Sunday, July 18, 2010


This is a blog about how we changed our tomato planting methods this year.  The pictures will show you what we are doing.  Hopefully this will be the start of something new for us.  It is said necessity is the mother of invention.  Not having enough uncontaminated soil to fill our raised beds led us to this possible solution. 

We are organic and rotate crops.  We have gone to raised beds because we are tired of fighting the heavy clay content of our soil.  It seems the clay ate the dirt we had "cultivated" during the winter.  We decided to contain it.  Yes, we still have disappearing dirt dilemma, but it is not of the proportion of the previous years. 

For years we have searched for the best method to raising the perfect tomatoes.  We have found barring the deer who aren't supposed to eat nightshade plants (they do),  groundhogs who devour them the minute they show color, opossums that take a bite to test it and decide they don't like it, birds pecking at the cocktail tomatoes sipping their juices,  there really isn't one way that is perfect.  Every tomato variety seems to have its own preferences.

We have tried mulching and letting the vines run rampant.  We have also staked and tied each plant.  Everyone who has gardened has bought and tried  those cone shape cages.  We went through them twice.  The second time they were larger and heavier gauge wire and we were told not subject to the weld joints breaking.  NOT...they succumb to the same faults their little sisters have.  We have been very lucky, on two occasions we have been gifted wire cages made from woven welded fence wire.  The first ones I wish I had more of.  They are 30 inches in diameter and 5 feet high.  They have been G-d sends when we plant "Delicious" and "Jelly Bean" tomatoes ("Big Momma" tomatoes can use them too).  These varieties seem to grow as if they were on steroids.  The "Jelly Beans" topped 8 feet last year.   We had to use a step ladder to pick them.  BTW...they also continue to produce on the lower branches.


Amend your soil before planting.  This year it became a necessity for us.  We had minimum soil to fill our raised beds.  I am very fortunate to have a supply of broken down wood chips (they have been breaking down for three years).  I till the few inches of soil in the bed then add the following.  The amounts are for beds 30 inches wide and in increments of 8 feet (the measurement are for 8 feet).  Two 40 lb kitty litter pails (KLP) of chips, two KLP of dried manure (we used to raise sheep), one KLP of boiled rice hulls, two KLP of peat moss (our soil mix tends to be too well drained so we need extra organic mater).  We are the proud owners of our third "Mantis" tiller.  It is fabulous piece of machinery for working our raised beds.  After tilling thoroughly, rake the bed smooth, water deeply and let the bed sit overnight.  The next morning water again deeply.  This will get the peat and other dry materials saturated.  Wait till evening to plant your bed.  Dig all your holes, then proceed to plant.  The picture to the left is an Evergreen tomato plant removed from the pot.

After removing the plant (Which you watered well earlier in the day...I soak the plant in a bucket of water to remove any air pockets the morning before I plant)  I prepare the plant for its stay in the ground.   All branches that will be below ground will be snipped off.  The root ball, if it is root bound, will be broken up at the base so the roots will grow out from the plant, not continue on their trip around the pot...becoming more and more root bound.

When we plant the trimmed tomato plant we add a handful of Epsom salts and bone meal.  Both boost the plants ability to withstand the onslaught of blossom end rot. Make sure you mix the salts and the meal with dirt before adding to the hole.  You don't want them coming in direct contact with your root mass, it might burn them.
This is several plants ready to be vitamized and hilled.  We have our garden Kitty " Dawn" and puppy dog "honey" supervising. 
This is the bed completely planted with the plants, each hilled to keep them steady for working on the rest of the planting.  Notice, each of the plants have had even more of their lower branches removed, hilling up to the top two or three leaves.  The object is to bury the base of the plant with dirt to the level of the raised bed's side-boards.
We use a hoe (or sometimes just our hands) to pull the amended dirt from the sides of the bed.  We go down to the hard pan earth.  We bring the dirt up to fill the area between and around the plants.  We end up making a "mountain" down the center of the bed.  The idea came from pot culturing tomatoes.  They don't need a huge amount of soil to produce, so it stands to reason neither do garden grown ones.
This is the bed totally hilled.  The shovel is a full size shovel.  It is set there to show you the depth of the sides.  It is now ready to be mulched.
We are packing the troughs on each side, tight with old straw.  Yes, I know people say straw adds weeds to the garden.  It does, but they are so easy to pull.  The idea came from thinking about building with straw bales and their insulating factor.  These beds are 8 inches deep.  We figured not only would it insulate, but it would allow the area to drain as well as keeping the moisture in the bed.
The bed with side mulching completed.
Now that your sides are securely supported you can water the tomatoes in.  I soak the bed thoroughly.  I neglected to say:  in between each plant I make a little trough in the top ridge of the dirt.  It helps to direct the water into the middle of the "mountain", otherwise the water has a tendency to run down the sides of the dirt "mountain".
After you finish watering in the tomatoes continue mulching the entire surface.
Now is the time you want to cage and stake your tomatoes.  Do not wait untill they start growing (which is always instantaneous, especially if it rains that evening).  They will get too big to put on the cages.  We put a "T" post at each end of the bed and another in the middle.  We then feed long boards or conduit through the cages.  We join the boards with a binding of baling twine.  After which we go back to each cage and tie where the board goes through the cage.  The purpose of this is two fold:  we don't have to stake each cage; when we get big winds and the cages are filled with the leaves and tomatoes they don't go over in the direction the prevailing winds are pushing them.

This is a closeup of the tied cages.  You'll have to excuse the untidy weedy beds in the background.  We hadn't gotten to them yet when this picture was taken.  The bed on the left where the soaker hose is stacked is now in peppers and the bed with the white plastic on it has "Big Momma" tomatoes in it.
This is where my pictures run out.  We will take a picture of tomatoes filling the cages and post later this week.  So far this is working very well.  We are having one of the hottest summers in St. Louis in a long time.  The dirt is staying moist under the mulch.  The plants are growing and producing (we are waiting for our first ripe tomatoes on some plants).  We have had tomatoes to eat from our Juliets, Golden Raves, and Jelly beans.  We haven't had any slicers yet, but we are very patient. 

Oh, BTW we have picked our first tomato horn worm off this past week. 
The chickens relished him.