How to make free self-watering containers for rooting tomato cuttings
Free tomato plants
I'm into freebies and recycling. I also like a good deal or neat idea that saves time, money or space and provides a decent return on my investment, whether it's labor or capital.
A cost-saving method of getting free tomato plants is to root the suckers that grow in the stem. I'm using the Sweet 100 cherry tomato variety but any variety including bush varieties will do. The Sweet 100 variety is open-pollinated so the seeds can be saved. Instead of starting new plants from seed, I take the cuttings from established plants and root each of them in a homemade self-watering container constructed from a yogurt cup and a larger cottage cheese or yogurt container. Roots can form anywhere along a tomato stem as long as it's in contact with moist soil and a new tomato plant will grow from the cutting. My method does that and does it for free.
From start to finish, this project takes about 10 minutes.
Obtain a sucker
No, not one of those that are born every minute...
The first thing I do is cut a decent sucker from the tomato plant with a pair of scissors and put it in a yogurt cup that contains a mix of compost, potting soil and seed starting mix.
Next, I use a medium size nail to punch small holes around the edge of the yogurt cup and gently water the cutting.
After adding holes and watering, I add some water to the larger container. This one happened to hold cottage cheese (my mom loves cottage cheese and saves the containers).
Finally, I put the yogurt cup inside the larger container and make sure the water level is lower than the yogurt cup so the soil mix doesn't wash out (like in the picture). The soil mix will wick water from the large container into the yogurt cup and keep the mix moist for several days. The large container also helps support the cutting and eliminates the need for frequent watering. Just keep the cutting in the shade and let the roots form, then harden off the new plant to prepare it for the garden.
Six days after being potted and resting in the shade on the porch, the cutting is now officially a tomato plant complete with a bloom. It's time to harden it off by placing it in direct sun for a few hours a day over the next several days. Expose the plant to three hours of direct sunlight at first and work up to eight hours. When the plant can tolerate a full eight hours in direct sun, it's time to transplant it into the garden.
If the cutting is blooming, pinch the blossom off. It may look pretty, but you want your plant producing a strong root system, not fruit. At this stage, the cutting isn't quite ready to produce fruit. You can let it flower once it's established in the garden.
Ready to transplant
After a full day in the sun yesterday with no wilting, my cherry tomato cutting is hardened off and ready for the garden. Notice the nice root system that has formed in the pictures below. I'll keep an eye on the transplant for signs of transplant shock and water it daily until it's established.
I'm ready to start another cutting!
The advantages to using this self-watering container method are three-fold. One, there's no need to start from seed and wait several weeks before getting a viable transplant. Two, the harvest is somewhat staggered since the mother plant produces a larger harvest before the offspring plant reaches its peak production. Three, you're recycling and reusing plastic containers and they're free!
Go get your hands dirty!