28 May 2013

5 Steps to Better Tomatoes

I didn't always like tomatoes. In fact, I grew up hating them.

Y'all (insert overly Southern accent here), I was born and raised in Georgia where every roadside stand sells tomatoes and every old lady between Valdosta and Ellijay grows them in her garden.

And I spent most of my life having feelings of disgust toward this regional staple.

So one day not long after graduating college, I was bored and got lost in a long train of thought relating to food (yeah, I'm that kind of dork). I had been picky long enough, and I decided I was a dumbass for not liking tomatoes. I walked to the grocery store behind the apartment I shared with my friend, bought a tomato, took it back to our kitchen table, and ate it. The twenty-two years of hatred between woman and fruit ended right there in apartment A17. And every week on my grocery run, I bought another tomato and found a way to put it in my diet: salad topping, sandwich layer, chunked on pasta.

I didn't know whether to call my mom to brag that I was no longer as picky as my 8-year-old self, or call Italy and ask forgiveness for my prior stupidity.

Tomatoes are not only one of our favorite foods to cook with and eat, they are also one of our favorite crops to grow. Even though you can buy a tomato plant at any feed and seed store, they do require more than a hole in the ground to produce the gigantic, bright red fruit you see in the produce department. Here are some of our personal practices that help us harvest tomatoes worthy of anything from a burger to homemade pasta sauce.
  1. Give them nutrients. This goes way beyond planting them in well-conditioned soil (BTW--we condition with homemade compost and/or composted cow manure). Create a fertilizing schedule and do your best to stick to it. Aim for fertilizing once per week with veggie-friendly fertilizer. Fertilizers with 10-10-10 and 3-4-6 ratios (ratio of nitrogen-phosphate-potash) are a great place to start. If you are going the truly organic route, use banana peels, epsom salt, and fireplace/wood ash in your soil. Banana peels add potassium. A couple of tablespoons of epsom salt to the base of each plant every two weeks give a magnesium boost. Wood ash contains potassium and lime.
  2. Water the RIGHT way. It's easy to get into the habit of broadcasting the spray from your hose. It's what you see folks doing on TV. But when you garden is small scale like ours, this kind of watering really isn't the most effective way to hydrate your tomatoes (or most other plants, for that matter). Broadcast watering is more waste than help. Water gets "lost" in the atmosphere, and you're making the leaves and stems of your plants susceptible to mold, mildew, and certain pests. So remember these three things when watering your tomatoes:
    • Water at the soil line (see photo).
    • Water regularly. 2-3 times per week is ideal if your summers are hot and dry like the ones we have in Georgia. Skip watering when it rains.
    • Water slowly. Use drip irrigation or deep-ground watering systems. We inverted milk jugs with small holes poked in the sides to send water slowly and directly to the roots (also in photo behind the tomato plant).
    • Aim for the base of the plant.
  3. Prune the plants. Let a tomato plant grow willy-nilly, and you'll grow lots of lovely leaves and not a whole lot of fruit. So aim to spend at least once a week pruning your indeterminate tomatoes to encourage each plant's energy into growing fruit.
  4. Identify a sucker before removing.
    • Start by removing the suckers. These are the shoots that grow between the main stem of the plant and an offshoot (see photo). When they are small, they are easy to remove with your fingers. If they happen to get rather large, use snips to remove.
    • You don't want leaves touching the ground (this encourages disease), so remove the leaves/offshoots from around the base of the plant.
    • If your tomatoes are determinate, just remove the suckers from the lower third of the plant.
  5. Mulch. Pine straw, cypress, wheat straw, pine bark, whatever. Laying mulch is one of those steps that should never be forgotten in gardening. It helps trap moisture in the soil around your plants on those hot days.
  6. Weed. Duh. There is a battle for nutrients between good plants and the evil ones. Don't let your tomatoes get cheated. Pull up those weeds, though. Spraying herbicide on weeds can kill your vegetables, and it can leach into future edible plants, which you would rather not consume.
There are many other tips and tricks you can use in your garden to produce bigger, juicier tomatoes, but I feel that these are a good place to start. Enjoy your harvest, and share your gardening successes in the comments section below!

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