Saturday, April 2, 2016

Garden Tips Chapter 1: Tomatoes

How many things are better than walking out your door and picking a sun-warmed, perfectly ripe tomato, and taking a big juicy bite out of it right there in the garden? Not many, if you ask me or daughter child (son child would heartily disagree, but that's ok, more for us!).

I've been growing tomatoes every year for a number of years now, and I've been on a super tight budget for at least as many years. Despite having a generally brown thumb, I've had pretty good success with my tomatoes, without having to spend a bunch of money on fancy gadgets and bits (I'm lookin at you, water walls). Now, if you use my tips, you may not have the fanciest tomato garden in town, but your tomatoes will grow and produce more fruit than you probably know what to do with. So, without further preamble:
  1. Look for smaller plants earlier in the season: Where I live, you start seeing tomato plants at the very end of March and beginning of April (I just planted 8 today). Generally, this means the plants are smaller, only 4-6 inches tall, since they are young plants. This also means cheaper plants. Rather than $3-6 per plant, I bought mine for $1.28 each. 
  2. Dig through the plants a bit and see if there are any pots with multiple plants: Don't make a mess or make a big deal about it (that's rude and starts crossing into shady territory), but go ahead and browse the pots and pick out the multiples. This sort of goes along with the last tip as well, since the smaller plants have smaller root systems and are easier to separate. Larger plants are more likely to struggle with the the root damage. Yes, sometimes even the little ones will be really tangled together, and I've lost a few plants, but so far I've always been able to keep at least one of them alive, so at worst I'm breaking even. This is how I got 8 plants, but only bought 4 pots.
  3. Toss a handful of egg shells or a whole egg in the hole when you plant: I keep egg shells around because I have chickens, but you can start collecting them in mid winter for your tomatoes too. I'm not entirely sure the egg shells break down enough to actually provide calcium to the plants, but I've definitely had fewer problems with blossom end rot (commonly caused by calcium deficiency) since I started doing this. If you use a whole egg, I recommend breaking it in the hole, then the insides will decompose and fertilize the tomato as well. You also won't risk ending up with a smelly surprise when you pull up the plants at the end of the season.
  4. Pull off the bottom leaves and plant extra deep: That's pretty much the whole tip. Pull off the bottom leaves to reduce the risk of disease, and plant so that the dirt is just under the lowest set of branches. All those little fuzzies on the stems can turn into roots, so planting extra deep will give the tomato a head start on developing a solid root base, making a healthier plant.
  5. Use milk jugs to keep them warm in the early season: Wall-O-Waters (a popular option) are spendy (~$20 for 3 on Amazon), but milk jugs are easy to come by. I start saving them at the end of February through March (for planting early in mid-April). If you don't drink milk, juice bottles, wine bottles, soda bottles, essentially any vessel that will hold water and let the sunlight in will work. They warm up during the day and keep the tomatoes from getting too cold at night, exactly like Wall-O-Waters do, but when the tomatoes outgrow them, you can just move them and throw them away. Good luck getting those water walls away from the tomatoes without crushing or flooding the plants.
    • Corrolary: I've seen some people surround the base of their tomatoes with big river rocks, which would create a good thermal mass as well. I'm not sure if the rocks will hold heat as long as water jugs, or if they would be as warm on cloudy days though. They'll also be slightly more of a pain to remove.
  6. You don't need to shell out for fancy tomato cages: Those cheap $1-3 tomato cages work just as well as the fancy ones. Even a stick works, just use old pantyhose or t-shirt strips to tie the plant to the stick. They don't look quite as nice early in the season, I will admit, but if you take good care of your garden, those plants will be huge and you won't even be able to see the cages anyway, so I don't really see the point in spending big money on them.
Well, there we have it. Six tips on growing tomatoes on the cheap. Any other warm weather vegetables can benefit from these tips too! These are certainly not all the tips that exist for growing tomatoes; I'm pretty sure there are entire websites on the subject. But there's a few things that you might not find elsewhere, and could help out if you're big on growing vegetables, but not big on spending money on them!