Though advice about growing tomatoes might seem a stretch to be considered subject matter for an outdoor column, every outdoorsman I know grows a few tomato plants each year, even if they have to sneak them in with the snapdragons or hide them amongst the hibiscus. After all, nothing goes better with a freshly grilled venison burger than a juicy slice of fresh tomato. Though my thumb is only mildly green, I have become pretty successful at growing dandy tomatoes, so here are a few tips I find to work well for me each year.
Tomatoes today come in literally dozens of varieties, sizes and shapes. I find it prudent to know a little about the varieties I choose and what they are best used for, and I like to get plants that are resistant to most common tomato ailments. Tomato plants come in 2 different types, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants are bred to grow only about 3 feet tall, to set and ripen their fruit and then they are basically done. Indeterminate plants will keep growing and producing fruit the entire season, (so they’ll need to be well staked and supported) and as long as they are kept alive and healthy through the hot summer, they will begin setting and ripening fruit again when temperatures cool off. So if you want to take advantage of cooler fall weather to keep the tomatoes coming like last year, you’ll need indeterminate plants.
Tomato plants will not set fruit from their blossoms when daytime temperatures exceed 90 degrees and nighttime temps exceed 75 to 80, so I plant early to get a start on production before the hot summer arrives like we know it will. I usually plant in early to mid April and surround my plants with structures called Walls of Water. They are round flexible plastic tubes with numerous small compartments that you fill with water. When erected, they form a pyramid about 18’’ tall around and over the plant, open at the top and the water absorbs heat and sunlight to basically create a tiny greenhouse for each plant. Simply remove them when temperatures stabilize. This year I’m also trying 3 varieties, Florida 91, Phoenix and Fourth of July that are bred to be heat lovers and to set fruit in higher summer temperatures.
When actually setting my plants in the ground, I go a little above-and-beyond also. I dig a hole about the width and depth of a one gallon milk jug. In the hole I put a shovel full of good composted manure. Then I add one-quarter cup of Epson salts, which is actually magnesium-sulfate that helps combat blossom end rot on the fruit by adding magnesium, and adds sulfur to help grow good sturdy healthy plants. Add in a small amount of the dirt dug from the hole and mix it up a little with your hands. Set the plant in the hole at least 6 inches deep, pruning off bottom branches if necessary to allow that. This gets the roots down deep immediately to begin feeding and helps the plant develop deep roots sooner to make for a sturdy plant. Water with Miracle Grow Tomato fertilizer or sprinkle a little of the dry crystals in the hole with the Epson salt. An overabundance of nitrogen will cause the plant to grow like gangbusters, but tomato fertilizer is low in nitrogen and high in Phosphate and Potash which the plant needs to produce blossoms and to set fruit. As the season progresses, if your vines are growing well but have few blossoms, feed them with fertilizer high in both Phosphate and Potash. If the vines don’t seem to be growing, feed them a little nitrogen.
I like to water each individual tomato plant at its base which puts the water immediately where it needs to be rather than all over the garden or all over the plants foliage. To help accomplish this, I get empty one gallon cans from the local nursing home kitchen, cut the bottoms from them and place them around each plant, pushing them a couple inches into the ground. To water, simply put a couple inches of water into each can once a week. I also try to cover the bare ground between plants with either black weed barrier or with black plastic garbage bags, weighted down with small pieces of brick or with flower pots. This is a good place to put pieces of broken pots turned upside-down to create what my wife calls “Toad Abodes,” hiding spots for toads during the heat of the day. It doesn’t get much better than to have natures best bug collectors living right there amongst the plants; sort of like the fox living in the henhouse.
Well there you have a few tips I use to grow tomatoes each year. We eat some fresh during the season, but most of our tomatoes are frozen as we get them and used to make homemade tomato soup from a recipe my mom used. There is absolutely nothing like a hot bowl of homemade tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a cold evening. I imagine lots of you readers also have “tomato tips” you have developed over the years, and if you’d like to share them, send them to me and if I get enough I’ll make an entire column out of them. Yet another way to Explore Kansas Outdoors!
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]