Organic soil amendments for best tomatoes?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

While our tomatoes grew well last summer, I had heard that some gardeners in the D.C. area had a particularly tough time with theirs. In August, Adrian Higgins of The Washington Post wrote about the area's disappointing tomato season in Where's the Beefsteak? Our extreme and varied summer weather was noted as a possible cause of tomato plant failure. We had torrential rains in June, which likely washed away important nutrients like calcium. Then came very dry weather in July, followed by a heatwave in early August. Consistently high nighttime temperatures can cause tomato plants to drop their blossoms and fail to produce fruit.

While the weather is beyond our control, the article included tips on things one can do to try and keep tomato plants healthy: "Use deep, rich soil with sufficient calcium and organic matter. Apply mulch to keep down weeds and blight spores."

Thinking about preparing the ground for this year's tomatoes, I came across Baker Creek's Garden Forum, where someone posed the question: "What do you add to your soil with your tomato plants?" The answers ranged from compost and manure to eggshells, coffee, banana peels, Epsom salts, dead fish carcasses and matches. New to me was the idea of using banana peels (for potassium) and matches (for sulfur and phosphorus). And I haven't the slightest idea what Epsom salts do.

Michael and I usually mix bone meal into the soil when we transplant our tomato seedlings outside. Then we give the plants a periodic fertilizing with fish emulsion. This has worked well for us, but we're always open to suggestions on how to grow a better tomato.

I'm curious to know what others have tried, and to what effect? What's your favorite organic soil amendment for great tomatoes? What has worked best? And why?


Blogger Ed Bruske said...

Two primary components of epsom salts are magnesium and sulfur. Plants need both, but they may already be present in the soil in sufficient quantity.

Before you add anything to your soil you should have a detailed soil analysis conducted. If the analysis calls for supplements, follow the directions.

Otherwise, Charles H. Wilber, who wrote the book "How to Grow World Record Tomatoes," and who in fact hold's the Guinness Book of World Records for tomatoe production, advocates using compost. Of course, Wilber makes his own compost. But a well-made compost should have all the nutrients you need and will, over time, built a soil more conducive to healthy plant growth than anything else you can do for your vegetables.

Fertilizers are fine up to a point. But feeding your soil before feeding your plants is the most constructive thing you can do for your garden over the long term.

To which I might add, I hope your readers are not using chemicals on their gardens.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

What he said! Compost, compost, compost! (with some eggshells crumbled in if I happen to have them).

But mostly my trick has been to plant them really deep. Tomatoes can produce roots from their stems, you see, so I wait until they're about a foot tall, strip all their leaves EXCEPT the topmost bunch, and plant them so deep that only those little leaves are left poking up out of the ground. My foot-tall tomato plants now look like 3" tall seedlings again.

They grow up with the most magnificent root systems, and can survive any kind of drought (I'm not the most diligent waterer). Even better, they have more than enough roots to find all the minerals and nutrients they need!

10:51 AM  
Blogger Ed Bruske said...

Excellent point. Some people dig a trench and plant the tomato on its side, with just the top poking through the soil. Roots will sprout the length of the stem. If you've ever let your tomatoes grow wild, and not staked them vertically, you will see them rooting from the stems as well.

I was very encouraged to see that the man who holds the world record for growing tomatoes relies primarily on compost. He has some thoughts on how the compost should be made and stored. He uses concrete reinforcing mesh to make large cages and his caged tomotoes grow as high as 30 feet. He just keeps stacking the cages, following the vines upward and pruning them so that there are no more than five leaders per plant. He anchors the bottom cage to the ground with long spikes. He also specifies plenty of room between the plants so they get good ventilation. I find tomato wilt to be a primary problem around he, but Mr. Wilber also is from the South. Georgia, if I'm not mistaken, so he has a plenty long growing season.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Christa said...

Yes, good compost is always key, but unfortunately it's not easy to come by around here. Our community garden's compost heap got completely dug up (to be replaced) last year, because it was overrun with invasive wire grass. With the new compost pile in place, I don't think there's enough "ripe" compost to go around yet. Also, since we are in a small apartment, we don't have room for a kitchen composter, and we can't put food scraps directly in the garden (against the rules because it'll attract rats). Bags of Bumper Crop from the garden center add up very quickly in cost... so finding ways to enrich our soil isn't always easy. I'm hoping DC Urban Gardeners can solve the mystery of what the city does with all the leaves it collects in the fall. I would love to take some leaf mulch off their hands!

2:05 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

Wow, you've already gotten some great comments! I agree that compost is best, and that planting deeply helps.

I don't use any chemical fertilizers in my garden, but I do get a bit of help when it comes to tomatoes (especially the heirlooms) by using the Gardens Alive organic fertilizer called Tomatoes Alive. They boast about putting lots of micronutrients in it, and I believe them because it sure seems to help me. I grow 20 different varieties of tomatoes, so I like the extra insurance.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Ed Bruske said...

Very good point, Christa. I think all of us need to think harder about urban composting solutions. Would it be possible for your community garden to have a small load of compost delivered that you can all share?

5:20 PM  
Blogger Christa said...

We did have a small pile of mulch brought in late last fall, during the revamping of the permanent compost heap. That had to be rationed among 195 gardeners. I got enough to put a thin layer on most, but not all of our garden. It definitely helped, but it wasn't a deep composting like I'd like to do. And some of our beds need to be built up now after the winter. I think our soil is fairly decent right now -- It's just that it takes constant care and feeding to keep it that way. I'm envious of people who have their own backyard compost bins!

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contact your sanitation department. Here in Los Angeles, they have places that we can bring our own bags and pick up compost they made from people's yard waste. It is great and this year I am picking a carload a couple of times a month. Has made a big difference.

Also, this year I am trying something new. I started my seeds and put them in the ground really deep. As they are growing, I am adding compost and soil around them. Of course we don't have to worry about cold, but this year they are really healthy so far.


5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would agree with both planting deep and compost.

When I start the seeds indoors, I plant them first in a seed tray. There are two reasons for this. First it makes it easier to choose the strongest among lots of seedlings, and second it's an opportunity to do an extra transplanting and plant them deep at the same time. I transplant from the tray into individual containers when the first set of real leaves appear, and bury them so only the top few leaves are showing. When I plant them outside, it's the same thing, I bury them again so that only the top leaves show.

One of the most common pitfalls of tomatoes are to over fertilize them. If you give them too much fertilizer, they will grow lots of leaves at the expense of the fruit. Unless your ground has some obvious deficiency, it's best to just stick with compost. Feed the soil, not your plants...

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite vegetable to grow is tomatoes. I like to grow mosly heirloom ones. (I seed save)No matter what I never have any luck with green peppers!

I'm a chef-and where I work we compost our vegetable peeling, coffee grounds and non-meat items. Recently I had them start to toss the egg shells in seperately. Now I have ground it up in an old food processor. I have about a garbage pale full of them. I purchased some seeweed in an asian market. Not the toasted and pressed sushi Nori stuff but the sun dried stuff fresh from the sea. I break it up as best I can. Soak it overnight and then wizz it around the food processor. Add water to it and rain down over the leaves and pour some into the soil too. I do this only when the plant has started to flower. It helps set the flowers, increased the number of flowers. As a folier spray it helps the tomato with disease resistance. It has all sorts of micro-nutrients.I usually do this about one time every week for three-four weeks-after they start to flower.

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One last idea- I cool and save all my vegetable and pasta cooking water and toss it into my garden.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

e thing that I didn't see mentioned, is that to get bigger better tomatoes, you should remove all of the sucker leaves. These are the little ones that grow in the crotch of the main stems. All they do is steal nutrients from the rest of the plant.

9:55 AM  

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