Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Economics of Tomatoes, Part 3

So... now that I've talked all about the problems with buying the tomato plant early, now I'm gonna make a turn-around and tell you to buy the tomato plants early. 

Let's say you want to grow 12 tomato plants. 

Buy 3. 

Also buy a bag of reasonably priced potting soil, and a bag of inexpensive top soil.  Then, if you don't have any leftover 1 gallon nursery pots left over from landscaping, get to the nearest "everything for one dollar store and buy three cheap plastic buckets. 

The plants you've just bought are going to suffer horribly if they're left in the pots they're in, waiting for planting for weeks on end, rootbound, in soil that's probably about played out, so what you're going to do is pot them in 1/2 potting soil and1/2 topsoil in either the recycled nursery pots or the buckets with a few holes punched through the bottom for drainage.

Put them in  their new pots, and here's something you've probably not considered... pinch out the growing tips.  Set them outside on warm days, and bring them in when it threatens to frost.  Within two to three weeks, the  plants will have started growing long side branches.  When these branches get 12 to 18 inches long, cut them off and put them in water.  Within another two to three weeks, you will have cuttings with roots, and by now it's time to plant both your cuttings and your parent plants, which should have resprouted a couple of new shoots, outside.

So, you now have a dozen plants, and paid for three. 

Now, in our area, the average last frost is March 15.  The key word in that sentence is 'average.'  All the local wise old gardeners will tell you to never plant anything frost tender until April Fools Day.

Northern gardeners, who have a limited growing season, and a limited amount of time to get harvests, may wish to push this envelope, using everything from commercial water wall frost guards to plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut out to protect their plants, but with our long season, it's just not necessary.  It's extra effort, I'm not sure that it's that rewarding, and when you push the envelope, there's always the chance that one morning you will be confronted with a frost bitten garden, which is a frustrating and discouraging sight.  Don't set yourself up for disappointment.

Its easiest if you have a good tiller, but they can be rented or borrowed if you have to.  Make sure you get as much grass out of there as you can, especially if it's Bermuda grass like so many of our lawns.  If it is Bermuda grass, I'm telling you now, you're not going to get all of it, 

You most definitely do not have to buy expensive garden soil to till in.  Gardeners have been growing in this part of the world for generations without it, and in a new garden, where no tomatoes have grown before, the soil will be fine.  If you feel you have  to add something, do it later.

Dig a hole deeper than it needs to be.  If you wish, you can put a shovelful of compost or composted manure in the hole.  There's a lot of fuss about making sure you mix in the manure so it doesn't burn the roots.  It's composted, so you don't really have to worry about that, but if that makes you more comfortable, do so.  Put your plant in the hole as deep as you can.  You can cover a tomato plant or cutting all the way up to within inches of the growing tip,  Any buried stem will grow roots, and the top will shoot up within a week.

Now, to conserve moisture, and seriously limit weeding, go out about six inches from the stem and cover the ground with several layers of newspaper or cardboard boxes.  Yes, there are commercial weed barrier cloths available.  They're expensive and Bermuda grass grows right through them. 

This is the beginning of your mulch layer, and it's important.  Mulching makes life soooo  much easier, and it's seriously good for the plants.  It conserves moisture for the plants, making huge amounts of watering unnecessary, it keeps the roots shaded, cooler and healthier, and it puts a huge dent in how much weeding you're going to be doing.

As for the rest of the mulch layer... I can only say that wood chip mulch that you buy really has no place in a vegetable garden.  It's fine around your trees and in  your flower beds, but it costs too much  to be spreading it over a whole garden.  What you need to do is make it a practice to passively compost in the garden.  This means everytime you mow, grass trimmings do not go in a plastic bag for the trash man, they're spread around your tomatoes.  Same goes with hedge trimmings, and the spent marigolds and petunias from the flowerbeds, and what you rake up every fall.  I would not put food related wastes, ie: potato peels, apple skins, etc. from the kitchen directly in a garden, as they may attract rodents who have very few qualms about munching on your fresh produce, and there are a few plant diseases that can be spread by them.  Basically, just pile your garden and lawn trimmings up, and next year, the dirt will be so rich, you won't have to bother with that shovel full of cow manure at planting. 

If you really must buy something, say you don't have enough lawn to produce that many trimmings, go to a feed store and buy a bale of straw.  It covers the ground, it decomposes in, and most people think straw smells pretty good.

This post has been divided into parts due to limited computer time and to make it easier for the reader.

Part 1
Part 2

1 comment:

  1. Lots of good advice for your neck of the woods, Claude. I've had to give up on growing tomatoes in the ground here. We have a problem with nutrients staying in the sandy soil, bacteria splashes up from the soil and causes wilting, neighbor pets and wild critters trample or nibble, etc. My solution is to garden in containers. Fortunately, we've had enough rain this summer to keep the tomatoes watered without my help. Bugs are still a problem, though. Life is certainly more interesting when you grow tomatoes.