. I do not yet have one that I would recommend above all others. Of the dwarf tomatoes, I have found 'Red Robin' to be the clear winner. It grows the most cherry tomatoes with the best flavor. If anyone has had success with varieties unknown to me, I would be glad both to try them and to spread the word.

I grow greenhouse tomatoes in very large containers and dwarf ones in six inch pots. They require no more care than any house plant and are an attractive part of the room decor (besides having the promise of good food this winter). I give the tomatoes a little fertilizer monthly, just as I would with tomatoes in the garden. Once the plants begin to bloom, I water them every day. Most of the dwarf plants need a stake to lean on after they grow top heavy with green tomatoes. I provide the greenhouse tomatoes with a trellis for climbing as soon as they head toward the ceiling.

Indoor winter tomatoes are not as productive as outdoor summer ones, but the varieties that I consider successful ripen about two dozen tomatoes over a period of three or four weeks.

Q: I have a prayer plant that isn't looking good ever since I repotted it. I thought that it would grow faster in a bigger pot, but it is not. In fact, it acts as if it is slowly dying. Could there be something in the new potting soil that is killing my plant?

A: It sounds as if the problem with the potting soil is that there is too much of it. It is all too easy to look at a house plant and say, "Poor thing. You don't have any space in that pot for new roots. You would be happier in a big pot." It seems like a great idea, but the house plant disagrees. Instead of bursting forth with new leaves and branches, it stops growing. A perfectly healthy plant becomes an invalid.

What happened? Healthy house plants have achieved a good balance between their leaves and their roots. If the roots are suddenly surrounded by a lot of empty space, they hardly know what to do with it, and the leaves are sent off balance by the roots' perplexity. The plant is in turmoil. To help it back to an orderly life, pull it out of the big pot and put it back in a small one. When you do, you will notice that there are few roots trying to grow into the quantity of empty soil which surrounded them, or perhaps no new roots at all.

Your prayer plant should recover within a month, once it is back in a smaller pot. To avoid the problem of overpotting in the future, leave house plants in their containers as long as possible. They all prefer tight quarters for their roots. Repot only when the plant has grown a top ridiculously larger than its container, or when it must be watered twice a day to keep from wilting.

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When a plant surely needs a bigger pot, move it up only one size. I can remember thinking to myself that I could save work by moving a plant only once, to a really big pot, instead of two or three times into gradually larger pots. Because the plants were always unhappy with my idea, I made myself more work instead of less. I still do not love repotting, but I have learned my lesson. I pay attention to the plants' desires and not my own.

Try a few techniques other than repotting to keep house plants looking good. If a plant grows tall or floppy, give it a support to climb on. If you cannot find an attractive trellis, tie branches to one or two stakes. Never hesitate to trim off old leaves, or even young leaves with tears where the cat scratched them. If the plant grows a funny looking bulge, prune it off. Remove all of a wayward branch growing in an odd direction. Plants respond to this kind of pruning as if they had been given a haircut.


Penelope Lively, a gardener and garden writer for many years, says:

"To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different....It would seem that time shoulders a garden aside, which is true enough, but the gardener's power of defying time is something different — it is what the garden, the activity of gardening, does for you, me, for anyone. Gardening, you escape the tether of time."