}

June 3, 2011

Planting Tomatoes 101

PROPER SOIL PREP IS AS IMPORTANT AS CHOOSING SMALL, HEALTHY SEEDLINGS.
It can be a simple task, or and elaborate one, either way many of us gardeners now know that tomato culture is rarely foolproof, and success is somewhat dependent on weather, disease control and proper cultural techniques, as well as on your choice of varieties. Tomato crops are one of those enigma-crops, there are legendary years, those of awesome harvests and those of great loss ( no tomatoes at all), and then there are those individuals who just fuss and tend to every detail, investing hundreds of dollars with the hopes to achieve tomato greatness, with nary a tomato,and there are those who toss into a windowbox, a few, free weak plants, and the end up with dozens of fruit, regardless, the tomato continues to be the single most important home vegetable garden crop, and in a world with hanging tomato planters, heirloom crazies and giant beefsteak goonies, there seems to be a tomato on everyones radar.

 I believe that the best results come from practicing excellent tomato culture, a lesson learned from my dad, oh, 40 or so years ago, when I would help my parents not only sow seeds on the glassed in porch every April, but also help them plant strong seedlings every June. My parents were a little crazy about growing tomatoes, as well as other vegetables, since they canned and froze many types of vegetables all summer long ( some caning lists from my mom show that she canned over 300 quarts of tomatoes every year!). Today, I still grow tomatoes, in the same garden that my mom and dad did, and where my grandparents also grew vegetables, essentially, for over 100 years, we've been planting tomatoes in the same soil, which has it's issues with crop rotation and disease management, for tomatoes are notoriously susceptible to many soil and air-borne pathogens.

Today, I grow tomatoes essentially in the same place, but the large vegetable garden that once extended over 100 feet long by 60 feet, has now been reduced to 6 raised beds, with only a couple of beds dedicated to tomatoes, with the balance of the tomato crop assigned to containers, where they seem to grow better in virgin soil. I grow a wide variety of tomatoes, some new disease resistant varieties, cherry's and dwarf patio types, as well as about 15 heirloom varieties. That said, I only grow about 25 plants, so it's not as if I am planting ten of each variety anymore. I think ( know) if I had room, if I lived on a farm, that I would, but I have limited time and space.

What I have learned over the past 30 or so years with my solo tomato growing, is something that I still see few, if any new gardener or blogger follow, for tomatoes do respond to proper cultural techniques, and I assure you that over time, you too will learn what works, and what doesn't. I have 6 simple rules to follow.
TOMATO BOXES THAT ARE SELF-WATERING, MAKE GROWING PERFECT TOMATOES, EASY. THIS ONE HOLDS TWO PLANTS THAT WILL GROW  FEET TALL, AND ONE BASIL PLANT THAT WILL MOST LIKELY BE OVER CROWDED IN A MONTH. BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVER PLANT YOUR CONTAINERS. ONE PLANT IS BETTER THAN 3.


1. Plant heirloom varieties in containers with an excellent quality potting soil, like ProMix. Why? Heirloom's might be cool and trendy, but they suck as plants. Heirloom varieties are the weakest growers, and are the varieties that are most susceptible to diseases, and since most tomato diseases come from airborne or even soil-borne sources, keeping planting as sterile as possible is the safest way to get a good crop.

2. Plant young plants - seriously. You could even plant seeds this week in the ground and I guarantee that you will have a better crop than that lady at my local Home Depot yesterday who was proudly rushing to her car with a 3 foot tall tomato plant, all staked and fruited. I start my seeds around April 15, and plant seedlings around June 1.
A FANCY HIGH-END SLATE TROUGH MAKES A STYLISH PLANTER FOR TWO HEIRLOOM TOMATO PLANTS
3. Plant tomatoes in different places every year. Crop rotation helps, but does not eliminate the risk for disease. There are a host of diseases that affect tomatoes, early blight, and late blight, various wilts and fungus', but the worst case scenario is what we had two years ago, an outbreak of early Late Blight, which spread and killed most every tomato crop in the eastern US. If you can't rotate crops, at least keep your beds clean and free from weeds.
4. Plant your tomatoes with enough space around them. Look, even my sister crowds in as many plants as she can into a raised bed. Last week, I saw at least 15 plants in a 9 square foot garden. My 5 x 10 raised beds hold only 6 plants, with 3 feet in between each plant. It helps if you can visualize the volume of space a mature plant will take up, which we all seem to forget while planting small little plants.

5. Grow tomatoes as stress less as possible, which simply means, provide constant moisture, full sun and keep them well fed with anything other than 10-10-10. Stay away from high-nitrogen fertilizer ( like Miracle Gro in the green box). Use either organic tomato fertilizer ( such as the one I use available from Gardener's Supply) or a commercial tomato fertilizer. I watch my neighbors water their tomatoes with MiracleGro and they brag about how huge and healthy their plants are, but, they are all foliage, since that's what MiracleGro -10-10-10 is designed for. Great for other plants, but not for tomatoes. Look for a formula closer to 3-5-10 or 5-10-10 or anyone where the first number is lower ( not all "tomato fertilizers' are the same). Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so don't think that going all 'organic' and 'crunchy granola' will get you a huge crop, there is some science here and good agriculture means that you will need to provide additional nutrients in order to harvest a sizable crop.




1 comment :

  1. Hello, I wanted to let you know that I think your blog is wonderful with great photos as well as being so informative. Your tomato cages are interesting...I don't think I have seen square before.

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