Got my tomatoes planted yesterday! It’s a few weeks earlier than usual (my tomato- and pepper-planting date used to be Mother’s Day weekend, because by then the nights are generally consistently over 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the soils have warmed enough), but the last couple of years I’ve been pushing planting time earlier and earlier, just to see what I can get away with. I don’t want to do it too early, because without warm nights and warm soils the plants will just sit there without growing, and the cool weather can lead to diseased plants which never really thrive, but all week it is supposed to be in the eighties during the day and fifties at night, and my tomatoes are going into a raised bed this year (which means warmer soil), so I decided to go for it.
I gathered my supplies: tomato seedlings, wheelbarrow full of compost, bag of crushed eggshells (I keep eggshells separate from other compostables year-round for just this purpose, as well as to free-feed back to the chickens as a calcium supplement), and bottle of aspirin. The compost, of course, is used as a general-purpose fertilizer for the plants; tomatoes are heavy feeders and really appreciate good, fertile soil. Compost (or store-bought organic fertilizer if you don’t make or have a source of compost) is also MUCH better for the plant than synthetic chemical fertilizers (e.g. a certain very popular fertilizer with the initials M.G.), as it breaks down slowly (so you don’t have to apply it all the time) and feeds, rather than kills, beneficial soil bacteria and fungi (many of which actually work symbiotically with plant roots, allowing the plants to draw more nutrients from the soil than they otherwise would). The eggshells are used as a calcium source; one of the major issues that afflicts home-grown tomato plants is blossom end rot, caused by low levels of calcium in the plant. While many factors can contribute to the improper uptake of calcium by the plant, the most obvious factor is low levels of calcium in the soil, so I always throw in a good handful of crushed eggshells. Lastly, the aspirin is used to help the tomato plant resist various diseases, as the salicylic acid in aspirin acts as an immune system-boosting hormone in the plant (tomatoes and other plants naturally produce elevated levels of salicylic acid in response to pathogenic attack).
Next I needed to dig and prepare the planting holes. For each plant, I dug a hole as deep as the height of the seedling plus its pot – yes, that deep! (So each planting hole this year was around a foot; in past years when I have planted later in the season, I have had to dig holes to depths of at least two feet, as by then I’ve potted up the tomatoes into larger containers – again, planting them very deep into their new containers – and they’ve grown even taller). By the time I’ve added amendments to the bottom of the hole, it raises the soil level enough so that the final planted tomato has just a couple of inches, or a few sets of leaves, above ground.
You might think that planting tomatoes so deep would slow down their growth, thus resulting in later and more meager fruiting, but it actually strongly benefits the plant. (Note: this does NOT work for all plants! So don’t go trying it on your squash seedlings, as they’ll just rot.) You see, the buried part of the tomato stem will actually produce roots, and so you end up with a very well-rooted plant that can more easily uptake water and nutrients, and that will therefore become less stressed later in the season than a shallowly-planted seedling (and as an added benefit, you will not have to water or fertilize as frequently!). Less environmental stress means the plant can focus more of its energy on flowering and fruiting.
Once I’ve dug my holes, I throw in two aspirin tablets, a big handful of crushed eggshell, and a big shovelful of compost, and give it a stir with my trowel. The plant then goes in and I fill in the hole, alternating native soil with compost (about 2 parts native soil with one part compost). When the hole is about half-full, I fill it with water and let it drain before adding the remainder of the soil, just to ensure the rootball and bottom half of the very deep hole get well moistened. Once the hole is completely filled with soil, I add a layer of compost as mulch around each plant, and thoroughly water again. Since the plant is so deep and the soil has been well-watered, I won’t have to water again for at least a week, if not more. Of course, I check the soil every couple of days to make sure; if I stick my finger in and the soil is dry down to about my second knuckle, I’ll water. As it focuses on building its root system, not much above-ground growth may occur, but soon enough the well-rooted plant will recommence growing like a weed! As it grows, I slowly taper off on the watering (and never fertilize it again; plenty of nutrients will be released throughout the season as the compost slowly breaks down), as its well-established root system will be able to access plenty of water deep down in the soil. Once the plant begins flowering and fruiting I only water maybe once a month. This results in a non-watery, very highly flavorful tomato!
Normally I support my tomatoes with giant 2-foot diameter, 5-foot tall wire mesh cages I made from concrete reinforcement wire, but this year I’m experimenting with using these cages for my potatoes, plus I’m using them to support my peas (and later beans), so I’m plum out of tomato cages. I was going to make more (or rather, have my
minion intern make them, because they’re a pain in the ass to make, what with the heavy-duty wire that needs to be cut and bent), but decided not to spend the $68 on a fifty-foot roll, and try a new method of tomato support this year. No, I’m not using those rinky-dink tomato cages you can buy at any hardware store or garden center; in my experience, these do not work for tomatoes, as they’re at most three feet high (my tomato plants easily grow to 6-8 feet tall) and not sturdy enough to support the weight of a lush plant loaded with heavy tomatoes. Those cages are best used for supporting tomatillos (which tend to sprawl on the ground otherwise) and peppers in my garden. Instead, I’m using something I have an ample, free supply of: bamboo.
I already have a large bamboo support built over the bed in which I’ve planted my tomatoes (I built it a couple of years ago to support beans in this bed, and while it’s getting a little rickety, I tested it and it should be sturdy enough for one more year) – this will be used for general support of the many branches as they grow. I also sunk a tall bamboo pole into the soil next to each tomato plant, to which I plan on tying the main stem as it grows. Yes, this means more daily work in the tomato bed than if I used my metal cages (those things grow fast!), but it saves me $68 and gives me an excuse to experiment with something new in my garden. If it doesn’t work well, I’ll build more cages next year if necessary.
I’m growing a few different varieties this year that I’ve never grown before (I get most of my tomato starts from Love Apple Farm, and the two times I went to buy plants, they were out of most of my favorite varieties – gives me a good excuse to try something new!) plus a few that I have done before and liked. New to me this year: Michael Pollan, Zapotec Pink Ribbed, Indira Ghandi, Wild Stripes. Old favorites: Camp Joy Cherry, Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim (which I haven’t grown in ages, since I’ve been growing Black from Tula instead, but happily that one was out of stock so I’ll grow Black Krim again!), San Marzano, and Roma (I have two each of San Marzano and Roma, and wish I had room for more! I’d love to be able to can enough of these tomatoes for the whole winter, but think this will be far from enough. At least I won’t need these for my tomato sauce and pasta sauce, though – all the other varieties are fine for that, given enough time to simmer down and thicken.) I also have four seedlings of an unknown small bush variety from India – a coworker of Peter’s brought seeds back for him several years ago, and these still have crazy good germination rates. They’re small plants, so good for just sticking in wherever I have extra room, and produce small, round, meaty tomatoes which are great roasted or dried.