Tomato Planting Guide

Tomato Row.jpg

How We Plant

Here's a guide to how we plant our tomato beds, step by step. The amendments noted (except the aspirin and eggshells of course) can be purchased at nurseries, hydroponic stores, and many hardware stores.


What You'll Need:
• Compost
• Fish Meal
• Worm Castings
• Organic Fertilizer, such as Down to Earth All-Purpose
• Crushed Aspirin
• Crushed Eggshells

1. Weed your bed. If you have a digging fork, it's easy to loosen the soil over the whole bed and pull the weeds out of the loosened soil. No need to turn the soil, just loosen it.

2. Spread a 2" layer of compost over your bed. As you dig planting holes the compost will begin to filter into the soil, allowing air into our compacted soils.

3. Dig your planting hole as deep as the height of the whole plant. Throw a handful of compost into the hole and loosen the edges and bottom of the hole. The compost will mix in a bit. 

4. Add the goodies. Into the hole, put in a small handful each of fish meal, worm castings, and organic fertilizer. Add 2 each of crushed aspirin and eggshells. Mix it up, spreading the amendments around the hole. Add an inch or so of soil over the amendments.

5. Now it's time to plant. Clip the lower leaves off of the tomato plant (don't cut the stem), up to about mid-stem. You should now have a stem with leaves only in the top half of the plant. Remove the plant from the pot and gently pull apart the root ball--just enough to lose the shape of the pot. This encourages the roots to grow outward and down, instead of circling around. Place the plant into the hole so that all of the root ball and the naked part of the stem that had the leaves removed is below the soil line (the buried stem will produce roots for a healthy, more productive plant). Backfill the hole gently. DON'T tamp the soil down! You can pat the soil in place, but you don't want to compact it. Make a donut-shaped moat 12-14" in diameter around the plant, so that you have a trough to apply water to that will sink in around the plant without soaking the stem or running away from the plant. 


6. Water. Fill the moat around your plant with water and let in sink in. Repeat 2 more times. 

7. Mulch your bed. You'll water a LOT less and improve your soil condition. I like using 2"-4" of compost as mulch in my tomato beds.

Watering: Less is Best!

For the first few weeks, while your plant is getting established, water enough to keep the root ball moist, but not overly wet. Don't rely on sight. Soil, especially clay soil, can look bone dry on the surface yet be wet just a couple of inches down. Stick your fingers down into the soil and see how moist it feels at root depth. 

After your plant is established, decrease your watering frequency so that roots will go deeper and wider for water. Think deep, less frequent waterings. You may only need to water once per week now, depending on your soil and weather. Too much water will stress your plants and make them more susceptible to disease.

For the best tasting tomatoes, reduce watering even further once fruit is set. Too much water makes tomatoes taste bland and watery, and can cause them to crack more easily. Again, think deep, infrequent water. 


Every 4 weeks, move the mulch away from your plant and work a handful of fish meal into the soil, and water it in. Be sure to move the mulch back in place. 

Best wishes for a productive garden!

Gardens and Drought - 4 Steps to Reducing Water Use

With our governor’s announcement that water rationing is now an official reality and soon-to-be mandatory, I thought I’d review some of the things we can all do in our gardens to conserve water and still grow lots of great food. I 've written about this before, but given our dire water supply and the fact that it's planting season, I thought it would be a good refresher for me, and hopefully for you too!
  1. Amend your soil.  Work lots of compost as deeply as you can into your beds—up to 24” deep.   Loose soil with organic matter encourages bigger, deeper root systems that can find moisture and nutrients.  Your plants will be healthier and tastier too!
  2. Plant intensively and with diversity.  Leaving lots of space between plants makes for lots of exposed areas that dry out and compact quickly.  While you don’t want to crowd your plants to the point where you lose production, you can tuck different plants into bare spaces.  For instance, if you plant your tomatoes 24” apart, you can tuck some herbs, peppers, and beneficial flowers in between.  It’s pretty and all the plants tend to do better.  The soil stays covered (which slows evaporation) and the plants tend to take care of each other.
  3. Mulch!  This will drastically reduce the amount of water your beds need. Once planted, mulch your garden beds with several inches of organic matter.  You can use compost, straw, fir bark, dead leaves or wood chips to layer over your beds.  You will be amazed how moist the soil below will stay.  It’s like an insulation layer.  It also tempers heat and cold. 
  4. Water judiciously.  The fact is, overwatering is a very common error gardeners make.  We want so badly to take good care of our plants, and watering seems like such a kind and nurturing thing to do!  We tend to water when we feel it’s hot, and when the ground looks dry.  Just because it looks dry on the surface though, doesn’t mean it’s dry 6” down. Get in the habit of poking down into the soil periodically and feeling with your fingers or hand.  If it’s moist, you shouldn't need to water.
A note about tomato plants—they will sometimes wilt some during the day when the sun is intense or it’s particularly hot.  Don’t grab the hose yet though! Our first reaction is to water them, but that’s probably not what they need.  If the plant perks up again as the sun recedes and temperatures drop in the evening, then it’s not a watering issue.  They just responded to the light and heat by drooping some.  They will be fine.  Planting intensively will help, as plants help shade and protect other plants.

Now, I gotta go plant!

Container Planting

We get a lot of inquiries about growing tomatoes in containers. While neither of us are experts, we are opinionated, so I get to give you my 2 cents.  If you're a seasoned container gardener with a solid history of success, then I probably need your opinions more than you need mine.  If you have spotty success or are new at this, I hope this helps.

The Container:  Most tomato varieties want a large container.  15 gallons minimum.  A tall pot is better than a short wide one.  Don't skimp on the size of container, those roots need room!  There must be a hole in the bottom for water drainage.  I don't like those saucers that catch water under the pot.  What's the point of a drainage hole if the pot is going to sit in a pool of water?  Also remember that pots, especially dark plastic ones, can absorb a lot of heat.  That's a plus in the spring when temperatures are cooler, but bad when it gets hot and the sun is intense.  Draping shadecloth around the container will help.  Thick terracotta pots don't seem to have this problem.

The "Soil":  Container growing is not like growing in the ground. Do not use garden soil, topsoil, or that pile of dirt in the corner of your yard. The pot serves up some challenges, and using soil makes those problems worse.  Don't use pure compost either.  Use potting mix.  A good one.  Why?  I could write a whole missive about this and tell you greenhouse horror stories involving 1000 tomato seedlings, but that's for another time. So, what's a "good" mix?  Good mixes have structure, hold a lot of air and some water, but drain really well.  Typical mixes in our area contain partially composted fir bark or bark fines (sometimes rice hulls), peat moss or coir, perlite, and some nutrients and ph adjusters.  It's hard to recommend a brand, because I've had great results some years and bad ones the next with the same brand. Cynthia Sandberg, who farms for Michelin rated Manresa restaurant, swears by Gardner & Bloom potting soil.  That's the best I can do for a brand recommendation.  If you open a bag of potting mix and most of the contents are very fine (less than 1/16"), you don't have a good mix.  It won't have enough structure, won't drain well, won't hold air, and will "collapse" or compact in short order.  All bad news.

Planting:  Tomato plants benefit from planting deeply.  Very deeply.  You want to bury much of the stem,  I'd say halfway up the stem is good general rule.  Clip off all the leaves below that halfway point just before you plant.  The part of the stem that's buried will grow roots, which will produce a healthy productive plant.  Before you place the plant down into the container, gently pull the rootball out at the sides, so it loses the seedling container shape and encourages the roots to grow outward.  Once planted, water thoroughly.  You want the potting mix and the rootball to get evenly moist.  Just because water drains out the bottom doesn't mean everything is evenly moist.  Water once, come back in 5 or 10 minutes and water again, then wait another few minutes and water a third time.

Nutrients:  If you're using an organic potting mix, or one that does not contain a CRF (control release fertilizer), your greedy, hungry tomato plant will use up all the available nutrients in 4-6 weeks.  I like to mix an organic dry vegetable food (such as Dr. Earth, Whitney Farms, Espoma, etc) into the upper 2 - 4" of potting mix at planting time with a little extra bat guano or alfalfa meal, used sparingly. Still, at 4-6 weeks, you'll need to start feeding again. Then I'd switch to an organic liquid food, and feed weakly weekly--a weak solution once a week, like 1/2 the strength suggested on the label.

Watering:  Don't kill 'em with kindness.  Tomato plants don't like to be wet all the time.  They prefer to go just a little on the dry side (slightly moist), and then be watered well.  Frequency will change over the season.  Hot or cool temperatures, longer days, wind, sun exposure, your potting mix and the size of the plant all influence frequency.  You may only need to water once a week in spring, and then once a day in summer when it's hot and the plant is larger.  You'll need to get a feel for that.  Don't be shy about sticking a finger down into the soil.  Just because the top looks dry doesn't mean it's dry 6 or 8 inches down.

Staking:  Most varieties need to be staked or caged, even in a pot. Unless you're growing a determinate variety or a specifically compact variety, don't bother with those crappy little wire cages. They are a waste of money and resources. One day you'll come out for a visit with your tomato friend and it will have pulled that thing out of the soil and be wearing it like a hat. Then it will fall over. You'll then have to figure out how to extract the plant from the cage without destroying both. Does it sound like I've been there before? Go to your local home improvement store and find the aisle with sacks of concrete. You'll see remesh mats--4' x 7' welded wire mesh sheets made for reinforcing concrete. Buy one. Roll it into a tube shape and wire it together so it will stay in the tube shape. Now you have a functioning tomato cage. Slip it over the plant, tuck it's arms and legs inside and secure the cage to the container with a long stake driven into the soil and wired to the cage. If you don't stake the cage down your tomato friend will one day yank it out and try to heave it across the yard. Continue to tuck it's arms and legs inside the cage as it grows.

A Note about Varieties:  I think people assume that they must grow cherry varieties if growing in containers, but it's not the size of the fruit that matters as much as the growth habit of the plant. We offer a couple of cherry varieties that I swear would knock a 15 gallon container over, drag it around the yard and then become very unhappy. That said, I don't recommend most of the big, late season beefsteak varieties because the chances of getting only 2 or 3 tomatoes all season are just too high. If you're growing more than a couple of plants, the risk may be worth it. Many of the early and mid season varieties, and those that are prolific producers will do well for most people.

A Note on Drainage:  Here's the part where I feed you more information than you wanted. One major problem with container growing is drainage. Even with a good potting mix you are likely to get water that just won't drain out of the pot, and it pools in the bottom making a soupy, airless layer that roots don't like. This is "perched" water. We all used to think that putting gravel or sand or pot shards in the bottom of our pots would eliminate perched water, but it turns out that physics doesn't work that way. I won't bore you with the details here (I'll bore you with it in another post), but gravel in the bottom of a pot only takes up space, and the perched water will still stick in the bottom layer of potting mix above the gravel. Now, sometimes plant roots will colonize that zone before it gets bad and use that water, but many times not. So what's the solution? Before you fill your container with soil, take a mop string, or absorbent length of rope and coil it around the bottom of the inside of the pot, then thread one end through the drainage hole and let it dangle a couple of inches below the bottom. Elevate the pot with pot feet or something that will keep the pot from sitting on the ground.  Now fill your container with potting mix. The mop string/rope acts as a wick, drawing excess moisture down the string and out of the pot. It's the same idea as sticking the corner of a paper towel in a cup of water and watching the water get pulled into the paper towel. Are you asleep yet?

Wow, that was more like 10 cents worth of opinion. How about you? What works for you? Please share!


Get Tough

It was wonderful to see family, friends, and repeat customers this weekend.  It makes all the hard work worth it to know that there are excellent people out there who share our values.

For those of you who bought plants this weekend, or intend to soon, we want you to be aware of some tough love that you should consider.

First, our plants were in a greenhouse till you bought them. For best results, they need to be "hardened off" in the 5-10 days before transplanting into your garden.  Hardening off is the process of acclimating plants to outdoor conditions of direct sun, wind, and cooler night-time temps.  This is accomplished by exposing them to an increasing amount of outdoor conditions until they tolerate at least 6 hours of it.  Start by putting them in a sheltered place, and take them inside at night if there is danger of frost.

Second, the minimum soil temperature that tomatoes will tolerate is 50 degrees F; the optimum soil temperature for tomatoes is 70-95 degrees F.  They make soil thermometers, but our tax dollars helped developed data available from the excellent California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS).  Average soil temps recorded during 2009-2010 in several representative counties tells it all:

(Soil temperature readings taken 6" deep)
March: 52
April: 57
May: 63
June: 69
July: 74
August: 73
September: 70

You might say, "But I plant my tomatoes all the time in April and get a great crop." True, but you might have gotten an unbelievable crop with more early warmth.  The good news is that it's possible to mimic the process.  In the 19th century, biodynamic gardeners placed these beautiful glass jars, called cloches, over individual plants.  It warms the soil and concentrates the solar radiation on the plant.  You can do the same more cheaply by simply cutting off the bottom of an appropriately sized plastic container (e.g., milk jug).  Alternately, if you have a bunch of clear glass panes, just place them directly on the soil.

Remember, tomatoes are from the tropics, so keep them comfy...

The Big 3..or 4

There are lots of tips and tricks, but here are 3 basic things to help grow a successful crop of tomatoes.

1. Dirt wrap - you know how some spas offer to surround you up to your chin in warm, clean, mud? Well, that's exactly how tomatoes like to be planted. I personally believe that is why they have such cute, hairy stems. Those hairs are actually potential roots, ready to develop and suck up nutrients.
Just trim off the lower leaves, nestle the plant in up to its leafy chin and give it a great, big initial drink for its summer heat treatment.

2. Feed me - tomatoes need to be fed about once a month after planting. There are many and complicated recipes. However, a balanced organic fertilizer that emphasizes phosphorus is a good choice, e.g., a 4-6-4. Phosphorus, the second number in all fertilizer forumulas, is key for fruit production. Many good organic fertilizers can be purchased at your local nursery. We got our plants off to their great start with combinations of products from Dr. Earth, Whitney Farms (currently, a Scotts company), and E.B. Stone.

3. I'll have another sip - be consistent in watering tomatoes after planting to avoid "bingeing". It's not good to drown them one day and follow up with a week of neglect. You can easily monitor the plants' needs by sticking your finger down a couple of inches into the soil. If it's dry, they may need a drink, but maybe not: tomatoes like a bit of drying, even to the point of mild wilting. Mulch also helps -- it slows down moisture loss and keeps roots cooler by providing shade for the soil. Put the mulch up to about 6 inches from the stem; that way, certain pests won't be able to stage a sneak attack under the cover of the mulch.

One last thing: rotate your tomato sites year over year for disease control. Many of the most common tomato pests live in the soil, but you can usually outrun 'em by planting in different locations.