Grow Great Tomatoes

Dig ThisGrowing tomatoes on the West Coast is a challenge most years.  But with our cool wet spring, gardeners need to use all the tricks to ensure we get to harvest tasty red tomatoes by the end of the summer.  Here’s some great ideas from a former Dig This staff member, Jared Witt.

Don’t Jump the Gun

All  Dig This stores have a good selection of organic, heritage and heirloom tomato seedlings right now, with more arriving each week. But don’t jump the gun and put them out too soon. Wait until nighttime temperatures are reliably above 7 degrees C for early season tomatoes, and at 10 degrees C or higher for later varieties. That usually means the end of May here on Southern Vancouver Island, but  this year, you might want to wait another week or two, or use a cloche, row cover or tomato greenhouse to give them a little extra protection until things warm up.

Prepare Ahead

Tomatoes like fertile, well-drained soil high in organic matter. Ideal pH is 6.0 to 6.8. Use soil test kit if you aren’t sure whether your soil is as good as it should be. Tomatoes must have the sunniest, warmest location in your garden. If your garden is shady, grow your tomatoes in 3 to 5 gallon containers and put the containers in the warmest, sunniest spot in your garden.  Choose smaller varieties for container gardening.  Tomatoes in containers are an easy plant to grow on a balcony or patio.

Plant Them Out

When you’re ready to plant dig a handful of all purpose granular fertilizer into the planting hole. We like Orgunique’s Tomato & Vegetable blend, but any good organic fertilizer will do.

I like to make a “plant smorgasbord” of the following and digging it in to each planting hole:
• Bonemeal (for phosphorous which grows a strong root system)
• Sphagnum Peat Moss (for acidity and moisture retention)
• Compost (for lasting nutrients)
• Ground egg shells or oyster shells (for calcium that prevents blossom end rot)
• Epsom salts (for magnesium to promote heavy blooming and reliable fruit set)
• Wood Ash or Gaia Greensand (for Potassium which is essential for good fruit)

Plant the tomato seedling either standing straight up, or on a 45 degree slant in the hole, so that only the top leaves are above the soil. They will grow roots all along the buried stems. Then water them in well.

This is also the best time to put in a wooden stake or other support so that you don’t destroy a section of the root system by doing it later on. (Note from Elizabeth:  I saw many gardens in France when I was there in 2011 where the gardener had created a “teepee” using 4 six-foot tall bamboo stakes tied together at the top with a tomato planted at the top of each stake. With careful pruning of excess leaves, this looked like a great way to get a bumper crop of tomatoes in a small space.)

Feed the plants with Kelpman’s Liquid Seaweed (or other good liquid organic fertilizer) every 7 to 10 days until they begin to form flowers.

Flowering Tomatoes!

When the flowers appear, stop feeding with high nitrogen fertilizers. You want fruit, not leaves! This is the time that the plant will start using the woodashes and the bonemeal that you mixed into the soil at planting time. You could also give the plant another dose of epsom salts (sprinkled over the soil before watering) to ensure continued flowering. Many people also pinch out the suckers that grow from the base of the leaves on indeterminate varieties to ensure all of the nutrition will go toward growing tomatoes.

Pruning is Important

When the tomato plants are about 3 feet tall, and beginning to grow green tomatoes, you can begin to prune them. It feels wrong taking off this foliage that you’ve tried so hard to grow, but it tricks the plant into thinking it is under attack, so it produces more tomatoes in the hopes that some of the seeds will one day grow on. It’s much like a pine tree after a dry winter produces a bumper crop of pinecones. The type of pruning depends on the type of tomato. For indeterminate and semi-determinate varieties, pinch off the lower 3 leaves and the leaf joint suckers. The lower three leaves should be stripped off of any determinate varieties, but any suckers can be ignored.

When the tomatoes are about the size they will be when ripe, but still green, some growers decide to ignore the “never get the leaves wet” rule, and give their plants a foliar feeding of liquid seaweed or compost tea. Liquid Seaweed contains the essential trace elements necessary for mature fruit. Compost tea contains nutrients, but is also shown to prevent many of the diseases that can strike tomatoes down at this point. Foliar feeding is effective, because the leaves of tomatoes are able to abosrb the nutrients and deliver them at a rate of one foot per hour directly to the tomatoes. This means faster ripening, and delectable flavour. A word of caution about foliar feeding though! The fertilizer should only be sprayed in the very early morning, or in the evening when dry weather is forecast. This is because the pores of the tomato can only absorb the nutrients in cool temperatures, foliage that is left wet for more than 48 hours is dramatically more susceptible to diseases, and because the leaves will burn if they are still wet when the sun hits them.

Harvest Moon

When the night temperatures begin to cool, and rumors of the first frost begin to swirl around, there is one last way to prolong the tomato harvest…pick them all! Before the frost you can uproot the entire plant, and hang it upside down in a cool dark place such as a basement. This will allow the tomatoes to continue to ripen on the vine, and allow you to avoid tasteless, overpriced grocery store tomatoes by an extra month or two. Some Dig This staff have had tomatoes ripening into November! Alternatively, if you’ve planted your tomato in an upside down planter, you can just bring the entire thing inside, and stop watering it.

And remember, the mistakes you make this year will mean you will grow even better tomatoes next year.

Jared Witt, Taylor Beach Farm.