Grow Bigger and Better Tomatoes This Summer!

Grow bigger and better tomatoes this summer

Tomato planting is something I look forward to every spring. I start counting the days from the time I sow my first seed to when I might have that first vine-ripened tomato in my hand, juices dripping down as I take a bite of the sweet, succulent flesh before it even makes it back to the kitchen.

If you’ve never tasted a homegrown tomato, you haven’t truly lived. And if you’ve never started your own tomato plants from seed, you’re definitely missing out — on the thousands and thousands of beautiful, colorful heirlooms that exist in this world. Take a look. My only advice for choosing tomato seeds is to go with ones you’ve never heard of before, and to simply start with your favorite color! (I personally love purple and black tomatoes… it might be a mental thing, but I feel the darker the flesh, the smokier and richer it tastes.)

Tomatoes are fairly fuss-free. They don’t require any special conditions to sprout and they grow relatively quickly. But once they start producing more foliage, they need a lot of love to perform their best — their best meaning lots of flowers and lots of fruit.

In gardening parlance, tomatoes are called heavy feeders; that is, they require a lot of nutrients. They’re wild about fertilizer and before you even think about growing tomatoes, you should think about “growing” your soil first. Tomatoes like rich, amended soil teeming with worms and microbes.

Two key nutrients must be present for tomatoes to thrive: phosphorus, which promotes the growth of flowers and fruit, and calcium, which prevents blossom-end rot (that dreaded black sunken hole on the blossom end of your calcium-deficient tomatoes). To a lesser extent, tomato plants also need nitrogen, but too much nitrogen could result in a big, bushy and green tomato plant with no flowers.

I start my tomato planting by preparing the bed first. Over an established but empty bed, I spread a 2-inch layer of compost; sometimes it’s homemade, if I have enough, and most of the time it’s bagged compost. I use Kellogg N’Rich Soil Enriching Compost, which has all kinds of good stuff in it and also helps break up heavy clay soil, which is the bane of my garden.

On top of the compost, I apply a balanced all-purpose fertilizer, either Kellogg All Purpose Fertilizer (4-4-4) or Gardner & Bloome All Purpose Fertilizer (4-4-4). Those three numbers in parenthesis indicate the nutritional makeup of the fertilizer, also known as N-P-K, or nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. (I don’t think there’s a difference between the two brands, as Kellogg and Gardner & Bloome are just different product lines from the same company. They’re certainly not the only ones you can use, but I like them as they’re local to Southern California, easily found in every nursery here, and OMRI listed, which is an organic certification for garden products.)

Dig in the compost and fertilizer with a spading fork

Once the compost and fertilizer are evenly spread across the bed, I dig them in with a spading fork (going only as deep as the fork), rake the soil smooth, and water well. I like to let the bed sit for a day or two for the soil to settle back in before I plant.

Freshly prepared garden bed

So, tomatoes. Let’s get planting!

Generally, I start my seeds in mid-February, move the seedlings into 4-inch pots in mid-March, and depending on how things are going in the garden, they get moved again into gallon pots or they go straight in the ground.

Tomato seedlings hardened off

With our unseasonably warm weather this year, I was able to transplant my tomatoes earlier than usual. Typically I’m waiting for wet weather to pass and beds to empty out, so it’s especially exciting to have my first 10 plants tucked in the soil before March even ended.

I always start with healthy plants about a foot tall, whether it’s a foot tall in a 4-inch pot or a foot tall in a gallon pot. This fine specimen spent a week outside getting hardened off, and looks primed for the garden.

Healthy tomato seedling

A couple of days before I transplant, I shower my tomato plants with aspirin spray to prepare them for the move. Aspirin (the same stuff you can find at the pharmacy) contains salicylic acid, a chemical compound that’s naturally present in most plants.

Use aspirin to boost plant immunity

Studies have found that in a tomato plant, salicylic acid (a plant hormone) is produced at high levels in response to a microbial attack on the plant. Oftentimes, this response happens too late in the natural cycle. But since we know salicylic acid triggers the plant’s defense system, we can give our tomato seedlings a little immunity boost before they go in the garden and have to face all kinds of microbes, good and bad.

To make a foliar spray, dissolve a regular-strength aspirin tablet (325 mg) in a gallon-size sprayer or watering can. Try to find uncoated aspirin as it dissolves easier; no need for brand names, I looked for the cheapest aspirin at my local CVS and found a generic version on sale for 24 cents for a bottle of 120 tabs. (!)

Thoroughly spray all the leaves, making sure to get the undersides.

Aspirin foliar spray to boost plant immunity

Spray the undersides of the leaves

After a couple of days, your tomatoes are ready for the dirt. Try to avoid transplanting in the middle of a glaringly sunny day or a ferociously windy day, which could add undue stress to the plant. Wait for a bit of cloud cover, or transplant in late afternoon when the sun is lower and your tomatoes have a chance to recover from their transplant shock.

In our freshly prepared bed, dig a 12-inch-deep hole. You want enough room to throw a bunch of amendments down the hole as well as bury the stem up to its lowest set of leaves. If you’re transplanting a larger plant from a gallon-size container, there’s no need to dig a 2-foot-deep hole; simply dig a 12-inch-deep trench and plant your tomato sideways.

Dig a foot-deep hole

Oh, and if you have a post hole digger, now is a good time to break it out as it makes the deep-hole-digging much easier… or at least, my husband made it look easy, after I’d painstakingly dug the first five holes with a shovel. But his post hole digger holes? Perfect, every time.

Post hole digger

Post hole

First down the hole: a fish head. I get mine from the local fishing docks for 90 cents a pound, but you might be able to find them for free. Call around to restaurants, make friends with fishermen. I use pretty hefty heads that weigh about a pound each.

Fish heads

Growing up in a seafood-loving household, I remember watching my parents bury all kinds of seafood (fish heads included) in the garden and growing some pretty remarkable things for living in the arid landscape of Las Vegas. And maybe you’ve heard tales of people burying fish heads under their rosebushes or between rows of crops to fertilize their soil.

Fish heads are not merely folklore in the garden. They’ve been used as natural fertilizer for centuries all over the world, and in fact, the American Indian Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to sow seeds with a small fish. Raw fish decays quickly in the ground, releasing nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and trace minerals to roots. And as we know, tomatoes especially love phosphorus and calcium!

But you don’t have to limit yourself solely to fish heads. Fish guts, fish bones, and shrimp shells all work well too. Use whatever is cheap or free, I say. Buried a foot deep, they’re not likely to be dug up by critters — and I have entire families of city raccoons patrolling my property every night. (Personally, I think it’s too much work for them when they have a veritable buffet of trash cans lined up on the street.)

Shrimp shells

Next to go down the hole are two aspirin tabs (immunity boost) and a handful of crushed eggshells (calcium boost).

Crushed eggshells from my backyard chickens

Add aspirin and crushed eggshells

Then, I add about a half-cup of fertilizer specially formulated for tomatoes — like Gardner & Bloome Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer (4-6-3) — and about a quarter-cup of bone meal, which is a good organic source of phosphorus. No measuring cups needed, I just eyeball everything in my trowel.

Add all purpose fertilizer and bone meal

I cover these amendments with a couple of inches of soil, then water them in. Before the tomato plant goes in, pinch off the lowest two or three sets of leaves on the stem. Gently loosen the root ball with your hands and lower the plant down the hole. The soil line should be right at the last set of leaves; the rest of the stem gets buried, as new roots will emerge from any part of the stem below ground.

Pinch off the lowest sets of leaves and gently loosen the root ball

Lower the tomato plant down the hole

Backfill the hole with soil (avoid tamping it down vigorously with your hands or trowel, as it will settle naturally) and create a small well around the plant. Water deeply; you want the water to reach the very bottom of the roots, which are now 8 inches below the surface. I use upwards of a gallon of water per plant, letting the water thoroughly drain into the soil between each soak.

Create a small well around the plant

Successfully transplanted tomato

After that initial watering, your plants will only need a deep watering once or twice a week, depending on your climate. A moisture meter like this one is a good, cheap investment to make sure you aren’t underwatering or overwatering. I generally water tomatoes when the first 3 inches of soil feels dry to the touch; remember, their roots are waaaay down there, especially as the season goes on.

Space tomato plants at least 2 to 3 feet apart so they have plenty of air flow between the foliage. I usually wait until my plants are at least a foot tall (and the leaves are further from the soil) before I mulch the bed with straw. Mulch holds in moisture, and any dampness on or near the leaves can lead to disease, especially on a susceptible young plant.

For staking options, I personally like the Florida weave method but plenty of caging options exist. If you plan to grow tomatoes year after year, invest in hefty, sturdy cages, and not the cheap, flimsy metal ones that look like upside-down cones. Stake your plants sooner than later, before the roots have a chance to sprawl and you risk damaging and disturbing them.

Fertilize throughout the season with your preferred fertilizer; I alternate among fish emulsion, compost tea (made from my own worm castings or with Malibu Compost’s ready-made tomato tea bags), and Gardner & Bloome’s tomato fertilizer.

Come summer, those once-little seedlings will turn into thick, verdant vines laden with luscious tomatoes!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for products that I personally use and believe have value to my readers. When you make a purchase using my affiliate link, I earn a small commission that helps keep this blog up and running. High-five for your support!

Never Miss a Post!

March 31 2014      23 comments     Linda Ly
Jardín   Verduras

Interested in
advertising in this space?

Contact us
for our current rates!
  • Karen Smith

    You have taught me a great deal.

  • Karen Smith

    Thank you so much. My harvest is excellent and very tasty.
    You a taught me a great deal.

    • Linda Ly

      You’re welcome! Glad you’re having a great summer with your tomatoes!

  • Idahocntryboy!

    Fish gut and heads make the best fertilizer! I like putting them also in my garden after growing season to prep my garden space for next year! Very nice article!

    • Linda Ly

      Thank you!

  • Pegmlefty

    Are there leaves on a tomato plant that should be pinched off to help the plant produce heartier fruit rather than just leafy plants.

    • Linda Ly

      I personally only prune any lower branches that may be dragging on the ground, in order to help mitigate disease. I don’t find that pinching off other leaves improves production so long as your plants are watered, mulched, properly spaced, and well fertilized.

  • Pingback: When Researching a Novel Gets Completely Out of Hand | Kristy Harding

  • OMIncorporated

    I recently found your blog and it’s now my favorite! I am kind of new to LA (moved here from the Northeast a year and a half ago) and am beginning to experiment with vegetable gardening – your blog has taught me so much already! Thanks :)


    • Linda Ly

      You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by, Lynn. Enjoy your year-round gardening here in LA; you’ll love it. :-)

  • Tsuri

    Thanks for the detailed post, that helps. My favorite thing you said in this post, and it is extremely understated, is “you should think about “growing” your soil first.” My primary objective is to grow soil while I learn to garden. I am convinced that soil is the most important thing we can grow. 8 inches of top soil made the farm belt in this country possible.

    • Linda Ly

      Soil is definitely the most important component of any garden, and soil/compost/fertilizer should be every gardener’s biggest investment!

  • Charlene Hisayasu

    This blog was posted on my 65th birthday and you could not have given me a better gift! I have been trying to improve my soil and gardening techniques. Thank you so much for these details! I have been a follower ever since I found you via Country Living. Thanks, again, for this valuable information,
    San Fernando Valley

    • Linda Ly

      Happy belated birthday! And I wish you many big, healthy and productive plants this summer. :-)

      • Charlene

        Thank you for the birthday wish. I hope that I did not offend you in my comment. I do enjoy your blog. Have a productive growing season.

        • Linda Ly

          No offense at all! :-)

  • Jenny

    Wow, thanks for such detailed information! This is a great post.

    You mention using fish heads or other seafood, such as shrimp shells, as fertilizer. If someone has a seafood allergy, do you know if using these fertilizers can affect the person when they eat the tomato? I’m thinking that these amendments will be broken down enough by the time the harvest is ripe, but I’m not sure.


    • Linda Ly

      Essentially, you are composting the fish heads (or shrimp shells), so microbes in the soil will break down the proteins, sugars etc. into nitrogen, phosphorus, etc. before these nutrients can be taken up by the plant roots. It seems unlikely that the allergy protein in the fish or shellfish would transfer to the fruit, but this is definitely a question for your allergist. The bigger risk here would be an allergic person handling the fish or coming in contact with the soil.

  • Joe Golden

    Interesting you speak about tomatoes being heavy feeders (which can be true for commercially developed lines bred for high input conditions) yet your seedlings are yellowed from lack of enough nitrogen. (Cotyledon leaves are also absent which can be an indication they did not get enough fertilizer early on)

    Most tomatoes planted in the ground only need moderate amounts of fertilizer: just after they are set in the ground and again just after the first fruits get about golf ball sized (larger fruit). Phosphorus is important early on in the seedling stage (before setting out) when flower primordia are forming. Studies have shown that most of the P in fruits came from that early application and not later. P is still needed during growth as it is important for DNA synthesis and energy (ATP) but for fruit that early application is more critical. Unlike nitrogen or potassium P leaches very little so in most cases P applied in the area roots eventually develop into will be adequate.

    Calcium from the eggshells will not be readily available this growing season. It’s a better to mix those in with the compost pile and apply that in the fall to the general area rather than the planting hole so it will be available.

    Fair warning, If one lives in an area with scavenging varmits (raccoons, possums or even cats) they may just dig up the plants going after the fish.

    It’s important to note that modern aspirin is no longer “salicylic acid” but rather acetylsalicylic acid. More recent studies, specifically with salicylic acid, suggest that much more frequent application rates are required for effectiveness (spraying the leaves every 24 hours). Salicylic acid also leaches from soil. So putting aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) in the soil, and having to convert to salicylic acid in combination with the leaching, may have a limited effectiveness (depending on conversion, soil make up, drainage and watering frequency).

    • Tsuri

      or maybe instead of the varmints digging up the fish, the varmints get thrown on the compost pile after my dogs get tired of using them as a chew toy.

      Thanks for the tip on the eggshells, but if she plants tomatoes in the same spot next year…and she did the same thing last year and is planting in the same spot this year…you get where I’m going yes?

      Now if you were to food forest and apply forest garden techniques it all becomes more and more moot. Assuming you want to go hardcore that is.

  • mistiaggie

    The fish in the whole works great! We tried it two years ago and had amazing growth on the plants that had fish buried beneath it.