Timely tomato tips

Every outdoorsman I know grows a few tomato plants each year, even if they have to sneak them in with the snapdragons or hide them amongst the hibiscus. After all, nothing goes better with a freshly grilled venison burger than a juicy slice of fresh tomato. Though my thumb is only mildly green, I have become pretty successful at growing dandy tomatoes, and I’m always experimenting with something new, so here are a few tips I find to work well for me most years.

Tomatoes today come in literally dozens of varieties, sizes and shapes. I find it prudent to know a little about the varieties I choose and what they are best used for, and I like to get plants that are resistant to most common tomato ailments. Tomato plants come in two types, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants are bred to grow only about three feet tall, to set and ripen their fruit and then they are basically done. Indeterminate plants will keep growing and producing fruit the entire season, so they’ll need to be well staked and supported. As long as they are kept alive and healthy through the hot summer, they will begin setting and ripening fruit again when temperatures cool off.  So if you want to take advantage of cooler weather to keep the tomatoes coming again in fall, you’ll need indeterminate plants.

Tomato plants will not set fruit from their blossoms when daytime temperatures exceed 90 degrees and nighttime temperatures exceed 75 to 80, so I plant early to get a start on production before the hot summer arrives like we know it will. I usually plant in early to mid-April and surround my plants with structures called Walls of Water. They are round, flexible plastic tubes with numerous small compartments that you fill with water. When erected, they form a pyramid about 18 inches tall around and over the plant, open at the top, and the water absorbs heat and sunlight to basically create a tiny greenhouse for each plant. Simply remove them when temperatures stabilize. 

When actually setting my plants in the ground, I go a little above-and-beyond also. I dig a hole about the width and depth of a one gallon milk jug. In the hole I put a shovel full of fresh compost or good composted manure. Then I add one-quarter cup of Epson salts, which adds magnesium, and sulfur to help grow good sturdy healthy plants. Throw in a small amount of the dirt dug from the hole and mix it up a little with your hands. 

Set the plant in the hole at least six inches deep, pruning off bottom branches if necessary to allow that. This gets the roots down deep immediately to begin feeding and helps the plant develop deep roots sooner to make for a sturdy plant. Water with Miracle Grow tomato fertilizer or sprinkle a little of the dry crystals in the hole with the Epson salt. An overabundance of nitrogen will cause the plant to grow like gangbusters, but tomato fertilizer is low in nitrogen and high in phosphate and potash, which the plant needs to produce blossoms and to set fruit. As the season progresses, if your vines are growing well but have few blossoms, feed them with fertilizer high in both phosphate and potash. If the vines don’t seem to be growing, feed them a little nitrogen.

I like to water each individual tomato plant at its base, which puts the water where it needs to be rather than all over the garden or all over the plants’ foliage. To help accomplish this, I used to get empty one gallon cans from the local nursing home kitchen, cut both ends from them and place them around each plant, pushing them a couple inches into the ground. To water, I’d simply put a couple inches of water into each can once a week. That’s fine and puts the water at the base of the plant, but on top of the ground, requiring it to soak down to the roots. 

This year I tried something new to get the water immediately to the plants roots. I cut old downspout into two-foot lengths, then gingerly dug at the base of each plant just out far enough and down deep enough to find the roots. I stuck the downspout into the hole at an angle and packed dirt around it. Either fill each downspout a couple times a week, or keep a little water in them all the time to put water directly onto the plants roots. 

Well, there you have a few tips I use to grow tomatoes each year. We eat some fresh during the season, but most of our tomatoes are frozen as we get them and use them to make homemade tomato soup from a recipe my mom used. There is absolutely nothing like a hot bowl of homemade tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a cold evening. 

I imagine lots of you readers also have “tomato tips” you have developed over the years, and if you’d like to share them, send them to me. If I get enough, I’ll make an entire column out of them. Yet another way to Explore Kansas Outdoors!

Steve Gilliland can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com.

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