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!

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March 31 2014      30 comments     Linda Ly
Jardín   Verduras

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  • Rick Frey

    Thanks for the blog, what a great collection of info on a fun range of stuff and really nicely laid out! I do a lot of gardening/animal raising as well and found your blog from an ongoing debate with my wife about leaving chicken eggs on the counter or in the frig and how long they could last left out.

    Quick question on tomatoes, do you have much problem with disease? I’m in Oakland and I bought a bunch of new heirloom tomatoes to try out this season and I have been getting hammered by powdery mildew and a decent amount of blight/wilt on the leaves as well. Way too many of the flower clusters are just drying up and not setting fruit.

    Looking through your blog, you’re an impressive and thorough researcher, any chance you’ve had to battle tomato diseases much yet and have any good info to share?

    • Linda Ly

      I battle powdery mildew every year since I live on the coast (especially on my squash plants). Our weather is generally quite dewy, so my garden is susceptible to mildew, rust etc. I’ve found that a preventive spray of neem oil or copper fungicide (my last-ditch effort, as copper is much stronger) helps control these airborne diseases.

      Soilborne diseases like wilt and early blight are best controlled by rotating your crops on a 3-year (or more) schedule. If you can leave your soil bare for at least a month in high summer, I recommend solarization, which kills those fungal spores in the soil. (It’s actually what I’ll be doing next month, as I had a problem with tomato wilt this season.) But other than that, there’s nothing you can really do once the disease takes hold on your plants. You should pull them, bag them, and trash them (I put mine in the city green bins, rather than compost them).

      Sometimes soilborne diseases come from the nursery where you bought your plants. If you’re growing heirlooms, you should try starting them from seed.

      Good luck!

      • Rick Frey

        I’ve collected seeds from a few of the plants that have been healthy enough for tomatoes to grow and I’m making sure to start them as cleanly and disease free as possible (new soil, lots of space, lots of air, not so moist), we’ll see how round 2 of the plants do. I had read about using a mix of baking soda and dish soap to stop powdery mildew, I just gave it a try, so we’ll see how it does.

        I grow about half of my tomatoes in containers in a green house, and after about 4-5 months for each plant, I recycle the soil and start fresh, but I wonder if I’ve introduced the spores to my soil bins and I’m just passing it along each time I refill a container.

        Have you ever played with grafting tomato plants? This is my first year trying it and so far, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed. A few of the plants are big and huge, but it hasn’t been the magic solution for mildew or any of the diseases and a bunch of the grafts that took and started growing just never thrived and took off.

        Sept/Oct are so nice here, I’m getting ready for a second set of tomato plants, some to replace the ones that got hammered too badly by mildew and/or blight. I’ve never tried a fish head, but I’ll give it a shot and I had just read about planting old eggs with tomatoes and other plants, so I’ll try that one as well. And I think I’ll try potting these guys with new soil (I love the Kellogs mix as well) to see if I avoid the wilt and blight.

        • Linda Ly

          Soilborne diseases are easy to prevent when growing in containers because you just need to use new containers (or wash old ones in hot soapy water), new soil, and clean tools.

          On tomato plants, you can reduce the risk of mildew (and many other diseases) by keeping them trellised and pruned to encourage more air flow around the leaves. And as soon as you see one plant afflicted, remove it immediately so it doesn’t infect the others.

          I don’t graft tomato plants. I keep it simple in my garden. :-)

          • Rick Frey

            I was hoping grafting would be my trick for keeping it simple–put that work in early and have magic heirloom tomato plants that would be disease free, vigorous growers, huge crops, but not yet.

            The grafting itself is simple, two cuts, attach a clip and stick the plant anywhere you put other cuttings (shady and humid)–less time than it takes to make home fermented chicken scratch :-)

            You got me starting a batch of fermented scratch again, not so much for my birds, but for attracting black soldier flies. I had a colony going for a while, but critters got in and ate them all. BSF are great converters of anything organic into insect protein. I’ve got a good sized bird area with turkeys and ducks as well so I’m always looking for extra protein. BSF aren’t simple as much as they’re beautifully elegant in terms of making use of every thing left over on a farm.

            Send me a couple starters of your favorite heirloom tomato plant (or a couple 8-10″ suckers wrapped in wet paper towels) and I’ll send you back a grafted plant

          • Linda Ly

            Haha, well I agree that grafting in itself is a simple thing, but I haven’t spent the time researching rootstocks, which is where most of the work lies for successful grafting.

          • Rick Frey

            You’re not getting off that easy :-) Maxifort and RST (from Harris Seeds) are two of the most popular and have great ranges of disease resistance. Instead of taking that month off for solarization, that’s where grafted plants shine-home gardens where crop rotation is harder to pull off. Add in bonus yields, earlier fruit, later fruit and better fruit setting at both temp extremes?

            Maybe there’s a more perfect rootstock you could try, but you wouldn’t skip surfing at a great beach cause you knew there might be a better one if you kept looking :-)

  • 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.

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  • 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.