Tomatoes have always been my favorite garden vegetable to grow and to eat. I have had success with the other standard garden vegetables, such as cucumbers, bell peppers, cauliflower etc. but tomatoes became my specialty over the years.
I start my seeds indoors approximately 5-6 weeks before the last expected frost date. I use a commercially available starting flat that will hold 72 seedlings. I prefer plant the Tomato Park’s Whopper(TM) Cr Improved, VFFNT Hybrid which can be ordered from Park Seed Co. This is a large, luscious, disease resistant tomato that I have seen grow to excess of 3lbs.+. It makes for an awesome BLT since a slice of one of these beauties will hang off the toast at least one inch or more all the way around!!!!!
For the potting mixture, I use equal parts of a good quality potting soil and vermiculite that makes the soil light enough so that the seeds will not have difficulty sprouting and growing. I know your probably saying to yourself right now, WOW, 72 tomato plants, I don’t need that many, well look at it like this…out of the 72 that you start, some will not develop for whatever reason, and once they are planted, some will die, the birds will get some, the animals will get some and yes, the bugs will get some regardless of how hard your try to keep them out. So out of that 72 plants, you could wind up with just the right number in the end for your garden. Of course it is possible to wind up with 72 very healthy, untouched by animals, disease or bugs, tomato plants, as happened to me one season, then you will have more tomatoes than you can possibly eat, can, sell or give away!!!! But that is a whole ‘nother story!!!
I have grown tomatoes in all types of soil, from rocky, hard packed clay to rich dark loam so loose you could push your arm elbow deep into the soil with no effort. It has been my experience that almost any soil will work with most only requiring minor amendments.
If you need to add amendments to your soil to loosen it, I recommend a mixture of aged sawdust and sand in equal parts. The sand can be obtained in bulk from your local concrete company for a small fee or you can buy it in bags from your local hardware store. One note about the sawdust, DO NOT use fresh sawdust, as this is much to hot due to the nitrogen being released during the breakdown process. Plants placed in this sawdust; even with the mix of sand and soil are much to tender to withstand the high concentration of nitrogen.
If fresh sawdust is all that you can obtain, pile it in one corner of your garden and let it age for new season.
Your local sawmill, if you have one close by, should have a good supply of old sawdust on hand that they will let you load up and haul away for free. If you do not have a sawmill or any type of manufacturing facility close by, such as the Ames Co., that makes wooden handles etc. you can check with your local county extension agent and he or she can tell you where you may acquire the sawdust. Speaking of the county extension agent, when you go to consult with the agent, take along some soil samples from different places in your garden and ask that they be tested for the proper nutrients. This is a free service provided by some counties while others may charge a nominal fee, regardless, you can have the results back in just a few days.
Once you have the sawdust and sand, spread equal parts over your garden until it reaches a depth of about one inch or more depending on the type of soil. Too much and the soil will be too loose and the water will drain away to quickly, not enough and the sun will bake it to a hardpan during the dog days of summer.
Work this mixture into your soil as deep as possible using your rotary tiller or the old fashioned way, by using a spading fork or shovel Once this mixture is worked in properly then it is time to consider what type of fertilizer is needed.
Armed with your soil test results, you will have a good indication of what kind of fertilizer is best for your particular garden. In most cases, a good all purpose fertilizer known as Triple 10 or 10-10-10 will do the job very well. Your soil test results will give specifics of any additional nutrients that you may need and should also include coverage rates.
Once you have completed the fertilizing, give your garden a moderate soaking with your sprinkler or hose nozzle to dissolve and distribute the fertilizer through out the soil.
When I begin to set out the tomatoes I have somewhat of a unique approach, I dig the planting hole, approximately 10-12 inches deep with a post hole digger, which also helps to determine the spacing for each plant ( 2-2 ½ feet apart or about ½ the length of the handle of your post hole digger) I use the post hole digger for several reasons:
1. Its much easier on your back, you don’t have to bend or kneel to dig the hole.
2. The larger and deeper hole means that more of the tomato plant itself can be placed deeper into the ground and the more plant you can actually place in the ground the stronger the plant will be, because every bit of the seedling that is placed underground will develop into the root system, thereby you will have deeper and stronger roots from the very beginning.
3. The loose backfill in the hole allows for the developing root system to get a firm foothold.
After you have gotten all your holes spaced out and dug, go back and sprinkle just a bit of Miracle-Gro into the bottom of each hole then add just a small amount of water to the hole. Gently remove your seedlings from the flat and place it as deep as possible in the hole. I recommend leaving no more than 1 – 2 inches of tomato above ground. Yes, it will take longer for your tomatoes to produce by doing this as compared to setting them out at that same depth they were in the seeding flat, but you will have stronger plants and plants that virtually never need watering because at that depth moisture is pretty much constant unless it is an extremely dry summer. Believe me, if you set your tomatoes out at the flat depth, you will be watering them at least every other day.!!!
The next thing we need to address is the method used to control the sprawling plant. Some people like to place straw down around their tomato plants and let them sprawl across the ground. I believe this opens the door for more pest problems, such as the tomato hornworm. The method I recommend is using concrete reinforcing wire to make your own tomato cages. The wire can be purchased at most any hardware or do it yourself store. The wire has large 6″ openings that you can easily pass your hand through when picking time comes. The wire is about 6 ft high which makes a very sturdy cage for even the biggest tomato plant. To make the cages, count off seven of the squares and then, using a cutting torch or a study pair of wire cutters, cutoff the bottom of the seventh square which will give you six 6″ spikes that will make the cage as steady as a rock when they are pushed into the ground. I place my cages around the plants as soon as the plants are in the ground. Once you make the cages they will last of years and years to come.
Our last area of concern is pests and diseases, specifically the tomato hornworm and blossom end rot. The tomato hornworm is nasty little creature that will surround and chew through your plant at just below ground level. To prevent this from happening push a very large nail into the ground right next to each tomato plant. This will prevent the hornworm from surrounding your plant and eating through the base.
If you see the end of your tomatoes beginning to rot as they grow, then it is surely a case of blossom end rot, which can be easily stopped from overtaking your entire tomato crop. Go to your local pharmacy and get some potassium chloride, then place two heaping tablespoons into a garden sprayer and fill with water, shake to mix then spray your plants well. Do this weekly until no new end rot appears.
If you follow this guide and use a little TLC you will have some of the largest and best tasting tomatoes one could ever ask for.
You will definitely be the envy of the entire neighborhood!!!