Garden of Eatin' / How-To / Vegetables

Fish Heads Are the Secret To Growing the Best Tomatoes

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 of beautiful, colorful heirloom seed varieties that exist in this world.

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.)

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My favorite heirloom tomato varieties: Black Krim, Brandywine Red & Yellow Blend, Cherokee Purple, Moneymaker, Cuore di Bue

Tomatoes are fairly fuss-free. They don’t require any special conditions to sprout and they grow relatively quickly. They do just as well in the ground as they do in containers, and there are even certain tomato varieties that grow in shade.

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 to flourish. 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.

The 2 things your tomatoes need for optimum growth

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 flower end of your calcium-deficient tomatoes).

Providing these nutrients right from the start ensures you’ll grow tall, beautiful, healthy plants laden with juicy tomatoes that are sure to be the envy of all your neighbors.

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.

How to feed the soil so you can feed your plants

I start my tomato planting by preparing the bed first.

First, compost: Over an established but empty bed, I spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of well-aged compost; sometimes it’s homemade, if I have enough, but most of the time it’s bagged compost.

(If you don’t have access to a good, organic, and aged compost locally, I recommend this one by Dr. Earth for a high-quality amendment you can buy online. It’s also available at some independent garden centers.)

Next, fertilizer: On top of the compost, I apply a granular, organic, all-purpose fertilizer (the one I like is a 4-4-4 blend). Those three numbers indicate the nutritional makeup of the fertilizer, also known as N-P-K, or nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

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 them in!

Get your tomato seedlings ready for planting (aka the aspirin trick)

Generally, I start my seeds in late winter, repot the seedlings into 4-inch pots in early spring, and depending on how things are going in the garden, transplant the tomatoes (again) into 1-gallon pots or put them straight in the ground.

(Your sowing and transplanting timeline may vary with your particular climate, microclimate, and expected frost dates.)

Tomato seedlings hardened off

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 1-gallon pot.

This tomato seedling 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.

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 drugstore and found a generic version on sale.

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

Aspirin foliar spray to boost plant immunity
Spray the undersides of the leaves

What to put in your tomato planting hole for fantastic growth

A couple days after their aspirin shower, your tomatoes are ready for the dirt.

You want 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 transplant shock.

First, dig the hole: In your freshly prepared bed, dig a 1-foot-deep hole. You want enough room to throw a bunch of soil amendments down the tomato planting 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 1-foot-deep trough and plant your tomato sideways in this trench.

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

Next, add these soil amendments to the hole: First down the hole, and our secret ingredient when planting tomatoes, is a fish head.

Yes, a raw fish head! (Fresh or frozen works equally.)

I used to get mine from the local fish market for 90 cents a pound, but now I try to save and freeze the heads whenever I procure whole fish.

If you’re resourceful, you might even find them for free. Call around to restaurants and supermarkets, or make friends with fishermen. I use pretty hefty heads that weigh about a pound each.

Fish heads

So why would I throw a fish head down the hole?

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 Southern Nevada.

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 as fertilizer, as do whole carcasses from large salmon (eat the fillets but leave the heads and excess meat that you can’t scrape off).

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 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 (for a shot of immunity) and a handful of crushed eggshells (for a 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 or vegetables (like this one from Dr. Earth) and about a quarter-cup of bone meal, which is a good organic source of phosphorus and calcium.

No measuring cups necessary, I just eyeball everything in my trowel.

I cover these amendments with a couple inches of soil, then water them in.

Finally, bury the tomato plant: Before your 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 grow from any part of the stem below ground. (I talked more about adventitious roots in my original post on repotting tomatoes.)

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.

The key to watering your tomato plant (don’t be stingy!)

Finally, water your tomato plant deeply and thoroughly.

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 fully 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 to 4 inches of soil feels dry to the touch; remember, their roots are waaaay down there, especially as the season goes on.

Caring for your tomatoes: mulching, staking, and fertilizing

If you’re transplanting more than one tomato plant, space them at least 2 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 if I’m growing rows of tomato plants, but plenty of caging options exist.

If you plan to grow tomatoes year after year, consider investing in sturdy square cages, and not the cheap, flimsy metal ones that look like upside-down cones.

You should stake your plants sooner than later, before the roots have a chance to sprawl and you risk damaging and disturbing them.

Feed your plants throughout the season with your preferred fertilizer. I alternate between tomato fertilizer and fish fertilizer, and always see accelerated growth with loads of blossoms.

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

Turn them into easy homemade tomato sauce (with the skins on!) or make oven-dried tomatoes with your harvest. At the end of the season, any immature fruits left on the vines can go into a batch of pickled green tomatoes or green tomato salsa verde.

Tomato Growing Sources

Fish Heads Are the Secret To Growing the Best Tomatoes 1
Dr. Earth Natural Choice All Purpose Compost | Dr. Earth Premium Gold All Purpose Fertilizer | Ames 4-Tine Forged Spading Fork | GeriCare Uncoated Aspirin | Chapin 1-Gallon Home and Garden Sprayer | Fiskars Steel Posthole Digger | Dr. Earth HomeGrown Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer | Dr. Earth Premium Bone Meal | Dr. Meter Moisture Sensor | Neptune’s Harvest Organic Hydrolized Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on March 31, 2014.

Growing Tomatoes From Start to Finish

Linda Ly About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »