For some reason I’ve never jumped on the bandwagon of really diving into growing tomatoes. The tomato is one of the most popular garden vegetables that anyone can grow. I say “vegetable” loosely because it’s actually classified as a fruit, but that’s a different conversation.
Over the course of the last few years I’ve heard a lot grumbling over the difficulty people seem to have growing tomatoes. Let me start with the fundamentals of growing in its basic form. As a grower, here’s how it works. You’re going to grow tomatoes, so we’re going to call you a grower.
• Year One of your growing experience – You bought the plants, you bought the soil amendments, you toiled, you cared for it, you harvested, you ate it. You were successful. Congratulations.
• Year Two of your growing experience – You thought last year was a snap. “No problem. I got this.” You repeated the same thing from Year One, but you failed miserably.
• Year Three of your growing experience – Year Three starts off with a lot of internal consternation as to whether you even want to grow vegetables again. With the memories of Year Two still fresh in your brain, those memories overshadowed by the grief brought on by the failure of your crop as it rejected all the love you gave it, you ponder whether you have the strength to go down that road again.
Here’s where the tires meet the pavement and you get to earn the distinction of whether you’re a garden rebel. Year One you succeeded. Year Two you got cocky, thought it was easy. Year Three you just can’t quite muster the energy to go through the pain of Year Two. So, the secret in growing is to know that it takes three years to get good and Year Three is when you earn it all. Failure in Year Two forced you to decide that “Yes, I am a garden rebel and I will not lose to the tomato.” When faced with this, it’s real simple. Go back to the basics of Year One, the fundamentals. With one big difference that they didn’t tell you when they sold you the tomatoes.
Remember the rule of spelling, “i” before “e” except after “c”? Here’s where I’m completely confused about this rule. I, last Sunday was on Farmer Fred talking about my three favorite Japanese Maples for full sun. As I was going down my list of my full sun Japanese Maples, Farmer Fred did the unthinkable. “Scott, spell Seiryu.” Now, realizing that I’m live on the radio, I realized that Farmer Fred had just, in front of 35,000 listeners, asked me a trick question. “How could you Farmer Fred? How could you have done this to me?” Truthfully, he didn’t know. He was just asking me because he didn’t know how to spell Seiryu. Quickly, my mind flashed in panic as I recited “i” before “e” except after “c”, hoping to jar the spelling out of my lips fast enough so that 35,000 listeners would not know that I choked. “Seiryu”. “I” before “e” except after “c”. Ugh. There’s no “c”. Does this mean the rule goes right out the door and that I can’t have faith in it anymore? Did my teacher not tell me there could be exceptions to the rule so watch out when you’re on the radio with Farmer Fred?
So, I did what I’ve been taught to do in that situation. I punted. “Fred, I don’t know how to spell it.” He laughed a little bit and cut to commercial. This was a true story that just happened on Sunday and all that went through my mind in about 1.5 seconds. It’s amazing how fast you can think and all the thoughts you can have in 1.5 seconds when there are 35,000 waiting for an answer you just don’t have because of a rule that you’ve grown up with only to find out later in life that there are exceptions.
Back to the mystery of the tomato. If in Year One you were taught the rules and their exceptions, there would be no Year Two or Three. There would simply be success. So, let me bullet point the tricks to growing a great tomato.
• Start with dark green, stout seedlings, equally high and wide. You can grow your own seedlings. There are many tricks. I’ll save that for next January’s email.
• Plant a mix of heirlooms and hybrids for a little insurance. Heirlooms are beautiful and a critical part of our genetic heritage but they lack disease resistance so mix it up. Even with a hybrid that is labeled “resistant”, resistance is a relative phrase. It just means less susceptible, not immune. There’s no substitute for good cultural practices.
• Identify a full sun spot outdoors where your tomatoes can grow.
• Pick a second spot and preferably a third spot. Here’s the trick they don’t often tell you. Tomato diseases can overwinter in the soil and affect the next year’s planting and possibly the year’s planting after that. You have to plant tomatoes in a different spot the next year and the year after. In between those years you can’t even plant a tomato cousin such as potatoes, eggplant or peppers as they too can be affected by the same diseases as tomatoes.
• Back to growing tomatoes. Tomatoes like a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. If you have acidic soils, add lime. Let’s get technical. Applying lime at a rate of 5-10 lbs every 100 square feet will work just fine.
• Adding a 2-3″ layer of high quality compost is most recommended. Kellogg’s worm castings mixed in with Kellogg’s G&B Harvest Supreme helps loosen hard soil, improves soil aeration and conserves water.
• An organic fertilizer that’s balanced with a slightly higher middle number, but not too high in nitrogen can be worked in as well.
• Supporting your plants and keeping them off the ground promotes the best health. I prefer to cage my tomatoes. They’ll have more branches and stems and more tomatoes as a result of it.
• I like to take my seedlings I grew indoors and let them take a walk in the park on a daily basis to enjoy the taste of what’s to come only to protect them at night again. I call this Walking Your Tomato.
• Do not plant your tomato plants early. I saw tomato plants in the box stores in February. Are you crazy? Hurrying doesn’t help and it can hurt.
• I plant my tomatoes deep, at least to the level of the first leaves. They will root out better as they need to support a lot of weight.
• Liquid feeding and watering well is a good start.
• Spacing plants 2′ apart creates great air circulation.
• A lot of disease spores actually splash from the ground up when watering. People don’t usually know this. A layer of clean straw or organic mulch can keep spores from splashing.
Are you still with me? We have more to go. So hang in there.
• Snip off the flower buds of your tomato plant until after it reaches a foot or so.
• Team up with the heavens for consistent moisture. Soaker hoses are best. They can keep foliage dry by day.
• Did you know that diseases can be spread in the garden by you? Working in the garden can spread moisture and spores from plant to plant from your clothes.
• Destroy hornworms! They will leave droppings that are noticeable if you look. The green caterpillars can be hard to see. They usually start eating at the top of the plant. DESTROY THEM.
• Now listen in. Here is one of the biggest issues with tomatoes. Despite all this love we have given our tomatoes, we check them daily only to find out they have failed to fruit. Assuming we did not give them too much nitrogen, it’s most likely weather related. Nighttime temperatures that remain above 70 degrees or below 50ish interfere with pollination. Irregular watering and overfeeding with nitrogen can also cause this problem.
• We’re not done with the mystery of the tomato yet. Cracked fruit, green shoulders on the fruit, black spots on one end or another can appear later in the growing season. The chances of this happening can be greatly reduced if you heed my tips.
• And one more thing before I get off tomatoes. Don’t grow your tomatoes upside down. It’s a stupid idea. It’s a gimmick. Sure you can get a tomato to grow upside down. I don’t think you should waste your money. The world is already upside down. Why add to it?
There you have it. My tomato musings.
May 13th, High Hand Nursery presents Bloomtastic at Maple Rock Gardens.
Tickets are selling fast!