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.)
- I find weeds much easier to deal with when no barrier exists. When soil is prepared properly it’s a piece of cake to keep the weeds out. (Read more in my post on Secrets to Almost Effortless Maintenance of Borders and Gardens.)
- 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.
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. 🙂
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
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).
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 – My course of action
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.
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!
Organic Gardening is easy, efficient, effective and it’s a lot healthier.
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