Planning for Tomato Success

Photo395Green thumbs are a myth. Really, they are … Because plants just know what to do. The problem comes when we try to make plants do what they aren’t made to do, or grow where they just can’t, or grow how we want them to, instead of how they were meant to grow, which we tend to do all too often…

 

If you’re planting plants, whether they are garden plants, trees, or even annuals and perennials and herbs, you really should find your “Zone” for growing plants.

 

Plant Hardiness, average minimum cold temps http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/InteractiveMap.aspx

 

Also, find your frost dates – http://farmersalmanac.com/average-frost-dates/

 

Remember to judge the dates a little, I know they say ours is Feb 8 to Feb 28th, and we’ve had a light frost in March many times… I figure March 15th for my last frost date and November 15th as our first frost date, even though many times we can go until January or February before a significant frost.
Count the days you have between the first frost, and the last. Here in Texas we are a little lucky, the season is so long we can get 2 seasons in, with 245 days. Of course it is so hot in July and August that it is tough to keep many things alive, and sometimes we will have to set out transplants for the Fall as well.
If you have a short season, there is still a good chance you can have a decent Tomato harvest, by starting the plants indoors, or in a greenhouse with a heat mat and lights. Doing the same when you have a long season helps get an even earlier crop, and have a longer production run. Combined with choosing short season varieties, it is possible to have Tomatoes within a month and a half or two of planting them out in the garden. Some seasons in Ontario Canada for example, might have a season of only 118 days. Using that season, cool short season varieties, and starting your own plants could see you collecting Tomatoes for 2 months or more. Here are some links for short season, cool climate tomatoes. Many more can be found by searching Google, or some of the many seed companies on the web.
http://store.tomatofest.com/Tomato_Varieties_for_Cooler_Climates_s/47.htm
http://incredibleseeds.ca/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=1_40

 

Here are some of the seed companies I use when I’m looking for seeds:
Territorial Seed Company
Sustainable Seed Company
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Jung Seed Company
Terroir Seeds
Tomato Fest

 

Here is a little clue as to the coloring differences of some Heirloom Tomatoes and most Hybrid Tomatoes:
Way back in time, like in the 1930’s or so, it was determined that consumers liked the even color of a ripe tomato that was red from the stem to the bottom. My own mother still says, that is the only kind of tomato she will buy. Some many years later, Cornel University, and UC Davis (while doing totally different studies, and not knowing of each other’s work) discovered that the green version of the then popular hybrid tomatoes and the old ‘heirloom’ variety tomatoes had different shades of green when they were still green. Well, these were many different hybrids, and many different heirlooms, but the hybrids ALL were light green, whereas the heirloom tomatoes were ALL dark green. They were curious as to why. Being rather ‘sciency’ folks, they happened to know, the function of chlorophyll in plants. (It is to produce natural sugars for the plant to ‘prosper’ in its ultimate effort to reproduce). The darker the green, the more sugars that are produced… however, most of these will have what is called green shoulders. Not necessarily green, but the colors will kind of streak from a darker color at the stem, to a ‘riper’ color at the bottom. Ironically, this had been bred out way back when, when they were looking for even colors at the ripe stage. Brix testing does not lie, heirloom tomatoes with ‘green shoulders’ have more sugars in them than the store bought evenly colored hybrids. So, they will generally be sweeter. You might want to consider that in choosing the varieties you want to grow… (Long winded, but extremely condensed version of the story we heard at the master gardener’s classes)

 

Finally found a link to an article explaining it more…

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/06/28/155917345/how-the-taste-of-tomatoes-went-bad-and-kept-on-going

 

Starting the seeds on a heat mat, 2 or 2 ½ months before the date you want to set them out should be about right to have a big plant with blossoms already going. Count back 2 months or 10 weeks from your last frost date, or the date you want to plant them out, and start your seeds then.

 

Getting the most out of the growing season you do have, will require starting your own seeds indoors, possibly on a heat mat, and a light of some kind. I am cheap, there is no way I’m gonna buy a high priced grow light. I simply use a quality shop T8 fluorescent light fixture (they happen to be 4 footers for my shelf). The best bulbs are the “Daylight” 6500K T8… but they are crazy expensive compared to other choices. I just look for the whitest, bright versions I can get local, and T8 (cheaper than T5, but more energy efficient than T12) The wattage seems low, (32) but they are pretty good lights, at 6500k also. SO, when the plants sprout, I put the light bulbs right close, almost but not touching the plants. For the first week, the lights stay on 24/7. After that, I will turn them off late night, and back on early AM. Using a heat mat will cut the time for germination in half or better. Make sure the mat is on a flat surface, I use a thin piece of flat sheet metal to be sure all the heat is directed to the seed flats, and doesn’t get lost out the bottom.

 

20160102_173139-smI start seeds in a flat tray, with potting mix, and make rows in the tray for different varieties. Label the rows well, since you want to know which is which later. I use trays that are 18 by 25 inches, and a heat mat that is big enough for 2 of these trays, but there are smaller trays, 10 by 20 and heat mats that are sized for those. I don’t use a temp controller for them, I simply plug them in and they work well. I do use a flat solid surface under the heat mat so the heat stays on the seed trays. Spread the potting mix over the tray, level the surface (I use a small straight piece of wood) and firm it down a bit so it won’t wash all over when you water it. Use the corner edge of the wood, or the end of a pencil or ? to make a straight mini furrows, about 1/8 inch or 3/16th deep, and 1-1/2 to 2 inches apart.
20160203_132431-smCarefully put in a seed every inch down the furrow. Label the row, and then push the edges of the soil over the seeds. They will not be deep, but kinda close to the surface. Plant each row, labeling as you go, and being careful not to get the wrong seeds in the wrong places, so when you have your tomato plants ready to go into the garden, they are the kind you want to plant there. Wet the soil carefully, so you’re not washing soil around and scrambling the seeds. Then check morning and night to make sure the soil stays moist on the top. If the seeds germinate, then dry out, they will die. Sometimes a “spritzer” bottle will work well to keep the surface moist. When the seedlings come up, the first 2 leaves are called cotyledons. They aren’t counted as ‘true’ leaves. The lights need to be on the tops of the seed flats as soon as you see even a couple seedlings. I raise the lights to water, then lower them back down. With 10 x 20 flats, set the flats lengthwise under the lights, to keep the most area lit well. My flats are 18 by 25, and I set them in my stand so there are 3 trays wide the 18” inch direction, and 25” deep front to back, so I use 2 light fixtures to wash the entire surface with light. This keeps the seedlings from having to ‘reach’ for the light. 20160109_190545-smIn this picture, the lights are too high, and need to be moved to cover the trays better.

 

20160124_212910By the time the seedlings get to have 4-6 true leaves, (I go with 6) it is time to put them into small pots. I use Solo type plastic cups with 2 holes drilled in the bottoms. (1/4”) Use new, quality potting mix. No garden soil. Soil has viruses, and things you just don’t need to deal with for this right now. Use a liquid fertilizer, (I get the Miracle Grow local) it isn’t magic, just decent fertilizer to give the plants a good boost from the potting mix’s lacking good nutrients. Use the fertilizer at ½ the recommended rate for indoor plants, and 2 times more often. I use the small end of the provided scoop per 1 gallon. As the plants grow, and as they become more root bound, you might have to use the fertilizer more often. Getting the seedlings out of the tray to plant them in cups gets more tedious as they get bigger, especially if they were planted too close in the tray. Usually you can use your hands, or as in this picture, I was using my pocket knife, to gently extract short sections of each row, then gently separate each seedling to plant into the cups. Snip off the cotyledons, and the first true leaves, and plant them as deep as that into the cups. Tomatoes will form additional roots along any part of the stem that is in the soil.

 

20160215_072158-smWhen the roots begin to ‘circle’ the bottom of the cup, it is time to move up to a bigger pot. This one here is ready to move up, but not circling too badly yet. I use 1 gallon at this point. The plants will easily pop out of the cups to look at the roots, or you can use clear cups, and see them easy.
Use more of the same potting mix. It seems to take a lot, but it works. Something special about the Tomato plant is its ability to put roots onto any stem buried in dirt. For this reason, I plant the plant as deep as I possibly can each time I re-pot it. Pinch off the leaves up to the point it is being buried. From a seedling, leave 2 leaves. From the solo cup to the gallon, it should be nearly planted with the bottom of the solo cup area at the bottom of the gallon pot. There might be several leaves, or side shoots, or very few. Just try to have at least an inch of potting mix under the bottom of the ‘root ball’.
Tamp in the plant lightly, don’t pack it tight. It needs to drain well. This means you will water frequently, but there is a root virus that can run rampant if the roots are kept too wet, then the plants will die. In the gallon pots the plant can easily get to 3 or 4 feet tall, and flower, and start bearing fruit, but it won’t thrive. Let the top of the soil dry a bit before watering. If the room temps don’t drop under 45F or 50F, and if the high temps stay under 85F or 90F, they should do great.

 

A few months before, or the summer before you set out transplants, you might want to think about the planting area. For a few reasons. Especially if you have plenty of good stuff from horses or goats or cows, or poultry… This ‘stuff’ – ok – Manure… should be fairly well composted before the Tomatoes are set into it. I would say through the summer, build a good bed in the best sunny area you can use for them. An area where the chickens cannot get when the plants are growing (because they will eat all the fruit). Build a bed about 5 feet wide, 2-3 feet tall, and as long as how many plants you want to plant 2-3 feet apart. The raised bed like this will warm up faster in the Spring, and it will settle down a little after you build it, and it composts down a bit as well. For the horse manure, with all the chicken litter you can add in, if these beds are built mid-Summer, and they set until you are ready to plant, they should be just fine, and composted well enough to not burn, but feed the plants very well. When the time comes (May 24th) to set in 20160327_142710your plants, you can set them in deep, but the best choice is to have the roots within the top 12 inches of the soil. I usually plant mine kind of sideways a little, putting the root ball at an angle, and the stem coming out, then up at an angle out of the bed. Within a 20160316_081631-smcouple days, the plant will look straight as it grows,

and adjusts to the sunlight. I use re-bar stakes about 5 feet tall as a temp support, until they grow enough for the cage to start working. I still us a bit of 10-0-0 slow release fertilizer around the area of the plant in a ring about 2 feet in diameter. Our soils test showed a very low Nitrogen level, so we need it. I use about a fist full of it per plant. If your manure has lots of wood chips, or sawdust, you might want to use some fertilizer. The wood chips as they degrade will suck nitrogen from the garden soil. Compost generally has good Phosphorus and Potassium, so a fertilizer with just nitrogen should be just fine. If there is a yellowing of the leaves, with darker green20160316_081621-sm veins showing soon after planting them in, and the general appearance of the plant doesn’t look very dark green, you might need to use an iron supplement. Ph plays a big part in the iron deficiency as well. Over a Ph of 7.5 many plants have a tough time trying to get to the Iron that might be in the soil. You might need to use a chelated iron product to feed the plant once every month or 2, depending on the strength, and how it’s working.

 

Well, if it is too long to wait, and your plant out date is fast approaching, here is an idea to use some of the ideas, without having to wait a full year (and without going ‘all in’ with 100 plants) to see what you can do.

 

Surely, there are good nurseries nearby you, (not the big box stores, a nice little nursery, like a mom and pops, or something. Talk to them about what kind of tomatoes they will have and when, and what dates they recommend to set them out. If they will have starts about the right time to set them safely, get as many as you want to test for this season. Go easy, but try as many different ones as you dare, to get an idea which ones do well for you, and which ones you might not want to plant next year. Even testing 6 will be a good trial. As soon as you are able, build large mounds of manure, mixed with your native soil, or simply till it into the area where you will plant the tomatoes. Be sure to choose the oldest, most composted stuff you can find. You can also purchase some good quality compost, or mushroom compost. Build a mound for each plant about 5 feet in diameter, and 2 feet tall. Drive in a tee post in each mound about 16 inches off center, choose a tall tee post, because the new mound is going to be soft, and getting it into the more solid earth under the mound will make the tee post kinda short. Find some old field fencing you can cut up into 8 or 9 foot lengths, leaving the wire tails all on one end. You’ll need 2 of these for each tomato plant. Tie the fencing together in pairs, making them double tall, then roll them into cages, hooking the tails you left to hold it in a ring. They should be between 2.5 and 3 feet in diameter. Use the tails to hook the rings in a way they can be unhooked easy at the end of the season for storage. Plant the tomato starts in the middle of the mound as deep as you can, or laying down with the plant in the center of the mound where it comes out of the ground. Snip off the leaves that would be buried, and water in well. You might want to put in a stake up 3 feet or so as a temporary support to tie to while the plant is still getting big enough for the cage. Put the cage over the plant, and tie the cage well to the tee post. For the first few weeks, use the liquid fertilizer to get a good boost in growth, and get the roots growing well. About once a month, add about a cup of the 10-0-0 slow release fertilizer in a ring outside the cage, and work it into the top 2 inches of the soil. Water them well, but not to the point of being soggy. After the first month, you’ll need to be watering the whole mound rather than just near the plant. The Horse litter has a fairly good NPK value, but the tomatoes are a hungry plant. If there is a lot of wood chips or hay mixed in, the nitrogen will be locked into the process of composting those bits, and might not be available to the plant.

 

There is a possibility that persistent weed killers were used to grow the hay the livestock that donated the manure ate. If so, the Tomatoes could suffer badly. Leaves will curl up, and the plants will turn yellow (veins as well) and barely grow at all, before dying all together. If that happens, you will know you can’t use manure from that source in the garden. The persistent herbicides can stay in the soil, or compost for 2-5 years. To research this look up Killer Compost, it has become a pretty big deal, but is nearly impossible to get it tested to see. This is the test most gardeners use… Plant a bunch of peas or beans in a pile of the stuff, and see if they grow well, if they do good, you are safe, if they come up, turn yellow and curl all up, that tells you it is probably bad to use.

 

So, a short recap on how to get tomatoes this summer… (if you aren’t past the plant out date already!)

  • Build some mounds (flat on top)
  • Put a tee post in there
  • Build a field fence tube type cage
  • Buy plants that are supposed to do good for your area
  • Plant deep to get more roots
  • Water in well, but not soggy
  • Allow the top surface of the soil to dry before watering
  • Fertilize with (10-0-0 slow release) or you can also use chicken litter around the mound, and water it in
    Key is you don’t want litter to get on the fruit – at all… (e-coli, etc)

 

There should be enough tomato plant from each plant to overfill the cage by mid season, and most types of tomatoes should be spilling over the top of those cages, indeterminate type Tomatoes will easily grow to 10 feet or so tall… but who wants to use a ladder to pick them.
Some people want to cut off the ‘suckers’ and constantly prune them to keep the bush under control. There is a lot of reasons I will not do that:

  1. Too much fiddling around wasting time
  2. Plants need the leaves to produce the sugars that I want IN my tomatoes, so I want more leaves
  3. Many of the ‘suckers’ will produce tomatoes later in the season.
  4. Pruning a plant (any plant – even trees) causes a reaction in the plant that leads to ‘root pruning’. And I don’t want my tomato roots to be pruned…
  5. More leaves, more photosynthesis, more sugar, and able to support more roots to support more fruit (with those sugars in them)

(In the coming months I am going to modify this list a little for another project – so, yes, there is 1 reason I will prune the plants… but not for the benefit of this crop)

 

One thing to really watch for as the fruit comes on the plants, and they begin to ripen. It is really important to not over water, or many types of tomatoes will split. So, this is usually when it rains like crazy. One way to try to keep that from splitting the fruit is to use, a plastic sheet mulch, or, I use feed sacks on the mound around the Tomato. Paper feed sacks, get them soggy, use 1 layer, overlapping them kinda like a paper mache over the mound. This will stop all the weeds, and shed too much rain if it comes. If you use drip lines to water, put the sacks over the top of those, but check on how well watered the drip are keeping them. Here in the South, it helps keep the water from evaporating, and keeps the soil cool, but we have to have drip lines, and be able to see if there is enough water getting to the plants. I use earth staples to hold the sacks down.

 

So, this leads to another thing to think about if you do this on a bigger scale. Maybe not for 6 plants testing this year, but if you go nuts, and plant 110 plants… make some drip line rings. I use ½ inch poly tube, the black plastic ag water line stuff. Cut a piece about 8 ½ feet long (test it to see that it fits into your cage, so the cage doesn’t sit on top of it) use a barbed ‘tee’ fitting to connect the ends with the middle of the ‘tee’ left to connect to the main feed line. Drill 1/16th inch holes every 6 inches, through the side (horizontal) all the way through. This allows water to come to the inside and to the outside of the ring. Drop these water rings into the cages as you plant the plants with the connection pointing to the side where a main line will come down to feed them. Run a feed line from your water source, with either a timer, or a ball valve to turn on the water when needed. If you have too many of these rings on the same line, the water pressure will drop, and only some of the plants will get watered, if you think this might be an issue, try to find a drill bit smaller than 1/16th.. so maybe 3/64th. You can also make the holes every 8 inches or 9… Or you could use 2 main lines, connecting half of the plants to each, and watering one main line at a time. I just use straight lines down each side of a row of tomatoes, so I have to be careful of the cages sitting on top of the lines and pinching them.

 

Irrigation is really a totally separate subject, and there is a lot of things to consider, but that is a few clues as to what I would think about. That brings me to another thought. I’m not sure if you know about this nifty tool, so I will mention it here… When I use the barb fittings with the poly pipes / tubing the normal option is to use hose clamps to hold the stuff together. No way, the clamps just do not work for me. I use a wire clamp tool. The one I have is called the Stronghold Haywire Klamper. Here is a video of the tool being used. https://youtu.be/OLY-2FVAgko It really does work that easy, and well, when you get used to it, and it beats the heck out of hose clamps. I use it for all kinds of stuff.