Sunday, March 06, 2005

Manure! Worms! Wilt!

I am still plugging my infertile ears and loudly proclaiming "na-na-na-na-na-na-na" when it comes to thinking/talking/writing about the IVF elephant in the corner. Instead, I will continue to think only of tomatoes! More tomatoes! All tomatoes, all the time!

For the tiny fraction of a percentage of readers who may be interested, I will herewith give our recipe for growing the world's most perfect food in containers.

Containers:
Standard 30- and 55-gallon trash cans, the bottoms drilled liberally with drainage holes. The larger containers we reserve for the bigger beefsteak tomatoes (Brandywines, Paul Robesons, Old Germans, etc.), the smaller ones for cherries and saladettes (Stupice, Sun Gold, Green Zebra, etc.). Containers are ideal if you have gophers, nematodes, poor drainage, insufficient soil temperature or soil-borne fungi or disease. One other advantage to containers is that you can use copper tape around each bin to discourage snails and slugs.

Water:
We have had great luck with our drip irrigation system, which J. rigs up each March. It uses a minimal amount of water while ensuring a consistent level of moisture. And since tomatoes are prone to molds and mildews, it's best to keep overhead watering to a minimum so the leaves stay dry most of the time. Oh, and one more thing: One year, we were not very bright and didn't set up the drip hoses till after we'd planted the seedlings. Wrestling stiff hoses around tender little plants was not easy. We have been brighter since then and now make sure the hoses are in place right off the bat.

Filling:
We use a base of 1/3 steer manure and 2/3 standard potting soil. We then mix in a substantial amount of compost (from our bin this year, if the volunteer worms do their wriggly magic) and a liberal sprinkling of Osmocote slow-release vegetable fertilizer pellets.

Support:
We have a crazy setup of steel posts and chicken wire and cable ties that I won't even try to explain coherently. However, my sister, who has a tremendous annual crop, swears by the simple four-sided tomato cages. As with the hose system, it's important to put in your supports before planting, so as not to damage any roots.

Planting:
We strip off the lower sets of leaves and plant the seedlings "up to their necks," as my father once said. The fine white hairs that cover tomato plants are actually incipient roots, just waiting for a little soil and water to spread out. This helps get the plant established quickly, and provides a nice sturdy root base for the explosive growth. (Tomatoes grow more quickly than the Las Vegas suburbs, once their roots get going.) We also give them a little liquid fertilizer--we usually use Quick Start--to ease the transplant process. Once they're snugly in place, we cover the soil around the plant with newspaper and organic mulch--this year, we're planning to use the copious pine needles from one of our trees as the mulch layer.

Maintenance:
Tomatoes love to be watered regularly and deeply. In our area, summers are fairly dry and warm, though we get the occasional morning fog, and our plants are happy with daily drip watering for about fifteen minutes. We usually set up the timer system to go off at around 9:00 a.m.--early enough to minimize evaporation but late enough that the plants don't sit around damp for hours. On those unusual 90-plus-degree days, we sometimes supplement with a second drip or spray watering in the late afternoon.

Every two weeks or so, starting when the plants reach about two feet high, we feed them with packaged tomato food--a scoop of blue powder to each gallon of water. Tomatoes can absorb nutrients right through their leaves, so this is a time to make an exception to the no-overhead-watering rule. We failed to use a liquid fertilizer one year and our harvest was much less impressive, and the fruiting season shorter.

Ick:
For aphid control, we have often bought packages of ladybugs and let them go to town on the tiny pests, but found that these supposed "ladies" would much rather sunbathe naked on the garden hose or take up co-ed residence in our neighbor's salvia plants than eat their demure weight in aphids. So now we just let the aphids be, and find that they're mostly gone by June anyway. We haven't had problems with the other major tomato pests--those of you who commented about picking hornworms from your plants gave me shudder-filled nightmares, just so you know--but we have dealt with our share of blight and wilt. And all I can say is, as heartbreaking as it may be, if you see a problem on one plant, throw it away immediately. I have done otherwise, thinking a little copper soap or silent pleading would make it well again, and paid the price of infecting the whole entire crop with blight.

Silly trick that may or may not be useful:
Our Brandywines and other big beefsteaks often have early-season blossom drop, which can occur when the flower fails to pollinate (though I think it can also occur when the nights are not yet warm enough). To encourage pollination, you can gently "flick" the blossom, which is supposed to take the place of an excited bee. I cannot testify that this works, but I read it somewhere and like to flick, so why not?

Tomorrow, after we get our taxes done, we'll take a preview swing by the fabulous hardware store/nursery where our local grower sells and see which varieties she's hawking this year. Our online shipment should be here Friday. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.

10 Comments:

Blogger amyesq said...

Ooh! Your post has gotten me so in the planting mood! I ordered six plants off the Cooks Garden website last week - three of which I have never grown before, so we'll see how it goes. Great advice about the soil and mulch. Where we live, our soil is crap (well, not literally. It would be lots better if it WERE crap, actually) so I always grow my tomatoes in containers. I am wondering if I smush my plants together too much, though, given that you use big trash cans for yours. Will have to think on that. I also use the blue Miracle Grow stuff and tomato-specific potting soil. Do you think I should find me some manure to put in there, too? Any other tips? Any pics of your plants from years past?

Also - as much as I hate to say it, the time WILL come when you must delve into the folder. Good luck.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Soper said...

I use 1/4 c Epsom salts around the base when I plant, and then repeat it every couple of weeks. This helps calcium absorption, and stops blossom end rot. It also kills slugs and discourages other nasties.

I pick off hornworms/cutter worms when I see them, and one year actually had a hornworm wasp lay eggs in a huge worm that I had missed -- it was sad, but kinda interesting to watch.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Wavery said...

You can also spray Epsom salts diluted in warmish water directly on leaves and blossoms to encourage nutrient uptake and reduce blossom drop. As Soper said, the magnesium in the salts directly contributes to both potassium and calcium uptake, vital in many plants subject to various 'wilts.'

8:36 PM  
Anonymous Day said...

Bugs, this is better than any book - I'm SO inspired to grow a container this year (our yard has poor sunlight - too many trees - the sunny deck will work however). Being that my 100% Italian husband hates tomatoes (although he would drink tomato sauce if he could - it's a texture issue for him, not taste ), I haven't pushed to grow any for myself. But this year I will. If you had to pick only one of tomato to grow, which kind would it be? Any recommendations for growing in a cooler climate like New England with a shorter growing season?

4:59 AM  
Anonymous Day said...

Bugs, this is better than any book - I'm SO inspired to grow a container this year (our yard has poor sunlight - too many trees - the sunny deck will work however). Being that my 100% Italian husband hates tomatoes (although he would drink tomato sauce if he could - it's a texture issue for him, not taste ), I haven't pushed to grow any for myself. But this year I will. If you had to pick only one of tomato to grow, which kind would it be? Any recommendations for growing in a cooler climate like New England with a shorter growing season?

5:00 AM  
Blogger Pamplemousse said...

Bugs, you are like the Sweet Tomato Queen. I am so jealous as it is still the frozen North here. In fact, we had a snow day last week. I can only dream of flowers.

BTW you better pick up that folder pronto and stop procrastinating!!

12:02 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Oh yeah...even if I don't get a whole garden in this year, I will plant at least one or two containers of tomatoes. Thanks for the primer.

12:43 PM  
Blogger DeadBug said...

Amyesq, a little crap is always a good idea! I know some people can get great results with extra compost and fertilizer and skip the manure entirely, though.

Soper & Wavery, thanks for the Epsom salts tips--sounds like an easy and helpful addition. And, Soper, if I may....EEEEWWWWW. Grody to the max. But kind cool, like you said.

Day, an Italian who loathes tomatoes?! That's...inconceivable! Choosing just one type is brutal, but I would probably go with a Sun Gold cherry. They are very hardy, fruit early and prolifically under almost any weather conditions and have a sensational full-bodied, sweet-tart flavor. They are also very versatile, being excellent in salads, salsas, soups and tossed with pasta. And they are unsurpasssed when dried in the oven (still eating last year's oven-dried stores--they freeze really well). The larger beefsteak-type tomatoes (Brandywines, etc.) tend to require more sun and heat, are less hardy and don't start to ripen till much later in the year. Saladettes or Roma-style tomatoes might be another good option for you--Stupice is one of our favorites and grows well in cooler climates. Very early fruiter and prolific.

Pamplemousse, not to rub it in or anything, but it's 74 degrees on my patio today...

Kristin, much luck on the containers! Sounds like Epsom salts are a great addition to "the primer".

And to everybody...thanks for the prodding. I opened the damned orange folder yesterday, read every word and filled out the forms. Will write more about it soon.

2:15 PM  
Blogger akeeyu said...

My mother always planted marigolds with her tomatoes, saying that the marigolds drove off the vermin that would ordinarily feast on tomatoes. Either marigolds work, or she was the luckiest person on the planet, because I never saw a bug on her tomatoes.

6:47 PM  
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6:10 AM  

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