Cynthia Sandberg, master tomato grower and proprietor of Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz, Calif., readily shares her planting recipe for growing tomatoes. The ingredients provide thought-provoking reading and add up to good sense as well.
First, let me remind you that tomatoes are heavy feeders and heavy drinkers. They need a lot of nutrients and regular water. Tomatoes are also disease-prone. There is a reason for every amendment specified for the planting hole and scientific basis for it.
The tomato plants at Love Apple Farms are spaced 3 feet apart because that distance has proven to yield the most fruit. The depth of the planting hole depends on the size of the seedling, but generally, it is about 2 feet. That accommodates all the amendments added to the hole, the seedling and backfill.
Tomatoes benefit from deep planting. The lower leaves are trimmed off, leaving only the top foliage. Tomatoes are transplanted with 1/2 to 2/3 of the stem underground where additional roots develop along its length.
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The recipe for amendments calls for a fish head at the bottom of each hole. Fish tails, spines and guts are good, too, as are shrimp, crab and lobster shells. The raw fish decays quickly, releasing nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and trace minerals. For anyone wary about burying fresh fish parts, 1/2 cup of fish meal also works.
Next, two aspirin tablets and three or four crushed egg shells go into the hole. The aspirin helps build the plant’s immune system, while the calcium in the egg shells and fish bones prevents blossom end rot.
Salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, is a hormone produced naturally in plants when they are under attack. A 250- to 500-milligram aspirin dissolved in a gallon of water makes a solution that bolsters tomatoes’ defense against microbial and insect attacks.
One-half cup of bone meal forms the next layer. It adds phosphorous, which supports the production of blossoms and fruit.
On top of that, 1/2 cup of organic fertilizer (4-6-3) adds slow-release, macro nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
Next, 1/3 cup of worm castings brings in more primary nutrients along with important secondary and micro nutrients. Water-soluble worm castings are a rich natural fertilizer that is highly available to plants.
One to 2 inches of garden soil tops the pile in the planting hole and readies it for the tomato plant. When the tomato’s roots are removed from its pot, they are sprinkled with 1/3 cup of mycorrhizal inoculum — beneficial microorganisms that help roots extract nutrients from the soil and build the plant’s defense against common diseases like verticillium and fusarium wilt.
Many modern hybrids are bred for resistance against certain diseases. However, older and heirloom varieties are not. Consequently, root resistance to disease is critical to growing healthy tomato plants.
Finally, the hole is backfilled with garden soil. Good garden soil is always important for plant growth. All the amendments in the planting hole are for the purpose of feeding the extra-hungry tomato plant.
Once the hole is backfilled, it is disadvantageous to press the air out of the soil by stepping on or tamping it. Plant roots need air in the soil. Repeated watering finishes the planting process. It settles the soil and fully soaks the planting hole.
Season-long maintenance in addition to drip irrigation includes foliar spray with aspirin two to three times per month and regular watering with worm casting tea.
If you have already planted tomatoes this year, your plants can still benefit from the Love Apple Farms recipe. Top dress your plants with dry organic fertilizer (4-4-4, 4-6-3 or similar), bone meal and worm castings. Dig it into the soil a little bit, and then water it in. You can also water your tomatoes with fish emulsion and worm casting tea. Spray the leaves regularly, top and bottom, with aspirin.
You will still need spinosad or Bt to defend against tomato hornworms, however. As you know, they can decimate a big healthy tomato plant overnight.
Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at email@example.com.