Tomato Planting Guide

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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.


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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. 

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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. 

Feeding:

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!

Planting Basics

I am going to cheat and re-publish parts of posts from 2010, partly because they are basic, and partly because I think I did an amazing job being succinct (a personal best).
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Here are 3 basic things to help grow a successful crop of tomatoes.

1. Plant deep - As we all know, root development is key to the life of almost all plants.  And all those hairs on the stem of the tomato plant are actually potential roots, ready to develop and suck up nutrients. So, to take advantage of the tomato's root-iful characteristics, lower at least 50% of the green part our plants into its planting hole.  The hole, by the way, should be approximately the size of a half-wine barrel: 18 inches deep, 2 feet in diameter.

Be sure to fill that hole with good stuff.  Tomatoes like well-drained soil -- they will suffocate in our lovely Contra Costa clay.  To get that result the easy way, fill the hole with a good, balanced mix like Navlet's Planting Mix.  Then, give the hole with the plant in it a great, big initial drink.  Fill the hole basically to overflowing so that the entire root ball and contents of the hole are wetted.

We also recommend the following for the initial planting.  These additions should be mixed evenly into the hole, except for the fish head:

1 fish head at the bottom of the hole for nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium, and for a big boost to the wonderful soil life that digest the fish head and make nutrients available to the plants.  I got mine at Ranch 99 for $.79/lb, but any fish monger or Asian-style market is likely to have them.  If the heads are big, like salmon, it's perfectly OK to cut them in half;
3-4 crushed eggshells, for calcium, that I saved over the winter;
1 handful of bone meal which is rich in phosphorus and critical to fruit production;
1 modest handful of worm castings for a delicious first feed;
the recommended dose of mycorrhizae from Bountiful Gardens, where you can read about the amazing things this product does.

I know this may seem excessive, but given the resources that you are going to give the plant in terms of time and water, do yourself a favor and make sure to give the plants the best start.

2. Feed well - 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.

----- Arti