I wasn't planning on planting tomatoes this weekend (nor the peppers). I'm expecting some nights under 50 degrees coming up the next few days, and I wanted to make sure the temp was firmly above that benchmark before putting the plants in the ground. But I went out yesterday morning and found this sad, sad, tomato:
As you can see, I had already put a makeshift cage on it, because it had been droopy for days - but this was beyond droopy. And it had rained the day before! With a sigh, I gave the tomato pots another shot of water (more on water later) and got out my kitchen thermometer. The temperature of the dirt in the shadiest spot of the raised beds was 65 degrees. I decided the time was right to plant.
This decision was confirmed when I opened up the tomatoes, and saw the root system:
Already in danger of becoming root bound. Definitely time to give them more room.
The peppers looked better, nice root systems but not overgrowing the container.
You might remember that I started these tomatoes and peppers from seed, way back in January. Those little seeds started sprouting a week later. After months of misting, and turning the grow light on and off, and snipping off the rejects, and then potting them up to larger 4" pots, then taking them out every day for sun and bringing them in at night (and spilling one entire pot into my piano keys at one point, whoops), then finally potting them up to half-gallon containers the beginning of April, then losing a few plants to who knows what?, finally it was time to put these babies in the ground.
Normally, I just plop the tomatoes into the dirt (which has always been amended with a fresh layer of compost), put some sort of cage on it, and called it done. After last year's tomato troubles, I decided to do things completely differently this year, from nose to tail, so to speak. Tomatoes are a major crop for us, we eat them off the vine nearly every day during the season, and we want very many more for canning, as we go through many jars of tomatoes in the winter. So it was very much worth re-thinking my entire tomato operation, and figuring out what I could do differently this year. Here are the things I focused on, because these I can control:
* soil health/amendments
* method of trellising
* water needs
We've already talked about the fact that I grew my own seedlings this year (though after I killed a few, I supplemented with a couple from the Master Gardeners Tomato Sale, and a neighbor brought me one too). This was quite rewarding, though a lot of work. The work mostly came with having too small a set-up, so I eventually started moving the plants out in to the sun in the morning (unless it was a very rainy day) and bringing them in every evening. This was a pain. Other than that, I very much enjoyed starting these from seed and plan to do it again.
As for soil health, besides that fresh layer of compost, I've never really fertilized my tomatoes. On principle, I don't really believe we need fertilizer. If we are amending our soil with compost (either homemade or brought in from outside sources, such as from the city food scraps), and planting cover crops when the bed is fallow, our soil should have the biology it needs to grow anything. By biology, I mean lots of organic matter, plenty of hyphae (or mycorrhizae), earthworms, probiotics, etc - all the things that make a soil healthy. And I really do think that's all we need. However, my tomatoes last year had enough specific problems that I thought some amendments might help them out, at least in the first flush of growth after planting. Plus, if you think about it, the roots of tomatoes can grow up to ten feet underneath the soil. For us, that means the roots are traveling out to the edges of our yard, or very deeply, beyond where all our soil-conditioning ends. We've been amending the soil for years, and then adding sheet mulch, plus fresh wood chips 1-2 times a year, but we don't know the history of this soil. We believe that this part of our city was once a walnut orchard. There could still be a great concentration of juglone deep in the soil, and that's not good for anything but walnuts. This neighborhood was built in the 1940's - lead paints were most definitely used at that time and there could still be residues (this is where the mycorrhizae is particularly helpful!). Who knows how many herbicides or pesticides could have been applied in that orchard? In any case, I thought it was a good idea to give the tomatoes an extra hand this year.
I'd already amended the soil with the compost we bought in bulk from a producer near here. (I needed a lot of soil to fill the new Understory garden raised beds, and I ordered enough extra that I could put an inch in each existing bed.) Then I dug quite a deep hole for each tomato, and snipped the bottom leaves off of each plant.
In to the hole went my amendments. Many months ago, we started saving the shells from our own chicken eggs. We'd rinse them and put them in a bowl by the side of the sink; then after I had a dozen, I'd crush them and put them in the freezer in an individual bag. I took the shells out of the freezer early in the morning and let them come up to air temperature, and put the contents of one bag in each hole.
On top of the shells, I put a handful of bone meal and a handful of tomato-specific fertilizer.
The tomatoes need to go in deeply, because they grow roots from all parts of the stem. (I planted the peppers in the normal way, adding a handful of general organic fertilizer to the hole, as well.)
Meanwhile, Tom was figuring out stakes. I'd decided to try out the 'Florida Weave' method of trellising this year. Our tomato caging systems have changed quite a bit over the years. When I first started growing tomatoes, many years ago, I relied on those cages you can buy at any hardware store. These are totally inappropriate for tomatoes, but work well for peppers. Then two years ago we made our own cages, which worked fine, but there were issues with them too - the holes were to small to reach in and pick a tomato, and sometimes they fell over when the tomato reached six feet. I still like the idea of cages, because it's less work in the long term, but the next cages I make will be out of livestock panels, and that requires a budget and some specific tools. Florida Weave only requires some stakes and some twine (cheap!), plus a strong arm. (By the way, for a great video on this method of trellising, go here - I love this guy's accent and his sense of humor.) It'll be interesting to see how this works as the season progresses.
The fourth element that I can control with regards to tomatoes is water. We are pretty much constantly unsure how often and how long to run our drip system. It's only a year old and we are still learning the nuances. Our emitters have a flow rate of a gallon of water per hour. Last year, we ran the drips on the tomatoes every day for 15 minutes. This year, we're going to try every other day for 40 minutes. This is the recommended method of the Master Gardeners, and I think it makes sense. It's more water, yes, but it's also deeper water. Running the drips less frequently, for longer, means the water will go more deeply.
This theory was proven to me when I took the tomatoes out of the half-gallon pots to plant them. I had just watered them with the hose, giving them a quick shot. And guess what I found? Only the top two inches of roots were wet. And you saw in the picture above how far down the roots went. That shot of water was pretty much useless. Watering longer should resolve that problem.
Also, the eggshells (calcium) should help the roots with water uptake. I'm hoping for an end to blossom end rot.
On a side note, I called our local water company (EBMUD). I wanted to ask them about drought rates, and how much we could use before getting dinged. I also wanted them to know that I wasn't watering grass, but rather our food, and see if they could put a note in my file about that. The clerk I talked to was fairly unimpressed by the description of my yard and didn't seem concerned about exactly what we were using the water for, but did tell me that going over 80 units per billing period would result in a fine. That's nearly 1000 gallons PER DAY. Yikes. We don't use anything close to that. She told me our usage in a month like March was 16 units per billing period. In August it's more like 35-40. (Our ancient 40's plumbing could also probably use an overhaul.)
This relieved my mind, but of course we want to conserve as much water as possible in California. Drought is just a fact of life here. To that end, I mulched the tomatoes with straw to keep the soil moist and cool.
To the right of the dog are the sweet peppers. By the dog's head are hot peppers. The small bed of tomatoes is cherries, next to that are paste, and the one closest are slicers (with a little row of cilantro). On the back right hand side there are two beds still planted from winter. Garlic at the very back; when that is harvested (no browning on the stalks, so it's not time yet), I will plant winter squashes - delicata, acorn, and butternut. The bed directly in front of that is filled with bug-infested potatoes. That will come out next weekend and in its place I will plant corn. I will interplant the corn with sweet potatoes, eventually. Which reminds me that I need to start my slips.
Each day this coming week, every moment I can find, I need to work on the South Garden. It's time to start clearing out the winter greens and brassicas so that I can start on summer beans and cucumbers. By next Saturday, I should have some clear beds ready for planting, happy well-fed chickens, and a full compost. And by the middle of this week, the nighttime temps come up to the mid-50's, so that makes me feel better.
By the way, that droopy tomato at the top of this post? It's looking perky today, a clear sign that it needed to go in the ground. It's also a paste tomato, and one important thing I learned from the book Epic Tomatoes is that paste tomatoes are naturally more droopy than other tomatoes. Knowing this helps calm my fears about weeping paste tomatoes.
I'm hopeful that it will be a good year for tomatoes in our garden, with plenty for out-of-hand eating and canning! Whatever the results, I'll take you on the journey with me, so we can learn together.