I am still planting out my tomato seedlings so, if you don’t have yours in yet, don’t fret. Melbourne’s weather has been cool, wet and cloudy which is great for gardeners because tender seedlings won’t have to battle the hot summer sun as they adapt to their new environments. So if you have a spare minute or two – get out there and plant now.
If you haven’t got your beds ready its not too late. I suggest adding compost and some well-rotted manure into the area you have chosen to plant your seedlings. I like to dig a hole where they will be planted and back fill with a mix of compost and sheep manure. This ensures good drainage and that the plant will have plenty to feed on throughout the growing season. Don’t forget to keep some straw on hand to mulch your plants once they have been planted. This will greatly reduce water evaporation, meaning that moisture will stay in the soil longer and that means that you will have to water a lot less. It will also keep the soil temperature cooler during those hot summer days.
Generally speaking, tomatoes like to grow in a slightly acid soil. This means soil that has a pH of 6-6.5, which is slightly lower than neutral (pH 7). Soil testing is important to give us an idea of the types of plants most suitable for our soil types. We can of course ameliorate the soil to achieve a pH that is suitable for specific plants like vegetables. If your soil has a very low pH (pH 1 – pH 5) you can add a little lime (dolomite limestone, crushed limestone, is my preference as it contains magnesium as well as calcium). This will sweeten the soil, increasing the pH towards neutral (pH 7). Apply at about a handful of lime per square meter. On the other hand, if your soil is very alkaline (pH 8 – pH 14) then you could add iron chelates and poultry manure to balance the pH. Having said all of this, unless your pH is outrageously acid or alkaline I wouldn’t get too particular about testing or changing the soil. By constantly incorporating compost into the soil you will find over time your soil will become well balanced. What is really important is ensuring that the soil is freely draining and that the plant will have plenty of available nutrients to get it through the season.
I do like to prepare my soil for tomatoes in autumn and winter. This allows time for the organic matter I add to the soil, to break down to a point where their minerals will become available to my plants. Then when I plant my seedlings I add more compost and a bit of well rotten sheep manure to the hole. If the soil is generally moist and healthy that is all I do however, if the soil is quite dry I might add some water crystals to the compost/manure in the hole. Charcoal is another thing I sometimes add to the hole. Being very porous, it has the ability to hold good amounts of water and provides a home for good bacteria. It may also help to improve drainage.
A lot of people ask me what we do to get such healthy and high yielding tomatoes. We don’t get too fancy but we do have a few tricks that I will be happy to share with you.
You may have noticed that tomatoes, as they mature, begin to get pimple like bumps along the bottom of their stems. You can see this in the picture below. If allowed to come in contact with moist soil, mulch, root shoots will emerge from these bumps. They are just waiting for the right conditions to reveal themselves. If they find themselves covered by moist soil or mulch they will spread out and enable the plant to have access to more water or nutrient, meaning that the plant can grow stronger and be more productive.
So using this logic we began planting our tomatoes quite deep into the soil to promote root growth. This helps our plants to grow strong, produce more fruit and cope with our (usually) long, hot, dry summers. I remove the lower branches from the stem, leaveing approximately 1/3 of the plant sitting above the soil. To give you a better idea, I place my finger on the stem, directly below the lowest remaining branch. The bottom of my finger tells me where the soil level should be once the plant is in its hole.