It doesn’t take an expert gardener to appreciate the virtues of a homegrown tomato. But even experienced gardeners can sometimes experience challenges in growing these beauties to perfection. Here are some ideas you can apply this season to improve your tomato growing talent.
Start with great soil and a healthy plant. Although it sounds simple, you can eliminate most of your tomato growing challenges with these simple mandates. Well-amended soil, full of rich compost and other organic material can be your secret weapon to having the best tomatoes around. There is no man-made substitute for good old-fashioned compost.
To illustrate this point, last year I grew tomatoes in raised beds. I had amended the soil with composted manure and it was good, but not straight compost. Not far away, I had my compost bin, full of aged, rich dark compost. Growing from it was a volunteer tomato plant. I decided to let it grow to see how it would do. I did not provide any supplemental care.
Over the next two or three months, this composted tomato plant outperformed the competition in every way. In spite of my best efforts to nurture the raised bed tomato plants to perfection, the composted plant grew happily and undemanding. It never got diseased, stayed beautifully dark green, and the only pest was a tomato hornworm or two, which I easily picked off by hand. As the season matured, so did this plant. It was heavy with abundant large red tomatoes. This plant produced right up until the first frost, and the taste was outstanding.
While the results were undeniable, it is not necessary or even advisable to grow tomatoes in pure compost. First, you can derive the same benefits of compost without using all of it for growing plants. A little bit goes a long way. By volume, about 30% compost to the overall soil mix will be ideal.
Next, for tomatoes and all plants to perform their best, the soil should include minerals as well. Pure compost will lack some of the important minerals tomatoes and other plants need to perform their best. I buy a soil mix from my local landscape supply company that blends granite dust (my mineral source) with compost and top soil. That gets added to my base soil at about 10% by volume each year to renew the beds. I think come in with a one-inch layer of compost across the top and work it lightly into the top four-inches or so.
For a small amount of compost, you can easily make your own, as I do. However, while a little bit does go a long way, when you’re trying to incorporate 30% of the total soil volume with compost, that adds up quickly. Few people can make enough to meet that goal when trying to do so over several beds or a large garden. Fortunately, you can buy bulk compost at landscape supply companies. But one word of caution here. Not all compost is the same from one supplier to the next. My advice when purchasing in bulk is to seek out Certified Compost whenever possible. It’s the U.S Composting Council’s Seal of Testing Assurance (STA Compost). This certification is only given to compost suppliers that have their product put through a rigorous testing process to make sure you are getting the quality compost you’re paying for. Check their website to locate a facility near you. (Disclosure: I am the spokesperson for the U.S Composting Council. However, this mention is included here independently of that. I simply believe that when buying bulk compost, STA compost is your best option when available.)
This next point may seem obvious but it’s worth repeating. A healthy plant is a happy plant and a happy plant will taste best. By starting with disease free plants, you have a better chance of keeping them that way. There are many disease resistant varieties available. These plants are known as hybrids, and have been developed to make them more resistant to common diseases. However, I find that the hybrid varieties don’t compare to heirloom tomatoes when it comes to taste. The downside of heirlooms is that they can be more susceptible to disease problems. However, there are ways to minimize the risks.
Assuming you have provided rich well-drained soil, pick a sunny spot and don’t plant your tomatoes too close together. Tomato plants thrive in full sun and are healthier when provided good air circulation.
Plant your seedlings deep, very deep. Tomato plants are one of the few vegetables that will root along the stem. The larger the root system, the better the plant will be. You can bury a tomato plant up to the top set of leaves. I leave about two sets of leaves showing. This step will ensure a larger root area and a more vigorous plant.
In the planting hole, I add a tablespoon or two of dolomitic limestone and mix it into the soil. This step can help ward off blossom end rot in emerging fruit. Cover the plant and water it in thoroughly with a diluted mix of liquid fertilizer. This is the one of the few times that it is acceptable to soak the foliage. I prefer to use an organic blend of fish emulsion and sea kelp. This adds nitrogen and phosphorus to get the plants off to a good start.
Manage the water. Tomato plants like deep watering. A soaker hose is best for this because it allows the water to soak deep into the soil, without wetting the foliage above. Don’t over water, but make sure they are getting enough. As the plants get a bit taller, add mulch. For tomatoes, the most important role of mulch is to prevent soil born disease pathogens from splashing onto the foliage and spreading disease. Place the mulch to within two inches from the stem, in a layer two to three inches tall. I place my mulch right over the soaker hose.
As the plants grow up, make sure they are supported in some way. There are many options for this, but the plants will become tall and the weight of the fruit can easily bend and break the plant stems and branches.
These guidelines will get your tomato plants off to a great start. Like with so many examples in gardening and life, how you start out makes all the difference in the world with the success of the harvest.