Seasonal Cooking with Rita Calvert~The Kitchen Gardener Cook
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Tomatoes are the cornerstone for my kitchen garden and perhaps for most folks because the just-picked vibrant hue and aroma is incomparable. Now we have so many options to choose it's easy to go overboard. Growing your own tomatoes along with herbs is the best way to save the big bucks. Since chefs know that, they either grow their own or have a farmer or two nearby. Well we'll just grow it ourselves! I'm gearing up to grow enough to make the salad above many times over the summer since the fresh mozzarella is also available at farmers markets.
I was talking to a busy mom the other day who confessed to having a 'black thumb' since she has two young children. The answer to this one is start a small container garden and grow proven high yield stress-free tolerant tomatoes like Sweet 100 which yield an incredible amount of tiny sweet little guys--perfect for a Burst Cherry Tomato Sauce, Smoked Tomatoes or simply for snacking (especially for those too busy families).
You CAN grow any tomato in a pot, if you do it right! With containers, you can grow tomatoes almost anywhere. They provide additional flexibility in that you can control the growing medium, which will protect plants from pests and diseases. Not to mention that you can achieve amazing results that you could not have achieved otherwise just remember they rely on you for all of their needs.
All tomato varieties can be grown in containers. But the bigger the plant size, the more maintenance is required to upkeep the plant. It took master tomato grower Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm four years of trial and error before she perfected her technique. Do your homework by reading this advice from experienced gardeners. Here are the high notes from an assortment of experts:
Use at least a 15 gallon container. That size is 18" tall and 17" wide. Anything smaller will hamper the plant's ability to produce fruit and remain healthy. A half wine barrel is about 25 gallon capacity, and that will hold two plants. A 15 gallon container will hold only one plant. The container must have drainage holes. Some people use Earth Boxes, which is ok, and some people have had good success with them, but, you need a larger soil volume than they have.
A plastic pot will not dry out as rapidly as a clay pot and will require less watering. If you use black or dark-colored plastic for your container, at some point around mid June you will need to start shading the dark color from the sun. If you don't, no amount of water will keep your tomato happy.
Place a round fiberglass screen of the same shape and size as the pot in the bottom to prevent soil from washing out of the holes and to prevent pests from entering. Other options are half whiskey barrels, black plastic pots and bushel baskets.
Because these plants are being grown in containers, you can mix the soil to the exact requirements, giving you better growth and production. They require a loose, well-drained soil generous in organic matter. A good mix consists of one part each of potting soil, perlite, sphagnum peat moss and compost. Garden soil should be avoided as it is likely to be infested with soil pests. When using compost, make sure temperatures during the composting process were high enough to kill pest organisms. Add a slow release fertilizer by following label recommendations to each pot. This provides additional nutrients slowly over a longer period when there is active growth and fruit production. I learned that fish emulsion (quite pricy) or 2 big handfuls of fish meal per container.
Fill the container three-fourths full with the soil mix. Select stocky, vigorous plants and position the plant close to the stake (stake info below). You'll want to bury the stem (to just below the lowest set of leaves) as well as the roots. New roots will grow along the buried section of stem, making for a healthier plant. Once you have the plant set at the proper level, fill in around it with potting soil, firming lightly as you go. The soil should go up to about an inch below the rim of the pot to allow room for watering. Start by watering once, wait about 10 minutes, then water again, wait, then again. It takes a lot of water to completely saturate the potting soil. Even if you see water draining out of the holes, that doesn't necessarily mean the root ball is soaked. if the soil settles, add more soil.
Staking and Pruning
The tomato in the pot will need staking. Stakes for container tomato plants should be set up on the outside of the container (if that’s possible) where they could be set firmer into the ground or even tied to the rail of a deck, for wind protection. Pruning might be necessary if the plants are growing way too big.
Place the container in a site with full sun and protection from the wind. Check the plants daily for watering needs by sticking a finger in the soil. Tomatoes in a pot are heavy feeders, and every time you water, you are washing nutrients out of the soil. To combat this, you'll need to fertilize regularly, preferably with either fish emulsion or seaweed extract. Once a month is good, but every other week, applying the fertilizer at half-strength, is better. This will provide a constant source of nutrients for the tomato plants.Check plants daily for signs of insect and disease infestation. Keep mature fruits harvested to induce continued fruit formation.
Along about July 1 another thing happens, and that is the plant is getting big and the weather is getting hot. You need more water at this point. You may end up watering once a day. When a tomato is grown in the ground, it never needs watering that often. But in a pot, it does (once the plant gets big and the weather gets hot).
After the Harvest
Now it’s time to begin compiling those stellar recipes.