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Once the garden soil warms up (about 55 to 60 F, Brechter said), cover it with any kind of organic mulch, like pine straw, leaves or hay. It will keep soil cooler in the summer and also help with fungal control. “I can’t explain enough the value of mulches,” Brechter said.
Location, location, location
- When planning a spot for tomatoes, pick a place that gets six to eight hours of sun.
- Allow at least 2 to 3 feet between each plant, 4 feet if you have the room (increased airflow helps keep the plants from being a breeding ground for pests).
I swear, every year they mock me.
They humbly sit among the vegetables at the garden center, quietly calling, “Pick ME. You know I’ll grow up to be big and healthy.”
Or, they mock me from the sunny windowsill in my kitchen, where I have successfully started them from seeds for the past two years.
“I’m happy and healthy,” they whisper. “Go ahead and plan for lots of tomato sandwiches this summer.”
Oh cruel, cruel tomatoes. How you mock me.
You see, every year I put the tomatoes in the ground, lovingly fertilize them and give them water. And then, right as they’re about to bear a bounty of precious baby tomatoes, something horrible happens.
I’ll come out the next morning and the stalk is cut, leaving the bulk of the plant to die. Or, thick horned worms have settled on the branches, stealthily munching away. Or, the plant simply starts to turn brown, and no amount of water or fertilizer or sun can stop it.
Well, like I said a few weeks ago in the introduction to this summer gardening series, this is the year all that changes.
To start, I recently went to a seminar on tomatoes led by Ron Brechter, a Hall County Master Gardener. Since tomatoes are the main focus of my garden this year, I wanted to make extra sure I got it right. This seemed like a good place to start.
And it was. Turns out Brechter has devised an ingenious way to water and fertilize your tomatoes without getting the leaves all wet — which is one way to end up with a diseased plant. He also pointed out common pests and plant problems, such as cutworms (what cut my tomato stalks), hornworms (the green horned bugger eating the leaves) or early blight (turning brown before it’s time).
There’s lots of intricacies when it comes to growing tomatoes, though. Included with this story are several tips and hints from Brechter, from preparing the soil to getting rid of those pesky horned bugs.
Take that, tomato pests. Now who’s mocking who?
What do those numbers mean, anyway?
If you’ve had a soil test, you probably had a recommendation to add a fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, to your soil. But what do those numbers even mean?
For a vegetable garden, you want to err on the side of having more phosphorous or potassium in your soil, therefore you want to look for fertilizers that are higher in the second two numbers. (Often, home-improvement stores will have fertilizer with a high nitrogen content, which is good for your lawn only.)
“You want more phosphorous and potassium for root growth and fruit production,” Brechter said.
Along with these variables, you also have to worry about your soil’s pH level. Ideally, Brechter said, your soil should be in the range of 6.2 to 6.8, on a scale of zero being acid and 14 being alkaline.
Soil’s pH too low? Add some lime. Soil’s pH too high? Add some sulfur.
The secret to fertilizing and watering your tomatoes? Get a handy PVC tube!
Soaker hoses are great for squash or beans, Brechter said, but you want tomatoes to get their water and fertilizer deep in the soil. So, how do you do that?
You bring it straight to the root source, underground.
Brechter recommended getting a PVC pipe and inserting it into the ground to the bottom of your tomato’s roots. Do this when you first plant the tomato, and strip off all but the top tuft of leaves on the plant, planting most of the stem underground, too.
Apparently, tomatoes are happy when they have a deep root system.
“Plant your tomato and drive this in beside it,” said Brechter, adding that you may have to pull it in and out several times to keep it from filling with dirt before it’s fully in the ground.
Brechter said he fertilizes twice during the growing season, and fills up the pipe once a week and that’s all the water the plant will need. When you need to fertilize, drop some down the pipe, too.
“Now, anytime I water, I water right down here.”