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Growing Tomatoes – Addressing a Reader’s Problems

Sandra, a reader from the Annapolis, Maryland area is having problems growing tomatoes. After numerous emails back and forth, I think I understand her situation enough that I might be able to make some helpful comments.  Thinking it might benefit others, I’ll address her problems in this post.

One year out of ten, Sandra had more tomatoes than she could use. (She obviously didn’t know about roasted tomatoes. 🙂 )  The other years she didn’t have enough. “Last year,” she said, ” my 4 year old grew much better tomatoes than I did, and without her (tomatoes) we wouldn’t have had a single one!” (Yes, my thought too was — what was different? — We’ll get to that.)

I’ll tell a little about Sandra’s growing methods and conditions and then comment on each.

Framed (Contained) Raised Beds

About 5 years ago, Sandra chose framed raised beds in which to garden because she felt it was a way to avoid dealing with wire/crab grass.  Also, since she has red rock clay, raised beds seemed like a short cut to good growing conditions. It seemed to her “a way to garden in manageable chunks without backbreaking labor.”

She has 5 raised beds, 4 feet x  8 feet and is adding 3 more this year. They are in full sun and warm up quickly.

Theresa’s Comments on Framed Raised Beds

Oddly enough, Sandra’s reasons to have framed raised beds are exactly my reasons not to have framed (contained) raised bed.  (Read more in my post on contained raised beds.)

  • Also, watering seems to be part of contained raised bed maintenance and I am not set up to — nor do I want to – water. (Read more in my post on Can you Garden if You Can’t Water?)

What was Used to Make Soil

The beds were made using the lasagna method. Ingredients for the first 5 were all the contents of her partially composted compost bins, leaf gro (a purchased compost), half a bale of peat moss, a couple bags of composted horse manure and whatever else she could come up with. Since then only compost and a bit of blood and bone meal have been added.  These beds give her a 10 inch depth of easily workable soil.

Theresa’s Comments on What was Used to Make Soil

Sandra’s first 5 beds

It’s my understanding that the lasagna gardening book recommends peat moss as one of the lasagna layers. In spite of that, I don’ think peat moss is a good choice to make or amend soil.

For some reason, I think most gardeners at one time or the other fall prey to its lure.  I did thirty-some years ago.  I used it once in my garden in two beds.  I found that my beds with good old soil that had been improved with other organic material performed much better than those with peat moss added.

  • Peat moss has no nutrient value.
  • It is difficult to wet, but once wet will retain moisture a long time.  On the other hand, when it dries out again it will be difficult to get it wet again. Not the best gardening situation for growing vegetables.

Regarding adding blood and bone meal:

  • When I first started gardening I couldn’t find enough things to add.  Finally I stopped.  Why?  Because I finally realized I was just guessing and really did not understand the complex balance of the soil. Nature makes all her “complexness” simple for us — because she will do the work for us if we let her.  When we go to adding this-and-that it’s pretty much guess-work for most of us. We run the risk of upsetting the balance in the soil and coming out with a result we don’t want.

Sandra’s New Beds

Sandra will be adding 3 new beds this year. Recognizing the value of not planting the same thing in the same spot all the time, she plans to use these for her tomatoes this season. For the soil she is using leaf mold, some straw, the contents of her compost bind and some composted manure from a local organic farm.

Her choices this time are excellent! Ideally it would have been nice if she could have gotten these new beds finished last fall and allowed them to decompose further over the winter.

If I were doing these beds I would have removed the top layer of soil (where the bed is) and added it to the mix.

Nonetheless between the composted manure, her compost, and leaf mold chopped fine by the law mower and a nice thick layer of straw on top, I think her tomatoes will do much better for her than they did in the other beds.

About the Young Tomato Plants

Tomato plants were purchased rather than starting from seed. And for the past several years she has bought heirlooms (rather than hybrids) grown by members of an organization in Annapolis. They always looked good when purchased.

Theresa’s Comments on Young Tomato Plants

From what Sandra told me, I am assuming that these gardeners are not raising the seedlings organically.  Conventional nurseries and most growers use lots of chemicals.  Their main objective is to get their plants to the marketplace looking good.

Although I’ve always started most things from seed, I bought tomato plants for many years. They always looked grand when I bought them.  After I transplanted them to the garden, they always faltered.

They seemed to decrease in mass and many of the leaves would turn yellow.  In retrospect I guess it’s because they were not getting their regular shot of nitrogen and whatever else they were use to that keep them looking good.

Every year I thought for sure they’d die. But after about 3 or 4 weeks the roots would take hold in my garden soil and they’d take off.  They always grew  and I had tomatoes from July through November or December from all those plants.

How Sandra’s were Planted and Watered

Plants were set deeply and then mulched with 3 inches of straw. Tomato cages were used.

No fertilizer was added, except for a watering can of Neptune’s Harvest fertilizer dissolved in city water about every two weeks.

Plants were watered twice a week by a hose at the base of the plants to avoid splashing the leaves.  City water was used.

Theresa’s Comments on How they are Planted and Watered

Neptune’s Harvest is a hydrolyzed fish and kelp fertilizer approved for use in Organic Gardens. I’ve never used it, but it is held in high regard by many organic gardeners.

  • For Sandra’s purposes I think it is unnecessary. If the soil is made right I see no need for the additional fertilizer. I do think it would make a great foliar spray to give newly started tomato seedlings a boost after they develop true leaves.
  • City water is not good water for watering.  Catch rain water when you can and use that to water.
  • It’s good to set plants deeply.
  • And excellent to mulch with straw although I would mulch more heavily than just 3 inches. Heavy mulch keeps moisture in the soil for a much longer time.  This serves not only to make water available in times of no rain, but it keeps the roots cooler in hot weather.  Plants perform better with their roots kept from severe heat.

This picture was taken in the worst drought I ever remember in 34 years of gardening. The tomatoes would not set fruit due to the extreme heat, but they never wilted and were NEVER watered. The minute the temperatures cooled, they set fruit and gave me lots of tomatoes.

Diseased Tomatoes

Sandra prunes off the yellowing leaves and tells me she always has lots of diseased leaves.  A lot of time is spent trying to diagnose what the problem is – early blight, late blight, bacterial wilt, etc. — she’s never sure. The disease always gets worse and worse and production gets less and less as the season progresses.

Theresa’s Comments on Diseased Tomatoes

I think every gardener in the world who has grown tomatoes can relate to Sandra’s situation.  I know I can.

In my early days of gardening I worried a lot about what kind of disease my tomatoes had.  When the leaves turned yellow or a branch died,  I too spent lots of time trying to diagnose the exact problem.  It seemed everything I read about every disease described my tomatoes. Then something I read about fusarium-wilt changed me and I immediately stopped spending time trying to figure out the exact diagnosis. (Read the details in my post Gardening – Keep it Simple because it Is.)

  • I don’t know why it took me years to realize that conventionally grown tomato plants are more prone to the various disease’s that persistently threaten tomato plants. The one’s that I raise organically from seed, seem to be able to better resist the diseases.

Because conditions vary from year to year, so varies the way my plants resist the diseases. They’re not always perfect.  One variety can look awful while its neighbor (another variety) looks perfect.

Invariably, the leaves will start turning yellow at the base of my plants.  Following the actions of many other organic gardeners I obediently pull them off and take them out of the garden hoping to “stop the spread of whatever it might be.” More come — I remove them.  Fortunately for me — the situation is not all that bad or I might have tomato stalks without leaves before I came to my senses. 🙂

Look closely just above the bottom left corner and you can see yellow leaves and some dead foliage.

The bottom line is — you need good healthy soil and if you get that right, then your plants will easily be able to withstand whatever comes. They might have some yellow leaves here and there, but (if they’re the indeterminate kind) they’ll produce and keep on producing until a hard frost.

Roots when the Season Ends

When Sandra’s plants are pulled up at the end of the season they have at least 12 to 14 inches of root.

Theresa’s Comments on Roots when the Season Ends

  • Tomato plants are real survivors.  They’re heavy feeders and thirsty.  If given the chance, they’ll set their roots deep to find water and nutrients during drought conditions. And they have this chance in my garden because when first prepared the soil in all my beds was loosened to a dept of 2 feet. When my plants are pulled up at the end of the season they have at least 2 feet of root.

When I first started gardening, the soil was hard red clay starting after the first few inches of soil.  I dug the bed by hand.  The decent soil was laid aside. Then I used leverage to break up the clay. It was so heavy I was not strong enough to even turn over a shovel full or to break it into smaller pieces. Once it was broken, I just added a lot of straw and leaves and then put the top layer back.  I remember thinking to myself, “This will never work, because I haven’t done it well enough.  But it’s the best I can do.

I was wrong.  It did work.  I grew things successfully even the first year.  By the third year, the soil was dense but very workable and black to a depth of about 6 inches. The main thing evidently was to loosen that clay and give all that organic material time to work its magic.

  • Suggestion – Even if you want to use raised beds like Sandra, you could loosen the soil and add lots of straw (or other rough organic material) and then start your Lasagna layers.  Build your bed up as high as you can. Eventually the soil beneath will soften and allow the roots of your plants to go deeper.

Soil Test Results

This year soil samples were sent for a soil test. Results were very high calcium levels, high phosphorus and magnesium and low on potassium.  Micronutrient levels normal.  Organic matter a whopping 25%! PH was 7.  The soil test folks suggested adding  1/2 lb potassium or sulphur per 100sq ft.

Theresa’s Comments on Soil Test Results

  • The PH

Sandra has been very successful with crops such as lettuce, parsley, arugula, kale, cabbage, peas, eggplant, okra and beets over the years. Proof that lots of veggies do fine with a PH of 7.

However, it is generally agreed that most vegetables do best with a ph range from 6.2 to 6.8. (My soil ph has been 6.8 for year and years with no change.) The only reason this is worth mentioning here is because tomatoes are known to enjoy a ph that is a little more acidic (6.0 to 6.8) rather than neutral (7).

  • The nutrients

I think it would be great if Sandra could talk to someone who really had the specialized education to elaborate on her soil test. (Maybe try contacting the University that did the test.) Knowing that her potassium level is low is beneficial because this might be some of her problem with growing tomatoes. But she needs to know more. Soil balance is complicated.  If soil is too high on one nutrient it could cause a deficiency with another nutrient.  And soil nutrients have to be in balance in order for each nutrient to properly do its job.

That balance even effects the ph of the soil.

  • Relying on Nature and Organic Matter

I have always relied on nature to solve all my problems. (Keeps it simple.) Adding compost, green manure crops, and other organic material will solve ph problems and nutrient balance problems in almost any garden.

This doesn’t seem to be the case with Sandra’s raised beds, since already her organic matter percentage is high. (25%)  It’s interesting to note the average percentage of organic matter in many gardens is 4% and 8% is considered high (and good).

The Root of the Problem

Sandra has read volumes on how to grow good tomatoes.  When to water, how much to water, not to splash the soil up on the leaves, pruning windows, etc. and to no avail.  At one time or the other in their gardening “careers”, I think every gardener knows how she feels.

Since all problems begin and end with soil — the source of the difficulty in growing tomatoes has to be with the soil. In this post we’ve considered many factors that might be contributing to her problems.

So now Sandra is left with the difficulty of making the decision of how she wants to approach the solution.

Three Simplistic Solutions

#1

I can’t tell anyone else how to garden, but I can tell you what I would do.  I warn you ahead that my course of action might seem that I am treating a complex problem as if it was much simpler than it really is. But I have found over the years that if I work with nature, she will do all the complex stuff and I can just do the easy stuff. So of course, I would take the easy way.

First, Sandra, I would recommend forgetting everything you’ve learned and begin by looking at how your 4 year old daughter’s tomato was grown.

  • Your daughter planted her tomato in some piled-up soil over what had previously been your compost bin before you relocated it. It didn’t get much water or ANY fertilizer.  It also enjoyed some dappled afternoon shade in the heat of summer.  (Although I feel it would also have done ok without the shade.)

I would have fine tuned this basic approach to successful tomato growing by  loosening the soil in that area to a depth of 1 1/2 to 2 feet.  Since the compost had been there previously I probably wouldn’t have added any additional compost.  Adding a shovel full of organic composted manure would be irresistible if I had it. Chopped leaves would be great to mix with the soil.

Then I’d plant, water with a watering can of rain water, mulch heavily to at least 2 1/2 feet or more from the plant and wait for tomatoes. This one prepared hole (at least 3′ x 3′) won’t hold as much water as a spot the same size in my garden which is all deeply prepared. Thus, if I decided I might need to water, I would use rain water and only water if there had not been rain for at least 10 days.

# 2 – Adjusting the New Beds for Better Results

I really feel excited for Sandra about these new beds where she is using leaf mold, some straw, the contents of her compost bind and some composted manure from a local organic farm.  To make the beds even more successful I would go back and loosen the soil under the beds to a depth of two feet and if that’s not possible — then at least a foot.  Put on lots of rough organic material like straw and then put the other stuff back on top.  If you don’t have help and can’t do it just “perfect” — don’t worry.  Do what you can — nature will do the rest.

I don’t water at all, but if you feel you have to — easy does it.  And use captured rain water rather than city water.

# 3 – Adjusting the Old Beds

Rather than give a lot more time and effort to try to figure out the specifics of why these beds don’t like tomatoes — here’s what I would do:

Add only straw and leaves (chopped if you can) to these beds in 2012 and 2013 and the spring of 2014.  If you can get some soil from the bottom to mix with the contents of the beds — do so.

Then plant what you know will be successful and try a tomato in the growing season of 2014.

Final Thoughts

I hope Sandra will let us know what she decides and the end results.

Wishing you all the tomatoes you can eat fresh, roast, and freeze!

 

Related Posts:

Soil Improvement Your Foundation for Success

Soil Preparation – First Key to Soil Improvement

Cont’d. Soil Preparation – First Key to Soil Improvement

What to Do if You Can’t Dig

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Organic Gardening is easy, efficient, effective and it’s a lot healthier.

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All content including photos is copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com.  All Rights Reserved

19 comments to Growing Tomatoes – Addressing a Reader’s Problems

  • Sandra

    Dear Theresa – What can I say. Thank you so much for your analysis and time here. It’s very helpful to see everything laid out piece by piece. You’ve taken my random thoughts and organized them – I see why you asked so many clarifying questions. You’re a good, ‘listener’ too! After reading, I do have some questions, but I’ll hold them until I mull over your post again and read the related posts referenced.

    Regarding the solutions: Right off the top of my head, I’ll say that I’m hoping to try both solutions 1 and 2. I’ll plant some tomatoes in the new beds. I have some space near where my daughter’s tomato was planted last year, so I’ll work that over, add some of the straw, leaf mold and manure, and see how things go in that location also.
    I’ve already started several types of tomato seeds (Darfur, Celebrity, Sun Gold, Marglobe, and one other Hybrid from Johnny’s) so I can avoid buying plants if all goes well with them.

    I’m going to come back and read this again when my brain is fresh tomorrow. Thank you sincerely for taking the time to go through this with me. I really had all but given up on tomatoes, however, I’m hopeful that I might have a similar harvest basket to yours this year.
    Thank you, thank you!
    Kind Regards,
    Sandra

  • Theresa

    You are so very welcome Sandra! I’ll look forward to more questions and comments after you are able to digest everything!
    Have a great evening!
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Things are falling into place…

    Peat Moss + raised beds – enough mulch = a LOT of watering.

    I’m wondering if that could be a major part of my problem. Plants with overcooked, shallowish roots, lacking in consistent moisture levels (soaked when I water, dry when I don’t due to lack of mulch and cooler, damper soil beneath ground level). Still reading and thinking…

  • Theresa

    Definitely part of the problem. I’m excited about those new beds of yours. No peat moss! Yeh! Just nice stuff to turn to organic matter and hold moisture.

  • Sandra

    Theresa, Have your tomato seeds germinated yet?

    I planted mine last week, but nothing yet. With this warm weather, I imagine they will be quick to germinate.
    I’ll be preparing my new spot this weekend – I’ll keep you posted.
    Sandra

  • Sandra

    unrelated….
    What is that giant plant in the back of your garden photo that looks like asparagus? It’s huge!!

  • Theresa

    Asparagus! 🙂 And yes, huge is the right word.
    Bill likes to refer to this picture as my jungle picture. Hard to believe it was in the middle of the worse drought in 34 years of gardening.

  • Theresa

    Sandra, I thought for a while I was never going to get my tomato seeds planted. I finally got 3 varieties planted on the 13th. They have not germinated of course, but I’ll let you know when they do. It does seem with the warm temperatures, they might be a little quicker to germinate.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Great, I’m so glad you got them in!

  • Sandra

    UPDATE: Theresa, My tomatoes are about 24 inches tall, some (most) with blossoms. There are hardly any leaves yellowing – yet. Usually by now I’m seeing yellowing leaves at the bottoms of the plants. I planted a variety of hybrids and heirlooms – diversity. I planted Sun Gold, Dafel, Celebrity, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, A hybrid short vine from Johnny’s, Marglobe, and Amanna Yellow. I was amazed how easy they were to start from seed, and I love having a selection. We made sure to double dig down to about 2 feet in the new beds. I planted none in the older beds to give them a break, and this weekend I’m hoping to get my last few seedlings into the ground. I added eggshells in each hole, and I mulched with compost and then straw. And… I have resisted the urge to water. I’ll let you know what happens as time goes on. Really pleased and encouraged so far.

  • Theresa

    What a great update Sandra! I can hardly wait to hear the “rest of the story”.

    I feel sure the reason you haven’t had leaves turn yellow yet is because you raised your own from seed. An excellent move!!! Even if you eventually get a few yellowing leaves at the bottom — I think overall you’ll be fine.

    Good job – resisting the urge to water! We’ve had plenty of rain — and they just don’t need watering! If you keep the ground wet constantly the roots can’t get the air they need. And air is just as important as moisture.

    Keep me posted.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Theresa – another update. I have officially reached the point of having more tomatoes than I can eat!! As you predicted. I started getting early tomatoes right before July 4, and since then they have picked up the pace. I’ve been roasting Romas, and we are making a third batch of tomato sauce right now. I just want to let others know that if you follow Theresa’s advice – it will work. So glad I found your blog, Theresa. Now back to the stove…..

  • Theresa

    Congratulations on a job well-done, Sandra! Glad I could be part of it!

  • Sandra

    Theresa, I can’t find your post where you recommend picking to increase the harvest. It may not even have been related to tomatoes. With regard to my tomato harvest, I just wanted to report that this was one of the BEST tips I gleaned from you this year (there have been others).

    In past times, I waited for the perfect vine-ripened tomato. So many times I was disappointed. Something pecked, poked or nibbled before I got it. Or, I waited only to find a hidden rot spot, or it dropped off, or……
    This year, I’m picking a day or two before I think the tomato would be ripe. Then I leave them out on my counter top. They ripen beautifully (and safely) and WE get to eat them!!!
    And, not only that – there are more, because the plant is stimulated to keep on producing more new fruit.
    This simple tip, seems obvious, but it really has made a difference in my harvests this year. Thank you!!

  • Theresa

    Thanks for the confirmation Sandra! Leaving fruit on the vine is a common mistake folk make — but as you found — you get more by harvesting more. The post I wrote about it was Harvest More and Your Plants Will Produce More

  • Sandra

    OK Theresa, I think that I have late blight. I know most of us battled early blight in July. I lost many of my tomato plants to it because I didnt’ keep up with removing the diseased leaves. I replanted in early July, and those are now ready to give me ripe tomatoes. But sadly the fruit is rotting on the vine. I’ve been googling (of course) and I think that a round brown / black rotten spot (not blossom end) is late blight. It’s sickening to eyeball a nice looking tomato about to turn, then to see that it’s actually rotten through n through. Oh, and stinks too!
    Just thought I’d give the whole picture of my tomato growing season here. There have definitely been downs as well as ups. That said, another gallon of tomato sauce went into the freezer today, so there’ve been lots of good parts. And if I can beat this latest problem, I’ll have tomatoes on into Sept/Oct. my longest season yet. Thanks for any help.

  • Theresa

    Sandra I am right now working on a post addressing Early Blight and Late Blight. I don’t know that it will be of help to you this year — but will give food for thought.

    My OPINION (and it is just that — opinion — based on 35 years of growing tomatoes —) is that for some reason your garden soil is not yet healthy enough to withstand the attack of late blight — and thus the blight has attacked not only the plants but the fruit. I don’t know what can be done.

    I have what is similar looking to signs of Late Blight on the leaves —- which is maintaining and doesn’t seem to be spreading. The tomatoes look great except for some stink bug damage — which of course I work on that problem daily. If I followed conventional wisdom I would pull up all the plants to keep the disease from spreading. I have no intention of doing that at this point. As I said — the disease (whatever it is) has maintained for the past two weeks — and according to conventional wisdom —- my plants should all be dead by now if it is in fact late blight. And perhaps if they are absolutely sure it’s late blight maybe they should

    Late blight is systemic and all information on the internet (at least that I can find) says to pull up the plant the minute it gets late blight to keep if from spreading to other plants. But until I am absolutely sure late blight is the problem, I have no intention of pulling up my tomatoes.

    I really feel that if your soil is healthy enough — the plants will have a better chance to resist the disease and that possibly it would not have reached the fruit. Keep in mind this disease can be carried on the wind to your garden. So you can’t really protect yourself from it —- other than to continue to follow the principles that I have stressed over and over in posts. The post on Tomato Diseases is a good one to review.

    I have recently learned that Late Blight spores do not overwinter on dead tissue. They would have to be on something like seed potatoes which would be living tissue. The spores of Early Blight will stay in the soil, but Late blight will not winter over on the dead tissue of the tomato plants.

    “There are various strains of this disease that reproduce in different ways.  For many years the strain that produced oospores — which allowed it to survive in the soil during the winter — was not in the U.S.  That strain is now present in the U.S.and Canada.” See my post http://tendingmygarden.com/late-blight-know-your-enemy-tomatoes-potatoes/

    I would have to see your conditions to make a judgment about what I would consider doing. If most of your tomatoes look good — I would be tempted to try to get them through to maturity. If all are rotten then I would consider pulling them up.

    I hope this helps.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Another update, Theresa. It’s October, OCTOBER!!! and I have a counter top full of ripe and ripening tomatoes. There are several more to come in over the next few days.

    The plants seemed to have recovered from the various rots, and blights of earlier, more humid days, and are bald at the bottom but full and green on top. I have a freezer stocked with plenty of tomato sauce to go through the winter, and some roasted tomatoes too. It’s been a season of ups and downs (quite normal) but all in all – a fantastic tomato harvest.

    I am planning on following your preparations for tomato planting areas for next year NOW. That way next year can be even better. I am delighted with the help I got from you here at TMG!!!

  • Theresa

    I am so pleased that I could help you, Sandra!

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