It's been a tradition for us to repost these instructions each year at this time. Happy tomato growing!
How do we at Love Apple Farms plant a tomato, you might ask? With a ridiculous amount of stuff in the hole, is the answer. When someone ropes me into telling them and I start the long answer, I eventually see their eyes glaze over. That's the point where I say, "Then you throw in the kitchen sink and cover it all up." To date, no one has laughed at that joke. I think they're just either too overwhelmed by the real stuff I put in there, or they actually believe I'm throwing in a sink. This is how I plant a tomato. First off, let's take a look at our sexy specimen here on the left.
This strapping beauty is the size of seedling I like to plant. It's about 12 to 16 inches tall, and was potted up into a gallon container about 3 or 4 weeks ago. It will go into one of our freshly prepared beds, shown to the right. We amend our beds by digging into them with a spade fork two bags of Gardner & Bloome Harvest Supreme and two bags of their Farmyard Blend. It has lots of organic goodies in there like composted chicken manure, bat guano, kelp meal, Humic Acid and mycorrhizal fungi. We also add four quarts of G&B All-Purpose Fertilizer, the 4-6-4 formulation. We turn the soil over, thoroughly blending these über ingredients in with the native soil. Get as deep as you can into the soil with the spade fork, making it nice and light and fluffy.
The tomatoes are placed three feet apart. I've learned over the years that spacing them closer than that means less fruit. We dig a nice deep hole to accommodate all the additions - the exact depth is dependent upon how tall the seedling is. I want the plant to be almost completely submerged into the soil, and the fish head and amendments put into the hole need to be covered with a bit of soil, so I plan accordingly for the depth. This particular hole ends up being almost two feet deep, and is ready for our first goody, these impressive fish heads.
We get them from the restaurant we grow for, Manresa. You might be able to get them free from a good butcher or fishmonger. I even know of someone who called a few restaurants in their area and was quickly rewarded with a nice bounty of juicy fish heads. Fish tails, spines, guts, as well as shrimp shells are all good as well. Some of you may worry about critters digging these up later. I've never had a problem with animals digging up my tomatoes, and I've got three dogs, five cats, and what seem like an endless supply of raccoons, bobcats and coyotes living on the property. I stress the point that this is the first thing that goes into my very deep planting hole. That may help keep it from getting dug up. You can see the six inch long fish head staring up at us from the bottom of the hole here:
If you can't find fish heads, Fish Bone Meal is a good substitute. Gardner & Bloome makes a nice one. You can find G&B products at good nurseries in the Western state. Chuck a handful of it into the bottom of the hole. Fish Bone Meal may be the way to go if you're growing in a pot or can't dig a hole two feet deep. Fish emulsion is not a good substitute, as it will quickly dissipate and not feed the tomato over a long time period.
The next thing that goes into the hole are a couple of aspirin tablets and some crushed chicken egg shells. The aspirin is to help jump start the plant's immune system. I'll put three or four crushed egg shells into the hole as well. You can see our three colors of eggs from our fancy chickens - yes, those are green eggs in there. The eggs supply a nice calcium boost, which will help prevent blossom end rot, that nasty brown patch on the bottom of tomatoes that lack calcium (the fish head bones and bone meal also help with that).
Bone Meal is the next to go into the hole, particularly if I've put a fish head in and not Fish Bone Meal. I put in a heaping handful of Bone Meal. This is a nice organic phosphorus source, which is essential for blossom production. More blossoms, more fruit. Bone meal also increases calcium availability for the tomato.
I then put in two handfuls of Gardner & Bloome Tomato, Vegetable and Herb organic fertilizer. You can use any type of dry organic, all-purpose fertilizer. The key is that it's got all three macro-nutrients (something close to 4-6-3 designation). It's not difficult for us in the Western states to find Gardner & Bloome products at your good local nursery. If you need help, here is a store locator for you.
I also recommend putting at least a large tablespoon of pure worm castings in the bottom of the hole. We amend our beds with worm castings and also spray a worm casting tea on the plants while they grow. Really great stuff. If you need to purchase some, be sure they are 100% pure. There are lots of cheap compost with small quantities of worm castings thrown in. Check the bag for the ingredients to ensure you're getting high quality. If you'd like to buy some of our 100% pure organic worm castings, click here.
I put an inch or two of soil on top of the amendments in the hole. The plant is eased out of the pot, and before it's placed in the hole, I sprinkle the rootball with a product called RootZone, which is a mycorrhizal fungi that attaches to the roots, growing as the root ball grows. It helps protect the plant from some diseases, such as verticillium and fusarium wilts. The product is sold under other names, such as Power Organics Mycorrhizal Root Booster.
Once the tomato is in the hole, I double check the depth by judging how far out of the ground the plant will be sticking.
If it's going to be too far down, I'll add some more soil. If it looks like it'll be up above the soil more than I want, that's too bad because I ain't gonna be fishing them fish parts and all that other stuff up out of that hole and digging it deeper. No siree. So I try my best to gauge the depth of the hole according to the height of the plant I'm putting in.
We then back fill GENTLY - only one quasi-firm push settles the soil around the plant.
Please do not man handle the soil around the plant by stomping on it or pressing too hard. That's not necessary and it expels all the air out of the soil. Believe it or not, the roots need oxygen down there just as much as they need nutrients and water.
A temporary well is then made around the plant base to catch the first watering.
The first watering is the most critical. I do it multiple times. Water it in once, twice, three times at least. Wait a few minutes to allow the water to drain through. If you have a deep hole, likely way more than 12 inches deep, you will be amazed at how much water it will take to wet the root ball a foot or more under the ground. So don't be stingy with the water the first day. Thereafter, you can back off the watering, and we'll talk more about the watering needs of tomatoes in a later post. Here's our finished bed. You can see the tomatoes are spaced pretty far apart:
Drip irrigation will be repositioned on the bed, and staking and mulching has yet to be done. You can learn about how to install a simple drip irrigation system in one of our classes on the farm. For staking, mulching and pruning info, consider taking our Tomato Masters class, found here.
In the meantime, please feel free to email me or leave a comment below with any questions you may have. Good luck, folks!
A note on our use of Gardner & Bloome products: There are other great, organic soil amendments and fertilizers on the market, and we know that G&B may not be available everywhere. You can substitute other good, organic composts and amendments, but try to use a local company (for us, G&B is local) to reduce your carbon footprint, and be sure that it's organic and fully composted. Sometimes the use of bagged chicken and steer manures are problematic because they are still "hot" or not quite composted enough to suit the plants. If you're unsure, use half the recommended bags of manure or use a compost to amend your bed in addition to a good, all-purpose, organic dry fertilizer. "All-purpose" means that it has all three macro-nutrients represented in somewhat equal order on the label. So 4-6-4 fits that bill. Also 3-3-3 or even something as subtle as 1.2-2.4-1.0.
It's important to amend with SOMETHING good for your soil and for the plants!