Growing Systems for Tomatoes
Self-contained growing systems take care of some of the problems involved with tomato culture.
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A number of manufacturers have developed self-contained growing systems for America's No. 1 backyard veggie. "It's a clever system that addresses many of the problems that gardeners encounter when trying to grow the perfect tomato (figure A)," says master gardener Paul James. It's a self-watering planting system that's designed to hold one or two plants, and it includes the container, 40 quarts of a specially prepared potting mix, a blend of organic fertilizer, a cage and some red plastic mulch. The self-watering feature is essentially an internal reservoir that holds up to four gallons of water.
To get started, you dump the planting mix into a separate container. James suggests using a wheelbarrow.
Add water to the mix and combine well until the mix is fluffy and moist but not soggy. Add some moistened mix into the planter and press it firmly into the channels (figure B). According to James, this is a very important step because the moist potting mix will slowly wick water from the reservoir to ensure the root ball has adequate moisture at all times. (If you were to simply add the potting mix dry, it would suck the moisture from the reservoir way too fast and your plants could dry out much faster than you realize.)
Add extra mix until you've filled the planter within one or two inches from the top. At this point, the manufacturers suggest you add one cup of the organic fertilizer, which in this case has a nutrient analysis of 5-5-5, to the mix. Mix the fertilizer thoroughly into the potting soil along the way.
Place the red plastic mulch over the mix and tuck the edges between the mix and the edges of the planter (figure C). A few years ago, scientists determined that red plastic mulch actually can boost tomato production by as much as 20 percent. According to James, not only is the red part of the light spectrum the one that tomatoes prefer most, it also boosts strawberry production.
Planting the tomatoes
James cuts two xs into the mulch with a utility knife to make way for the tomato plants, which includes four heirloom varieties that are among James' favorites in terms of flavor: Brandywine, Caspian Pink, Cherokee Purple and Old German.
"I planted them four weeks ago, pots and all, in this little trough because the plants arrived at my area nursery well in advance of the planting date here in my area (figure D)." So James carefully removes them from the trough and then from their original pots.
Teasing their roots a little bit if necessary, James plants them in the prepared planter (figure E).
"And now it's time for the cage, which I'm sorry to say is the one design flaw in this system," says James. "Anyone who has grown tomatoes knows that a cage this flimsy simply won't support a full-grown tomato plant, especially an indeterminate type that can easily grow eight feet tall or more!" Although the instructions suggest that you plant two tomatoes in each container, the system comes with only one cage. So for now, James uses a simple stake to support each plant, and as the plants grow, he ties them to the stakes. "Ultimately, I'll probably create a rectangular-shaped, wire mesh cage out of reinforced material like this which is the absolute best in my opinion for growing tomatoes (figure F)."
James prepares a second container in the same method, but instead of using fertilizer, he applies a compost tea and a heat-absorbing brown plastic mulch rather than the red plastic mulch.
In about six weeks, James will sidedress the first tomato plantings with the organic fertilizer that came with the container, and he'll treat those every couple of weeks with some compost tea. "And, of course, along the way, I'll be on the lookout for various pests and diseases," says James.
"Incidentally, earlier I mentioned how the self-contained systems address the problems encountered by tomato growers everywhere." First, because these tomatoes are growing in a sterile planting mix, the likelihood that they'll be attacked by some sort of soil-borne fungal or bacterial blight is greatly reduced. Even more important, the self-watering feature of this planting system--and others like it--will help control a condition known as blossom end rot, which results in a blackening of the fruit where the blossom once was. Although blossom end rot is actually caused by a calcium deficiency, the real culprit is uneven moisture in the soil. Systems like this virtually eliminate moisture swings, assuming you remember to fill the reservoirs routinely.
Fill the reservoir by adding water to the hole in the side of the container (figure G) which also acts as an overflow in the event of heavy rain. Fill it up until it overflows with water, indicating the reservoir is full. James recommends checking the reservoir every few days and topping off as needed.
Paul James takes a look at four gardening gadgets that'll help get water where it's needed most.