Tomatoes used to be easy to grow. Almost anybody with a garden would plant them often letting them sprawl over the ground in many directions. The long, hot, lazy days of summer would kiss the plants and the bees would buzz and fertilize them voraciously.
Unfortunately, the rise of big box stores brought bugs and diseases from one part of our country to another. The blight, once in the soil, lives for many years and can contaminate new crops for a long time. Rain splashes the organisms up from the soil infecting first the lower leaves then moving up the plant. They get spots, turn brown, wilt and die. If you are lucky, you may get a crop before this occurs. If the weather is damp early in the season, you may not get a crop at all.
Soil specialists with whom I have consulted and interviewed in my book, “Celeste's Garden Delights,” have reassured me that—if your plants get absolutely everything that they need—they cannot be eaten by bugs (the sugars are too high) and they are not susceptible to disease. In our depleted soils, this is generally not the case. But last year I gave my tomatoes some extra care and the blight didn't make its appearance until nearly the end of the summer. Here's what I did:
I prepared my soil as usual adding organic alfalfa meal, greensand and Azomite powder. Then I forked it loose using a broad fork. Raking it flat, I placed a garden mat on top. This is a durable tarp with holes where the plants will go.
Then, I bought healthy, organic plants. Next, when I went to plant them, I dug a deep hole. Into the hole went one fish head, two crushed eggshells, two aspirin, some micorrhizial fungi and a bit of compost. Then the tomato was placed in the hole. More compost was added around the plant bringing it almost to the same level as the soil. Leaving a slight depression where the tomato was placed allows water to be directed right to the plant. Tamping it down very lightly (roots need oxygen), it was watered well at least a couple of times.
Next, a tomato ladder was placed around the plant and it was securely tied to it using strips of unbleached muslin.
String is too small and will result in cutting the plants. The lower leaves were removed to keep the lowest leaves on the plant far from the soil. If there are any flowers, it's a good idea to remove them as the point initially is to have the plants develop a strong root system.
It's a good idea to mulch the bed with some straw as this can also keep the soil down during the rains. As the plant grows, it's important to take off most of the suckers. The suckers come out where the leaves come off of the stem (see photos below). You want to let only two or three main stems go up the plant. When watering, it's a good idea to add some compost tea. Put some compost in a bucket along with a few tablespoons of molasses and fill with water. Stir every few days. Add a ½ cup or so to a can of water, funneling through a strainer.
As your tomatoes ripen, enjoy in salads and sandwiches. When there are more fruits than you can eat, consider putting them in jars for the winter. I will be doing my Power Point presentation on preserving the harvest at the Vermont Mother Earth News Fair. Come and join me!
Celeste Longacre and her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more information, visit Celeste’s website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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