Besides lettuce, tomatoes are one of our most favorite vegetables. As a richly coloured vegetable, tomatoes also contain high levels of the flavenoid lycopene, which gives them their red colour - and which has shown to defend, in study after study, against cancers of the lungs, cervix, prostate and mouth. Tomatoes are also one of the chief ingredients of "the Mediterranean diet", now well known for the many important health benefits it conveys
Even long before we knew all this, we have always grown lots of tomatoes for salads, sandwiches and tomato sauces. And there is absolutely nothing which compares to a tomato fresh from the vine.
I suppose my liking for vine ripened tomatoes set me on my gardening career. If I remember correctly, I planted 70 tomato plants that first year - and all of them grew up to yield bushels of fruit. As you can imagine, 70 tomato plants is a bit much, and I've cut down to 40 since then. But it also seems that we had longer, hotter summers then. Tomatoes and peppers just grew and grew, and we sold green peppers at the Farmer's Market, nice, big green ones for 10 cents apiece. Well, those were the good old days.
Since then it seemed that our summers have followed our economy, first into strikes, then recession and recently, into restraint, yet my liking for tomatoes has not abated. Worse, our location at the bottom of what amounts to a natural 'bowl', with the lake being the bottom, draws all the cool night air at night and piles it up around my tomato plants. Sometimes, I believe, I can see them shiver. While we sweltered in those hot humid Ontario nights the tomatoes soaked up all that heat and actually ripened in the time stated in the seed catalogues.
Here, it is different. While our cool summer nights let us sleep in heavenly comfort, our tomatoes shiver and shake and their leaves chatter in the chill. Hence we find that a 60-day tomato maturity date is more like 90 days here. And unless you are in a favourable micro-climate, any tomato which takes longer than 70 days from transplanting to ripe fruit would be purely a platonic affair. Lots of leaf, nice shrubs, and perhaps a few, small green tomatoes - if you are lucky. I wish they would heat-index tomatoes, as the Dept. of Agriculture does for corn. It would make life a lot easier. Until then we need to stick to those tomatoes which mature in less than 70 days. Our own "Salt Spring Sunrise" (50 days) and "Fantastic" (70 days) encompass the suitable range.
Tomatoes can be started as early as the beginning of March in the greenhouse or indoors, in rich soil at a soil temperature of 80 degrees F. (27 degrees C.), for six to 12 days. A bottom heated propagation box in the green house, or a propagating tray on top of the water heater under a fluorescent grow light works great. Then grow them at 60 degrees F. (16 degrees C.) and fairly dry to encourage strong root development. It would be best to transplant them into one gallon pots when about 4 inches high. Rapid early growth under shelter - tomatoes love to be warm - is the key to obtaining sturdy tomato factories.
We've experimented with setting some plants out earlier than this, but this does not work. Tomatoes love to be warm. The early transplants just hang in there until the soil warms up, and the later transplant quickly grew to the same size, resulting in no advantage by setting out early. Again, the soil should be rich in nutrients to encourage rapid growth. Do not be stingy with the bone meal. A good handful under each transplant will provide the necessary phosphorus. Some kind of shelter will help in our cool June nights. Any type of clear plastic lean-to, draping or cloche in June, and again in September is of much help.
My favourite method is to grow tomatoes in wire cages. It works like a charm, for several reasons. We made our wire cages out of concrete reinforcing mesh, the kind that has a 6" square mesh, large enough to reach through and retrieve tomatoes later on. The cages need to be at least two feet in diameter, and four feet tall; and five feet tall is better. Allow a seven foot length of wire fencing for every cage, bend it into tube shape, and bend and hook cut ends of the horizontal wire strands into the vertical wire on the other side. Voila, there are your wire cages.
Wire cages eliminate the need for staking, tying and pruning the suckers of your tomato plants - which is very, very nice - and are also highly conducive to lush and extraordinary growth. Expect tomato shrubs anywhere from six to nine feet tall, and a 30 to 70% increase in yield. It's called "electroculture" and the fabulous production comes from the electromagnetic field the wire cages create. Anyway, after using cages for the first time, I found myself - at 5-6", all in all - smaller than my mature tomato shrubs for the first time in my life. It's awesome. As it turned out, I had to stake the wire cages as well to keep them from falling over, due to the height of the tomato shrubs and their huge crop of tomatoes.
Transplant your tomatoes outdoors in late May or early June, after the soil has warmed up nicely. If possible, give them full southern exposure with shelter (house, garage, tall hedge, etc.) to the north. Set out three to four feet apart in a three foot wide bed. Tomatoes actually grow better when crowded. And so the small tomato transplants won't look totally lonely in their large beds, we grow lettuce in the open spaces between them until the tomato plants get big.
Watering often with dirty dishwater does absolute wonders for them - it's the richest and only perfect fertilizer there is - and manure/fishmeal/seaweed "teas" (1 part solids, 2 parts water, steeped in buckets) work marvelously as well. And remember to always include a seaweed mulch, seaweed fertilizer and, or, fish meal fertilizer in all your growing programs, for the complete spectrum of the 72+ trace elements which we, and all your vegetables need for their and our supreme health.
And my patented, super-natural and super-organic weed mulch works wonderfully well among the tomato plants as soon as they are big enough. Just weed immediately around the plant, and let the other weeds (all except the grasses) grow to about 10 inches tall, then shear them down to two inches, and lay the shearings over as a mulch. This makes a very nice weed-straw mulch which discourages new weeds, keeps the soil warm at night and cool during the day, retains soil moisture very nicely, and as it decays returns all the nutrients to the soil, plus their newly created nutrients and organic content. It's a win, win, win, win situation in every respect.
For reasons no one has been fully able to explain yet, tomatoes also do spectacularly well with a tablespoon of Epsom salts under each transplant and, or a handful scattered on top of the soil and scratched into the soil around the plant. Use the course kind of Epsom salts from the drugstore for this.
Also see "28' - 0" Tomato Trees" in these pages for growing mighty and richly abundant tomato shrubs.
All in all, we found this method far less work than any other, and were rewarded with super abundant crops for much less work. I like that. Next, we'll get into the cucumbers.
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