Apr 11, 2011

An expert’s tomato-growing tips

This past Saturday I attended a talk, “Important Tips for Growing Tomatoes,” at my local nursery. I hoped to learn what I’d been doing wrong tomato-wise, and I did. To sum it up, I had been doing everything wrong.

Most of my mistakes boiled down to a lack of respect for the soil. I hadn't realized that soil is almost everything to a tomato. But I now see that, if you're a tomato, soil is where you live and hang out. Just like me, a tomato wants to be surrounded by comfy furnishings, needs a well-stocked cupboard for noshing, and enjoys the occasional drink.

I use a raised box that’s about 10x4, and in early spring I’ve been throwing in a few bags of manure, additional soil, and some compost. Then, considering myself a generous patron of S. lycopersicum, I thought I was done.

But I wasn't. Apparently there’s a lot more to do to prepare the soil bed for planting tomatoes. The good news is that I have a few weeks to get it done. According to the expert, tomatoes shouldn’t be planted until the soil temperature reaches a steady 55°. Here in Northern California that won’t happen until around the beginning of May.

Here’s a brief look at what I learned on Saturday:
  •  You can buy tomatoes right now, placing them in full sunlight during the day and storing them in the garage or other protected place at night. When they grow big enough, transplant to 1-gallon containers and continue to place in the sun during the daytime (put about half the plant under the soil; the furry bristles will become roots). That way they’ll be getting bigger, with bigger root systems, for when you place them in the ground.
  • Dig out the top 8-12” of soil in your garden or raised bed and put it aside (I’m going to use a large plastic sheet to collect removed soil).
  • Where the soil has been removed, put down a layer of compost, soil booster, chicken manure, worm casings, and planting mix. Blend with the soil beneath and then with the soil you’d removed at the beginning. When you’re through, add soil booster as a topping mulch.
  • When the time comes to put the plants into the ground, add a teaspoon of worm casings at the bottom of each hole. This is a very rich fertilizer that will help your tomatoes thrive.
  • Consider adding Red Wiggler Worms to your garden or box. They are experts at vermicomposting—creating nutrient-rich organic fertilizer/soil conditioner. If you're a coffee drinker, blend your coffee grounds into the soil every day; worms apparently love coffee (grounds)!
  • Magnesium Sulfate occurs naturally in the soil but can be depleted easily. Its purpose vis-a-vis tomatoes? It results in lusher vegetation, and it improves the plant’s absorption of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. So--here's a nifty trick--add Epsom Salts, made of magnesium and sulfate, to your soil.
  • When it comes to watering, NEVER water overhead and do not allow the soil to be continually moist—tomatoes don’t like it, for one thing, and it leads to bug infestation. When first put in the ground, tomatoes should be watered a little bit every day, but after 2-3 weeks watering should be about every 3 days. Near the end of their productive season, increase watering to every 4 days.
  • Here in Sonoma our summers are very warm with occasional really hot days, always cooling off at night due to our proximity to the Pacific Ocean’s fog and cool breezes. These conditions are fabulous for vineyards and have a lot do do with why grapes grown in Napa and Sonoma are so superb. But the last two summers in a row were very cool, and complaints about tomatoes (and grapes!) were a common topic of conversation. Our expert told us that her tomatoes came out fine because she knew that, in cool weather, she should reduce her watering schedule to every 5, 6 or even 7 days.
There was more, but I’ve given you the important tips. Anyway, I’m running out of time. I’ve got to head over to the nursery and buy myself some worm casings!

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Laura, from the Garden said...

Sounds like you attended a really informative presentation! As you said, soil preparation is the key to successful tomato growing...along with knowing when and how to water and feed. So, now that you've got all this great knowledge, what varieties do you plan to grow?

Unknown said...

Good question! I only have room for three plants in the box, so I need reliable producers. I've already purchased a Sweet 100 cherry tomato, and I'm doing the sun in the daytime, garage at night thing. It's responding very nicely! I'll get some sort of beefsteak because I like those, and then I'm investigating non-fussy heirlooms for my area (any suggestions?). Also I'm going to get a couple of compact growers and put them in big pots.

Unknown said...

good tips, but I have 12 plants in my 4x8 boxes, 24" high. seem to be doing fine. agree with the soil booster, worm castings, etc. Variety tips, if you are eating, grow 1 or two cherries, 1 red, one yellow, a beefsteak, a slicer (celebrity, or early girl). If you want to can, do not grow heirloom purple or creme brullee, it comes out green slime.Super Nano or San Moreno plums are good for sauce.