The Garden Guy column: The taste of terrific tomatoes
A single tomato plant can produce 50 pounds of fruit in a season. Homegrown tomatoes beat the supermarket cost but more important is that they taste SO much better than their commercially grown cousins.
In addition, recurring scares in commercial food safety generate serious reasons for us to grow our own edibles. If you're planning to grow your own tomatoes this year, I suggest you read through the simple yet essential info that follows. It'll get you off to a good start and a grand finale of tomato bounty.
A good soil conducive to healthy, productive tomato plants is a delicate balance between good drainage and adequate moisture retention. Because tomato plants must breathe at root level to grow nice fruit, proper drainage is vital. Drainage is not an issue for tomatoes grown in containers or raised garden beds so I suggest these to first-time tomato gardeners.
If growing in containers and raised beds it is important to use a good potting soil and not all soil mixes are the same. At my garden center there is only one choice and its called "Ken's Potting Soil." This is the same soil I use at my farm operation in Cottonwood. To make sure you are getting a rich product, before you buy I encourage you to touch, smell and feel any soil marketed as potting soil.
The soil in vegetable beds needs to be turned with fresh new mulch every spring and the same is true of a new tomato patch. Ideally, a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch is turned in to one shovel's depth. I also incorporate four additives that make a huge difference in good tomato production. I like to turn the mulch and all four of these soil amendments into my garden at the same time:
1. Gypsum lowers the soil's pH and introduces calcium for the plant to use at root level. This will reduce cracking of the fruit and blossom end rot that are so prevalent in early summer.
2. Bone meal adds an important source of phosphorous and increases root formation and produces larger fruits.
3. Soil Activator does just what it says. It tickles the feet of new plants so they want to root deeply into garden soils.
4. Plant food, and I mean that I literally add my own plant food. I've created a mixture of cottonseed meal, bird guano, iron and sulfur for the perfect food for local vegetable gardens. It's called Ken's "All Purpose Plant Food" and it really does work.
Simply turn in all four additives along with your mulch to one shovel's depth. You'll be amazed at how well your tomatoes grow.
The most important step to great tomatoes is plant selection. In our climate and soil I've had the best luck with tomato vines that produce small- to medium-sized fruits. Any varieties of tomatoes that produce small fruits do well in our area. They're the little ones you must pop into your mouth while you are picking them. I'm talking about Cherry, Sweet 100 and Yellow Pear tomatoes. All ripen early and produce heavy crops; all are good choices for our area gardens.
Vines that produce medium-sized fruits also produce well. My favorites are Early Girl for my salsa, Champion, Patio and Celebrity for good slicing tomatoes. There are many other mid-size producers that do well. The only large tomato recommendation I can make is Ball Beefsteak.
The next important step is to plant them deep. Tomatoes are one of those rare plants that will root from the vine when planted deep. I like to buy a tall plant that has nice foliage at the top and pick off all the lower stems and leaves so I can plant it as deeply as possible. The deeper the planting the bigger the mature tomato plants, which is important because large plants are easier to keep properly watered.
Blossoms that drop off tomato plants and won't set fruit usually are the results of a pollination issue. It's always a good idea to spray your first blossoms with a tomato set spray. This easy-to-use spray forces the flowers to pollinate and set fruit. This spray has the same effect on pepper plants.
Consistent moisture is critical for tomatoes. To that end, top dress the garden soil with a layer of compost or mulch when you've finished planting. I like to put a single layer of newspaper down around my plants and add a 2-inch layer of mulch on top of the newspaper. The newspaper controls weeds from growing around the vines and the mulch regulates the moisture needed by the plant. If you think it will bring better tomato karma, go ahead and use this garden column page to put around your plants. Just don't forget to add the mulch.
This is the weekend of our garden center's "Great Tomato Event." Our weekly garden class at 9:30 a.m. Saturday will be all about growing tasty tomatoes. Demonstrations, with introductions of many new tomato varieties, will be held throughout the day. I will be hanging out in the vegetable aisles most of the weekend to answer any tomato or general garden questions.
If you love beautiful gardens and fine wines served with delectable hors d'oeuvres, then you won't want to miss the Soroptimists' wine tasting on April 26.
Soroptimist clubs work to improve the lives of women and girls at home and around the world, so Watters is proud to lend the garden center to this energetic group of ladies. In today's economy many of our non-profits are in trouble, and this situation is reflected in the soft ticket sales to this year's wine tasting.
Please help me support this very worthwhile event that gives 100 percent of the proceeds directly to Prescott Soroptimist. Tickets are $45 each and are available at Watters Garden Center.
Until next week, I'll see you in the veggie aisle.
Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through his website, www.wattersonline.com. Ken says: "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."