How We Got Our Best Tomato Crop Ever!
Few crops arouse as much pride in gardeners as their tomatoes. Despite the care people put into their tomato crops, most people experience variable results from year to year. Weather conditions are an important factor in what happens in our gardens, and as you know, we can't change the weather. Nevertheless, we have found that if we follow certain steps faithfully they improve our chances for a successful tomato crop.
This is what we do...
The old adage, "The early bird catches the worm," may apply to many things in life, but not to tomatoes. Early is not better. Late is not better. On time is best. The on time date will vary from year to year, but is generally about 3 - 4 weeks following the frost free date in your area (you can get this information on our website). If you plant too early your plants may be damaged by severe weather, and if you plant too late you may not receive as full a crop as possible. Don't panic. On time does not mean a particular date, but a window, perhaps two weeks long, when it is optimum for planting (fair weather, warm soil, increasing daylight hours).
We generally add the following ingredients to our soil just before planting: blood meal, bone meal, kelp meal or greensand, calcium, and compost. The first three encourage vigorous plant growth. Calcium assists with nutrient uptake by the roots, and protects against blossom end rot, a common affliction of tomatoes. Most soils are deficient in organic matter; annual use of compost is the best way to replenish the organic content of your soil.
We generally time our transplants to move out into the garden when they have 6" to 10" of stem and leaves above the soil level in their container. We bury the plants so that only two - three sets of true leaves are showing above the garden soil. The remaining portion of the stem below the ground will develop roots into the surrounding soil. Watering your plants in with fish emulsion (try our Sea Mix) is a worthwhile extra step at transplant time. Studies show this helps them make the transition to their new location.
Get your supports on soon after transplanting. Regardless of what method you use, there are few tasks as frustrating as putting a cage or spiral on a tomato plant when it has begun to size up.
Mulch. Mulch. Mulch
Mulch helps keep the moisture content of the soil beneath at a desirable level. This, in turn, gives the roots of your tomatoes one of the vital ingredients that enables them to grow: water. Mulch also reduces weeding during the season.
We use newspapers for our mulch, covered by unfinished compost. The newspapers have several benefits: they are inexpensive, they biodegrade, and they are abundantly available. We take piles of newspapers, put them in a garbage can, and then fill the can with water to saturate the papers. The weight of the moisture keeps the papers in place as you lay them down around your plants, and before they have been covered with compost. We are generous as we set down the papers. A thick layer helps keep water in, weeds down, and is more likely to last through the entire season.
Cover the paper with coarse compost, or whatever suits your taste. Remember that in the fall, as the papers decompose, this material will work its way into your soil.
We have our plants on drip irrigation lines that run beneath the newspapers and mulch, immediately next to the crown of the plants. Regardless of how you water, you want to maintain moisture in the soil at all times. Too dry and the plants are under stress for lack of water. Too wet (saturated) and the plants are under stress from lack of air. A good mid-level amount of moisture is correct. To achieve this we water daily in moderation. Remember that as the plants grow, they will require more water to support their additional surface area and mass.
After we've taken these steps, we generally sit back and relax. Most of the work is done until harvest time.
You will want to visit your plants regularly to observe for any signs of disease and to insure moisture levels are appropriate for changing weather conditions. We also generally feed once or twice after blossoms have fed with a liquid fish fertilizer (Sea Mix, once again) to give them energy for robust growth, but that's about all.
We hope this primer helps you achieve excellent results in the season ahead. After all, home grown tomatoes are one of life's finest simple pleasures.
Please feel free to share this with a friend.