Tomato Cage Watering
Water often and deeply, soaking the soil six to eight inches deep at least twice a week. Tomatoes do not respond well to letting the soil dry out between waterings. Keeping moisture levels in the soil even will help prevent the dreaded blossom-end rot, that small black spot on the bottom of the tomato which eventually can spread throughout the fruit.
A layer of mulch (straw, plastic, grass ) will help conserve soil moisture during the hot, dry days of July and August. In addition to moisture, tomatoes need warm soil. Black plastic mulch will work wonders if you live in a land of cool summers. For people in warmer climes, straw or another organic will be your mulch of choice.
The numerical formula that appears on just about any fertilizer refers to the percentage of the three macro-nutrients in that product. A box that reads 5-3-4, for instance, contains 5% nitrogen, 3% phosphorus, and 4% potassium. Nitrogen is most important in nourishing foliage, phosphorus in promoting the growth of flowers and fruits, and potassium in building strong stem and root systems.
Tomatoes are wild about fertilizer. In gardening parlance, they are “heavy feeders,” meaning that they require a lot of nutrients. Fertilize one week before as well as on the day of planting. They especially love phosphorous, which promotes the formation of blossoms and the fruits or vegetables that grow from them. Avoid high nitrogen when your tomato plants have blossoms as it promotes vine growth rather than fruit growth.
Tip: To ensure gardening success, this site recommends liquid and granular plant fertilizers available online at Planet Natural. Their large selection lets you find the best organic fertilizer for your particular needs.
A note also about what it means for a fertilizer or soil amendment to be “organic”: strictly speaking, a number of soil additives frequently referred to as “organic” are actually inorganic. Gypsum, lime, and greens and, or for that matter sand itself are all rock products and not, chemically speaking, organic, since carbon is not their primary component. However, the term “organic,” in casual gardening parlance, doesn’t refer to the chemical composition of a material, but to how much processing it has undergone, how toxic it is to the earth, its animals, and to humans, and most specifically, whether it is derived from petrochemicals such as oil. All of the additives recommended here have undergone minimal processing, are non-toxic to the earth and its inhabitants, and are not derived from petrochemicals.
If you have poor soil, plan on giving your plants one cup of fish emulsion mixture weekly until their first blossoms appear. Once blossoms appear, water your plants with compost tea or watered down fish emulsion every two to three weeks.
Top & Side-dressing: Side-dressing means digging material into the soil around the plant.
Most of us associate cover crops with full-scale farms, not with back (or front) yard tomato gardening. But don’t let that term “crop” fool you; cover crops work as well on a four-by-four plot as they do in a field of several acres. They just require less seed at planting time, and perhaps a machete rather than a machine for mowing. All that’s involved is growing something valuable for what it does to or on the soil, rather than for what it produces (see Improve Your Soil with Cover Crops).
Pruning involves removing suckers, the volunteer sprouts that develop right where a leaf stem meets the main plant stem, at what’s known as the axial. Left to themselves, suckers will produce leaves, blossoms, fruit — and more suckers. A popular but somewhat old-fashioned school of thought holds that these secondary (and tertiary) sprouts “suck” the life from the plant, and that all should be removed. Actually, allowing some suckers to remain will increase your overall yield. If, however, you’re going for sheer size of individual fruit, then removing all suckers will help.
Remember, only indeterminate varieties should be pruned, as determinates already have a built-in growth check. Pruning determinates decreases their overall yield, not just the size of individual tomatoes.
Whether and how much to prune depends on how you plan to support your tomatoes. Trellised tomatoes require the most radical treatment, with staked tomatoes next. In both cases, the support system can’t handle more than a couple of stems laden with heavy fruit. Caged tomatoes are generally pruned down to four or five producing stems, though Charles H. Wilbur, he of the 25 foot-tall tomato plants, goes for 18, one tied to each vertical wire of his homemade tomato cages.
Advice on pruning tomatoes abounds. Missouri State University recommends keeping the sucker that develops immediately below the first bloom cluster, and one sucker below that. Remove all the other suckers as you tie the plants and then remove additional suckers as they develop.
Training and Supporting Tomatoes
No, we’re not talking obedience training or getting tomatoes to jump through hoops. Nor do we recommend talk therapy for tomatoes. Training or supporting tomato plants means using stakes, cages, trellises or other support devices to keep their fruit off the ground and reduce rotting.
Why can’t tomatoes hold up their end of the stake? It would appear that tomatoes have a serious identity problem: they’re the vegetable that is actually a fruit, and the bush that is really a vine. Most of us don’t think of tomatoes as vines, but technically they are, even if they don’t twine winsomely round the nearest vertical support. Like most vines, they don’t put a lot of energy into developing sturdy stalks, so if you don’t want your tomatoes to sprawl, you’ll probably have to support them with wooden stakes or metal cages (see My Name is Tom and I’m Indeterminate).
Unsupported tomato plants can be healthy and can produce prolifically, but they are vulnerable to several drawbacks. They take up far more space than their supported cousins, and the fruit that lies on the ground is an easy target for slugs, fruit rot, sunscald, and other problems.
Finally, there is the aesthetic consideration: Like urban sprawl, tomato sprawl can be considered unsightly, and may invite objections (even petitions) from your neighbors. Moral: Support Your Tomatoes Today!
Stakes: Requires wooden, bamboo, or metal stakes. The stakes are normally five to six feet long for indeterminates and shorter (three to four feet long) for determinates. The stakes should be at least one-inch square if wooden, slightly smaller if made of metal. Do not use chemically treated wood for stakes (or for raised beds, cold frames, etc.; the chemicals can leach into the soil, be taken up by the tomatoes, and passed on to the consumer, i.e. you.) Concrete reinforcement rods, known as re-bar, are great for staking tomato plants. Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in rows. Drive a stake next to each plant or every other plant. The stake should be placed three to four inches from the base of the plant on the side away from the first bloom cluster.
Extending the Growing Season
You can’t change what weather Mother Nature throws at you, but there are ways and ways to handle it.
Spring — Starting early (seedlings, protection)
Getting an early start is one of the key ways to make the most out of warm weather when it does come. If you’re starting from seeds, and you wait till it’s actually growing season to plant them, you’ve lost close to two months. If you’re using seedlings, buy them early enough to have a good selection, and then care for them well.
You can transplant outside early if you protect the young plants from cool weather. Greenhouse kits will of course give the most protection, but there are several options short of those. The simplest, and one of the best tools for extending the growing season, is to use floating row covers. These come in several different weights, and they work whether you’ve got twenty-foot rows, a few plants in a single plot, or individual plants in barrels or other containers. These thin sheets of cotton or polyester can protect frost-sensitive plants down to 28 degrees F.
Premium-grade row-cover can be draped directly over the plants or over hoops above them. Then, they can be tucked into the earth, or anchored using staples (or a rock or old brick or two.) The big advantage of hoops is that they keep the cloth from touching the leaves. In very cold weather, leaves in contact with the fabric can be damaged before others. Another tactic is to use two layers of fabric. This creates an insulated layer of air between the two layers.