Tuesday, June 5, 2012

It's Tomato Time

Heirloom Tomatoes

I've been growing Heriloom Tomatoes for more than a decade now.  I started growing them after I saw a picture in one of my wife's magazines of an heirloom tomato salad.  It looked very interesting and I ordered a seed kit for five varieties.  Every year since, I've grown heirlooms.  Each year, I try to grow a variety or two I've never grown before.  Now I grow between 20 and 26 plants.  In the fall I will can stewed tomatoes and maybe some of Nick's famous spaghetti sauce.  Nick is my son-in-law.

Over the years I have developed a system for growing the tomatoes and I want to share it here.

First, I start growing the tomatoes from seed inside.  Several years ago, my kids gave me a compact, indoor greenhouse for my gardening habit.  The one the kids gave me is about three times bigger than the one pictured in the link.  It has enough shelf space on the top rack for 7 greenhouse trays (which hold eighteen 4" pots).  That was the best gift ever.  Over the years, I have acquired more and more equipment so I can grow more and better crops.

I start the seeds in peat pots with a soilless seed starting mix.  I put the peat pots in greenhouse trays and place the trays on heating mats.  I have trays that have a clear plastic cover which makes them a mini greenhouse.  When the seeds finally sprout, I remove the heat and let them grow until a second set of true leaves appear, then I repot them into 4" pots and put them under grow lights.  I've had the neighbors razz me a bit about the grow lights, wondering exactly what it is I'm growing.  We all have a good chuckle over that.

Sometime in May, I select the best of the tomatoes I have grown and start to plant.  Before you can plant, though you have to harden off the tomatoes by putting them outside for a few hours the first day and increasing the time each day for several days.  Once they are hardened off, the first step is to prepare the garden soil.  I'm not 100% organic, but I'm close.  I like to amend the soil with composted manure every two years or so.  Last year I loaded up the bed of my pickup with about two cubic yards of cow manure and tilled that in.  I till to control weeds that have sprouted and I like to get to them before they set seeds.

Once the soil is prepared, I empty a bag or two of garden manure into my wheelbarrow and spray it with the hose.  Then I mix it to create a thick slurry.  I dig a hole, fill it partway with water and put a shovel full of the manure slurry in the bottom of it and begin to plant.  I plant the tomato right on top of the manure.  This year, for half my tomatoes, I put a trout carcass in the hole with the manure.  I learned that the Native Americans used to fertilize their gardens with fish, so I wanted to try it this year.  I'll report on it come harvest time. 

The hole with water in the bottom

Manure slurry, about as much as I put in the hole

Manure slurry in the hole

Tomato on top of manure slurry

Then I fill in the hole, but I create a depression in the dirt about eighteen inches in diameter.  I build a bit of a dam around the edge of the depression to keep the water in when I hand water.  It is important to hand water tomatoes.  When you use a hose and a sprinkler, it can cause the leaves to get diseased and burned.  Plus if you hand water, you put the water only where you want it which means you aren't watering the weeds.  Whatever time it takes me to hand water, it saves me three or four times the amount of time in weeding.  I'd say that's a fair trade. 

When I have the depression the way I like it, I place two Jobes Tomato Fertilizing Spikes about eight inches away from the stem in opposite directions.  This is the part that isn't organic, by the way.  Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so that's why I used the shovelful of manure slurry, a fish and the spikes.  After the spikes are installed, I add about a three inch layer of last year's grass clippings down in a mulch in the depression.  That does several things, first it insulates the roots, second it keeps the water in the soil and impedes evaporation, and third it provides a weed barrier.  Only the most tenacious weeds grow through the mulch, and they are easy to pull because the mulch causes them to send down shallow roots.  Win Win Win.

Depression gardening (I got rid of the handprints, they aren't important)

Jobe's Tomato Spikes

Fertilizer spikes in ground.  I bury them about an inch deep

Three inches of grass mulch

After the mulch, I place a wall of water around each plant to insulate it during the spring.  A wall of water is a flexible plastic sheath that has individual cells that are filled with water so it can stand up on it's own.  The water cells capture the heat of the sun and keep the plants warm in the cool spring nights.  We can have as much as a 40 degree shift from daytime to nighttime to nighttime temperatures here in Southeast Idaho. 

I have a bunch of wooden tomato cages I built with my Dad several years ago.  Once I have the wall of waters around the plants, I hammer the tomato cage around the wall of water.  When the first of July hits, I'll remove the wall of water through the top of the cage which allows the branches and leaves of the tomato plant to fall nicely on the horizontal bars.  I know people who wait to cage the tomatoes after they have removed the wall of water.  My way is better.  Less breakage of branches, less handling of the plant.

Wall of waters

Tomato cages with wall of waters

I drew a diagram of my process.  I have been growing tomatoes like this for several years with quite a bit of success.  I like the depression method because it really conserves water while still being able to generously water the plants.  Enjoy!

Diagram of depression gardening