June 12, 2013

How to grow the healthiest tomatoes

My tomato seedlings are strong and have good root growth, thanks to my new fertilizer which is lower in nitrogen, and rich with micro nutrients. The roots are at the perfect stage for planting out, just reaching the edge of the 5 inch pots, and the leaves are just reaching their second pair stage. No flowers,  and no hormones or growth regulators used, and in those found at most garden centers.  These will catch up with any tomato planted a month ago, and out perform.

It's scary to think about, but this is about the 48th year that I am planting tomatoes in my garden. I think I first planted tomatoes when I was about 5 years old, with my dad - following along side the wheelbarrow as he dug compost from the larger compost pile where we used to dump all of the garden clippings, raked leaves and old manure from the coops. In the 1960's, dad would do what many Americans did, create rings of paper or felt to keep cutworms off of the plants, and it was one of my first chores to tear pages from Life magazine ( and one year, a Playboy magazine which I was sworn to privacy about, but apparently he ran out of Life, and one could never destroy a National Geographic). It was my job to fold the pages into neat, tight bands, which would then slip over the weak seedlings that we started in the cold frames, and the he would apply the paperclip or masking tape, to hold the ring in place. I would then get to use the trowel to fill the ring with soil.

It all seemed so magical to me - scientific, really, since it involved a wagon with galvanized buckets of manure, fertilizer and limestone. Each element assembled in some sort of alchemy which I never understood, deep in a hole which would then have one of my mothers precious seedlings placed in it. I did understand that this was food for the baby tomatoes, never really appreciating how good a home grown tomato was, they were all I knew. I had little contextual reference at that time.  I think all I really associated with tomatoes was "what's all the bother? There was planting, which was fun, and eating our in the garden in the warm sunshine ( even better, along with a fresh cucumber or pepper and a salt shaker), but there was the weeding, and....the weeding. The staking followed, and eventually the harvest and the massive canning process out at the fireplace that stood near the woods ( the same one we use today when we slaughter the turkeys. 
Oh Mom, really? 801 quarts? Of course I was born 12 years later, but this gives you an idea of what I was born into - child labor - garden labor at an early age.

Today, Tomatoes are precious, so, I must be old. As no work seems hard, even though one may become sore after a day of digging simple holes. Back when I was a kid, dad would brag about how many plants he had planted, and my mother would type long lists of canned goods that demonstrated and documented their hard efforts ' 265 quarts of tomato sauce, 125 quarts of whole tomatoes, 183 pints of piccalilli. I'm lucky if I can 12 quarts every year. Sad, but true. Sorry mom.

But it is tomato planting season again, but on a much smaller scale. The greenhouse and tall trees now stand where the largest vegetable garden once stood, but even through I've reduced the gardening space to 8 raised beds, the soil is still deep and rich, a gift my family has been blessed with for over 100 years on this land. I try not to get too geeky about tomatoes, accepting a few years ago that what will happen, will happen - blight, late blight, Phytophora infestans, whatever, if it comes, it comes, and it will - eventually. All I can do is try to keep my plants as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Tomatoes are best planted in new locations each year, and this year, I am growing a few in some raised beds which I allowed to rest over the past two years ( I grew cut flower sweet peas in these last year). Turned over by hand with a pitch fork, the beds were covered with straw from the duck coops all winter, and ground limestone was added.
I don't know about you, but with all of the rain we've been getting here in New England, I'm a little late in planting my tomatoes, but, waiting until mid-June will have little effect upon my tomato harvest, for regardless of what the garden center sells us in April ( yes, I saw tomato plants being sold two months ago!), June is still be best time to plant warm-loving tomatoes into most gardens. 

My tomato plants are at the perfect size to transplant into the ground. Sown around mid to-late April in the greenhouse ( April 21st this year), the plants have been grown on in sterile soil (ProMixBX), in 5 inch pots, and hardened-off outdoors for ten days. They are now all ready for planting out into the raised beds and containers which I have prepared. 

Grounds horticultural limestone is added at a rate of 5 lbs per 8 x 10 foot bed makes my hands look like I am an Olympic gymnast. Oh, OK, I know my body looks like one too - shut up!, But that still doesn't make my tomatoes grow any better - with our acid soil, I need lime to neutralize the soil, which allows the plants to access more nutrients ( that's why you apply lime). The proper pH for tomatoes fits within 6.0 to 6.5. 
There are many things to consider with planting tomatoes as study after study has proven many many home remedies as false ( Epsom Salts, Aspirin, Molasses) for simple science is all you need to know about. Proper soil temperature ( 60º - 70º for optimum root growth), proper nutrition ( a granular well balanced fertilizer dug-in at planting, or a balanced organic applied 6 months earlier), a soil test and appropriate pH balance additives such as ground limestone, and not granular lawn lime in my case, and the best varieties you can find - I am planting a mixture of new hybrids as well as some interesting heirlooms.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, but like us, they should not eat junk food all the time. A fertilizer with the analysis of 10-10-10 might make a great kick-off meal, but a diet with this ratio provides far too much nitrogen, and you will have healthy looking plants, but they will have mostly leaves with few fruit. Look for a formula where the first number is the lowest.
Although a good balanced granular 10-10-10 fertilizer is dug into each hole at planting, along with a half bushel of compost and rotted manure, for the rest of the year, I use my special tomato liquid blend that I mix myself ( more on that later, and no....I never use manure tea or compost tea, another legend many we laugh about over beers when I get together with horticulture professors).

I grow most of my tomatoes in containers with fresh, sterile soil which I buy each year ( never, ever save it, for it carries disease and virus'). In the garden, most diseases begin in the soil, so good old black plastic landscape mulch works fine. Sure, there is little else one can do ( leading botanists have even proven that copper fungicide rarely works well), and most diseases arrive through the air, so eventually, every plant will succumb to something icky, but the goal is the discourage any breakout for as long as possible, and to pray for hot, sunny weather!

Check out my Marigolds...this year I was fed up with commercial nursery annuals, as they are all drenched in growth regulators ( just try to find a marigold in a 4 pack that is taller than 5 inches and that does not have a flower on it!). This variety, a tall growing classic Burpee yellow will reach 4 or 5 feet tall, and I am planting these along the back side of the tomato bed - no, not to discourage insects ( so funny, right:? But you'd be surprised at how many gardeners still believe in this legend), but I plant them because I love them.

Pole beans were planted today also, this time where I had tomatoes growing last year. With two days of warm rain coming, and warm soil, it was a rush to get many of these warm-weather loving plants sown including cucumbers, squash and sunflowers. Let the rains begin.


  1. I love the story of your family's history with gardening. That is one healthy looking garden you have there. See you in SF at the Fling soon!

  2. Ha ha ha...."child labor!" Did you pick volcanic rocks out of Washington clay for an entire summer so your mom could make raised beds for her gardens? Me and my 5 fellow siblings did. And now, what I wouldn't give for free rocks! If I want raised beds, they cost a small fortune here in sunny So.Cal! Ah good times....good times. Your mom's canning lists are making my mouth water... ; )


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