National Tomato Planting Month, By Renea Winchester
I’ve declared the month of May National Tomato Planting Month. Dogwood and Blackberry Winters have passed. Grab the shovel and start digging.
Even though there are over 600 varieties of tomatoes, some folk plant the same variety every year. I suggest you try at least one new tomato this year. Whatever you decide, choose plants with thick stalks. If you’ve started seeds indoors, or if your plant is “spindly,” (top heavy) place the container in the full sun; turn the plant a couple times daily to strengthen the stalk.
Deep planting is the secret to healthy tomatoes, so is adequate fertilizer.
Fertilize I’ll admit, I over fertilize. Ideally, I want ripe tomatoes two weeks (okay, the next day) after I’ve planted. My heavy-handed fertilization habit encourages lush-rapid growth, but at a price (picture 8 feet tall colossal plants with teeny tiny tomatoes).
As an aside, I’ve learned the taller the plant, the longer it takes to enjoy the fruit of my labor. It appears all the energy goes into producing greenery instead of yummy tow-maders.
Ideally, a “pinch” of 10-10-10 at planting, or a scoop of manure will suffice at planting. Then top dress with a small “handful” of fertilizer every two weeks.
Manure Opinions vary on which type of organic matter is best for tomatoes. I prefer chicken manure. It’s nitrogen rich, and when mixed into the soil, won’t burn tender plants. The only problem: it’s difficult to obtain. If you can find a farmer he’ll gladly part with some chicken “liter.” But don’t go asking Billy, I’ve got dibs on all his.
Horse manure is commonly available. Many farms offer “free composted manure,” BE CAREFUL. Horse manure, especially the kind mixed with pine or cedar shavings contains dangerously high acid levels. Green horse manure, that hasn’t had enough time to “cook,” is especially harmful. Farmers call it “hot.” Hot manure contains high levels of horse urine (read ammonia).
So, how do you know if manure is green? First, it looks “green” but it is also, how shall I say this delicately, “sticky” and physically, hot. True composted manure that is safe to put on your precious vegetables manure is powdery, and black, hence the name “black gold.”
Additionally, green-uncooked manure, once mixed with dirt will fertilize not only your vegetables, but the heat generated during decomposition will germinate undigested grass seeds. One day you’ll walk through your garden and it will be full of grass!
Goat manure is Farmer Billy’s fertilizer of choice, primarily because he has an abundant supply, but also because it doesn’t burn his crops. Goat manure also decomposes quickly.
Mulch:Like manure, you do not want to apply “green” or “hot” mulch around tender vegetable plants. However, if you have already planted tomatoes, it isn’t too early to apply a one inch layer of mulch at least three inches around the plant. Leave ¼ inches of space around the stalk so it can “breathe.” Add more mulch in July, and again in August if necessary.
Blossom End Rot: Blossom end rot is a common problem. Tomatoes with dark spots should be removed and placed in the trash. Do not add diseased tomatoes to the compost pile.
Calcium deficiency and moisture fluctuations in the soil triggers blossom end rot. Both are easily remedied. Eggshells that have been baked for five minutes, crushed, and sprinkled around the top of the plant (or hidden below a layer of mulch) are rich in calcium, Tums also works. Milk does double duty, providing both moisture and calcium. If you know someone who works in the dairy department try to purchase out of date milk for your tomatoes. Follow with a light sprinkle of water.
Snip that Sucker: Removing suckers from tomatoes is necessary in order to produce large tomatoes. This process pains me. There’s something about removing blooms that doesn’t feel right. However, here’s a tip I’m sure you’ll love. Remove the suckers and place them in a glass of water. In two weeks, it will sprout roots. Plant that “sucker” and it will also produce tomatoes.
In the weeks that follow I’ll discuss insects that love tomatoes as much as we do; until then, happy gardening.
Renea Winchester is the winner of the Appalachian Heritage Award. Her first book In The Garden With Billy: Lessons on Life, Love, and Tomatoes will be published in 2010. She welcomes your comments at www.reneawinchester.com