26 May 2014

Basic Tomato Care

For those of you who follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you might remember this image from last growing season:

It was one of the first tomatoes we harvested, and it weighed in solidly at one pound. Maybe "real" farmers can easily grow fruit double this weight, but we don't really care. We are always so proud of what we can accomplish in our garden each growing season. And this tomato above wasn't our only pounder. Several of our tomatoes were roughly the same size and weight, and I put a lot of hours into turning these red beauties into cans of pasta sauce that took us right through the winter.

When I post photos of our garden's yield, our friends start asking, "How do you do it?" While there is a growing interest in private veggie gardens (hooray for that statistic!), it's frustrating to see my friends look at the hobby like it's something only a gardening wizard can accomplish.

Trust me, there's no magic. I'm a girl from the 'burbs who had a vegetable garden each year of my childhood. Yeah, there was help and input from my grandparents on both sides--especially from my mom's dad. He was born straight into the Depression and was raised on a family farm in north Georgia. But all you really need for a successful garden is time (even patio gardens need weeding and watering) and patience (mostly with yourself).

As for tomatoes, here are what I consider to be the most important steps to caring for your plants:

1) Create a schedule. This must include how often you water, how often your fertilize, and how often you prune. Obviously, a rainier season could reduce your watering needs and increase your pruning needs, but it wouldn't change when you fertilize. Have a calendar handy so you can record when you water and fertilize so that you don't forget.

2) Fertilize the RIGHT way. Choose a fertilizer that will encourage growth of both the foliage and the fruit based on the NPK, or nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium, rating, like a 5-6-5 or a 3-4-6. Too much nitrogen will give you great foliage, but smaller fruit. We use granulated fertilizer every 2 weeks. If you are icked out by granulated fertilizer, use 2 tbsp of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) around the base of each plant every 1-2 weeks. You can boost the potassium around each plant, too, by burying banana peels around the base. I did this last summer when my daughter ate a banana each day. We had peels to spare!

3) Choose a good soil. We use a combination of garden soil and homemade compost. Tomatoes can do well in clay soils because they're rather resilient. I would just stay away from sandier soils. Sandy soils are much better for root veggies.

4) Prune and stake. Most of us either forget, or simply don't realize, that tomatoes are vining plants. They grow much like a watermelon or pumpkin plant does, yet we don't allow them to grow along the ground. They require support, so as they grow up, wrap their vines against a tall stake (like with gardening velcro in the photo below) or train their branches in between the openings in cages for support.

As for pruning, you must first know the difference between determinate varieties and indeterminate ones. Determinate varieties are ones that have terminal growth, grow more like a bush instead of a vine, and will not bear fruit for as long. Romas are the best example of determinate tomatoes. DO NOT prune a determinate tomato plant.

Indeterminate tomato plants are the ones that grow as a continuous vine. They are the ones that come late July, you look at the plant, and ask, "How the crap did it get so big?" If you don't prune the indeterminate plants, they will become unruly. One important step in pruning a tomato vine is to remove the suckers. They are easy to spot. They are the offshoots that grow upwards from between the main/central vine and a branch. Think of them like an ingrown hair: they are a nuisance that must be plucked! Can you spot the sucker in the photo below?

Also, you can prune your indeterminates by removing the lower branches. This allows the plants air flow around the base, and it concentrates the energy into growing better fruit instead of better foliage.

5) Control those bugs. We used to have a terrible aphid problem, and we don't like to use commercial insecticide on controlling pests. Insecticidal soap is a safe solution to keeping the bugs at bay. When I can't get to the store for a bottle of insecticidal soap, I boil smashed garlic cloves (skins on) and crushed red pepper in a pot of water to make a spicy solution that bugs hate. I let it cool and then strain it into a spray bottle. It smells worse than a pizza fart, but it does help to have a misting of it on the plant leaves. Finally, plant marigolds all around your garden. There are lots of pests--both the 6-legged kind and the 4-legged kind--who cannot tolerate the smell of marigolds. It's like having a flowery force field around your garden by planting those orange-and-yellow domes.

Happy gardening!

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