Saturday, May 23, 2015

My Top 12 Secrets to Growing Better Tomatoes

For the last three years, I've been focused on getting my tomato growing technique down to a semi-science. Of course, I've been growing tomatoes for much longer than that. It's just the last three years that I wanted to go from gardening simply for pleasure to gardening for purpose.

Each year, I've been able to grow more tomatoes and ward off common problems like blossom end rot. I grow a LOT of tomatoes - literally hundreds of pounds of tomatoes - because my goal has been to can enough diced tomatoes and tomato sauce to last my family for a full year. 

I've been asked a few times "What's your secret" - and to be honest. There isn't one secret- there are several things I'm doing that contribute to my success. Here are my 12 secrets to growing perfectly plump, bountiful, delicious tomatoes:

Secret 1: Good soil

You need to have good soil to grow good veggies. If the dirt that came in your garden isn't awesome, bolster it with organic compost. Not sure what kind to buy? Get a variety and mix it together. Don't just lay it on top - mix it in to a depth of at least 6 inches (although 12" is more ideal).

Secret 2: Pick a sunny spot

Especially in northern parts of the country where sun is less scorching, you will want to plant your tomatoes in the sunniest spot in the garden. I have found there is a direct correlation between the amount of sun your plants get and how many tomatoes they will make.

Secret 3: Start with plants

As opposed to seeds. Especially in the pacific northwest (I live in Oregon), where the growing season is short, start with organic tomato plants from your local farmer's market or nursery. I never plant tomatoes from seed any more. It's absolutely worth the couple dollars the plants cost to have someone do it for me.

My tomato growing apprentice.

Secret 4: Use epsom salt & egg shells

Salt? Really? It might surprise you to learn that epsom salt is not actually salt, but crystalized magnesium. DO NOT USE TABLE SALT! Egg shells on the other hand provide calcium. Here is more info on how and why to plant tomatoes with epsom salt and egg shells.

Secret 5: Dig deep

When planting the tomatoes, be sure to dig the hole at least 2 inches (up to 6 inches) deeper than the depth of the pot. When you place the plant in the hole, remove the bottom branches that will be below the soil line or will come within 3 inches of the dirt above the soil line. See more details on my tomato planting procedure here.

Secret 6: Mulch with coffee grounds

You can walk into most coffee shops and ask if they have used coffee grounds that you can have. I usually make a loop one day and hit up all the Starbucks on my side of town all a once. Once you have the grounds, scatter them on the soil to depth of 1/4 inch or so and use a hand rake to scratch them into the soil. Coffee grounds are high in nitrogen and tomatoes love them. The strength and vigor of my plants has dramatically improved just by implementing this tip by itself.

Secret 7: Mulch with something else, too

Top dress the soil around your tomato plants with a leaf mulch or compost. Adding a mulch layer will help with water retention and make putting your plants on a watering schedule that much easier. See more about mulch here: Glorious Mulch: How to Reduce Weeds and Water Less.

Secret 8: Watering schedule

To help my plants develop a deep root system that helps make them more likely to survive a super hot day, I put them on a watering schedule during the spring and early summer where I water them deeply only once every 3-4 days (assuming it didn't rain). Once the weather is consistently above 80 degrees, I water once every other day. If it 90 degrees or warmer on a particular day, I will also water on that day. I water either early in the morning or as the sun is going down to help the soil absorb more water before losing it to evaporation. If your plants look wilty or sad at any point in this process, it means they need more water. Water them longer on watering days or water more often.

Just one harvest session of tomatoes grown using these methods. (I harvest every 5 days or so)

Secret 9: Water down low

Tomatoes will be much happier if you can water them without getting their leaves wet. You can do this by using a watering wand and watering at the base of the plant. I think the most efficient options, though, is to use a soaker hose. Many soaker hoses contain lead, though, so be sure to look for a lead free soaker hose. Like most plants, it's ideal to water in the morning or evening to improve the soil's ability to absorb water

Secret 10: Build a good support system

After years of experimenting with different kinds and sizes of tomato cages, home built supports, the "Florida weave" method, and many many failures, I have figured out the best tomato support system ever. This is a diagram of the tomato support system I used last year and it was AMAZING:

I used 2 x 2 lumber pieces, and buried them about 18" under ground and spaced them about 6-7 feet apart (exact spacing determined by how far another piece would reach for cross-bracing). I used extra pieces to make cross braces (bolting them in place). Then I added nails about 6 inches apart going up the length of the vertical supports and strung string tightly between them. You could alternatively use a piece of wide netting or a cattle panel instead, mounting it to the vertical supports. 

You plant your tomatoes along the string line and as they grow, you weave them in and out of the string, tying individual branches to the string as needed, This method not only worked brilliantly, but the support was still in awesome condition at the end of the season. The pieces were in good condition for the next planting season - the string lines just needed to be re-strung.

You don't have to use my support technique, but you do need to have a support technique - I just happen to think mine is a combination the most durable and cost effective way to do it.

Secret 11: Thin aggressively

The first time I asked my step mom (a champion gardener herself) to come help me thin my tomatoes, she thought I was insane and probably going to kill my plants one she saw how much of the plant I was taking off. 

Once the plants are about 3 feet tall, I thin by removing any suckers (those thin, diagonal growing stems that pop up between the main stem and the branches) and any leafy branches that do not have either flowers or tomatoes coming off of them. When you thin this way, you can end up going from a bushy plant to a really sparse looking one pretty quickly - and that's OK!

Tomato plants do better when they have lots of good air circulation around the branches and fruit. Thinning also helps keep the plant more efficient so that nutrients go to boosting tomato production instead of bushy leaves that you can't eat.

You will need to either have a once a month aggressive pruning session or just take a little time every week to stay on top of it so it doesn't turn into a huge task.

Secret 12: Boost again with epsom salt and compost tea

Hopefully you used egg shells and epsom salt (remember: not table salt!) when you planted your tomatoes the first time. Later in the season - about six weeks after you planted your tomato starts in the ground, go back and sprinkle about 1 Tbsp of epsom salt around the base of each plant, scratching it into the soil and watering well. I also water with worm tea that I collected from my vermicomposter at about this time. Don't have a vermicomposter? You can usually purchase worm tea at your local nursery or garden center.

I hope these tips help you make the most of your tomato garden! If you have any extra tips - or questions! - please share them in the comments below or in the Creative Green Living Community Group.

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About the Author: 
Carissa has been an avid gardener since she was a child and as an adult has focused most of her gardening effort and time on how to grow the largest quantity of delicious tomatoes possible for both fresh eating and canning. Read more of Carissa's posts about gardening or subscribe to her YouTube channel to see future videos about gardening!

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