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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.