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.