Saturday, May 2, 2015

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are probably the most planted vegetable in gardens across America.  Who doesn't like a vine-ripened, juicy tomato?  There is nothing store-bought that can compare to the tasty goodness of a homegrown tomato. 

Growing tomatoes in North Texas is always a challenge.  It's difficult to grow beefsteak tomatoes (the really large sized tomatoes) because we just don't have the number of cooler days to grow them to maturity.  I always look for heirloom and open pollinated varieties that have a medium growing season, something about 70-80 days to maturity.  This year, we're growing Marmande, Super Sioiux, Pantano Romanesco, and Large Red Cherry.  We've grown all but Super Sioux previously.

Marmande is a nice, small-medium sized round tomato.  It's very prolific and very tasty.  Reminds me of an old-fashioned tomato.  Perfect for one person, too.  Pantano Romanesco is a larger tomato, but more flat.  They're pictured above.  They have a fantastic taste and are very juicy as well.  Large Red Cherry is the perfect snack size tomato.  Cherry tomatoes are much more prolific and will sometimes produce when the weather is very hot, long after the regular tomatoes have given up.

Prior to planting, be sure to harden off your plants.  This allows them to gradually adjust to the outdoor temps without freaking out.  Over a two week period of time, you want to take your plants outside until they're out full time.  I set mine out starting for about 2-3 hours in deep shade. I gradually increase their time out as well as their sun exposure.  For about the last 3 or 4 days they're out day and night in partial shade.  Because they're in smallish containers (16 oz plastic cups), I don't leave them out all day in full sun.  They're pretty root bound by plant out time and I don't want to stress them too much.  As you can see from the picture above, I put them in an old laundry basket to protect them from the wind.  They're about 2 feet tall and blow over easily.  The laundry basket keeps them upright to prevent any damage.  The vents on the side of the basket allow for air circulation.  If you drill holes in the bottom of the basket, you've got drainage.  Tomatoes don't like wet feet and balk at too much water, so you don't want them sitting in water and you want the soil to dry out a bit between waterings.
Prepare your soil well.  I have heavy, clay soil frequently referred to as "gumbo clay soil".  Over the years, we have added lots of compost, green sand, lava sand, and a little bit of expanded shale to aid with drainage.  I don't till, just dig a hole and plant or sow my seeds. Tomatoes will grow roots along the stem, so plant them deep.  I trim off the lower leaves of my plants, leaving only the top 2 or 3 sets of leaves above ground.  This gives them a more robust root system, more stability, and the potential to produce more fruit. 

 Prior to planting, be sure to loosen the root system a little bit.  This helps them get going once in the ground. 

  In the hole with the tomato, mix a bit of tomato food and earthworm castings into the bottom of the hole along with a handful of leaves or compost.  Water in, then place your tomato in the hole and fill with your dirt.  Pack it in lightly around the root ball and up to ground level.  Sprinkle a bit more of the fertilizer/earthworm castings on top, cover with mulch and water well with a good liquid organic fertilizer.

We use Nature's Guide Tomato & Pepper food and earthworm castings from Texas Worm Ranch. We didn't have any homemade compost this year, so I used mushroom compost.  We get the leaves from our oak tree in the front yard, which drops its leaves in the spring.  Very convenient for us. Placing them in the hole with the plant gives the roots someplace loose to grow and also feeds the soil.  It's a win-win.

 The hubby loves maters, so he's usually in charge of actually planting them out.  I just direct, make sure he's got supplies, and make up the markers so we'll know which variety is where.  In about 2 months, hopefully, if we don't get any damaging winds, late season freezes, or damaging hail, we'll end up with a nice harvest of tomatoes by the end of June to middle of July. Fresh tomatoes by the 4th of July is always the goal.

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