March 23, 2011
If there’s one crop that conjures up more conversation and opinions about how to grow it than any other, it’s the tomato. So, here’s some friendly advice, but know that the next gardener or nursery will offer up an opinion (possibly not the same one that’s here) on THE way to get to those big, juicy ripe tomatoes. Take it all in but remember that your best teacher will be your own garden and actually growing the tomatoes. Be observant and you’ll learn more from your own patch of earth than you will from any book or garden center.
Here’s my basic recipe for success:
1. Loosen the soil with a garden fork, as deeply as you can – at least 12 inches is good. Enrich the soil with lots of compost – at least 4 inches layered on top of your soil, then worked into the top 6-8 inches. Add about 1/8 c per tomato of an organic nitrogen rich fertilizer to the area such as alfalfa meal, worm castings or blood meal. You can work this fertilizer in with the compost.
2. Space your tomato plants about 2 feet apart and try to maximize the growing area and minimize the pathway or area where you step in the garden – roots prefer soil that is loosened and not compacted. Bury the bottom half of the stem of the plant when planting – this will cause the tomato to grow roots off of the buried stem. Additional roots will improve the overall health of the plant.
3. Water using soaker hoses or drip irrigation. This will allow a long, deep and consistent watering that will help minimize disease and pest infestation.
4. Layer a 2-4 inch mulch over the soil around your tomatoes (and on top of your soaker hoses or drip tape) once the soil has warmed up – April is a good time. Good mulches for tomatoes include newspaper (with leaves or pine needles on top of them), pine needles, grass clippings or something that is finely shredded and will decompose in one season.
5. Give your tomatoes support so they will grow straight and tall. There are many methods for staking – all with their advantages and disadvantages. If using cages, get the absolute largest one you can find. T-stakes work well too but you’ll have to tie your tomatoes’ main stem to the stake ever 12-18 inches of growth. Check out this study done by some master gardeners on the pros and cons of various methods for staking tomatoes.