I grew very few crops this summer because of the drought. I weighed the pros and cons of growing my own food (pros: fun, I know what’s been used, etc.; cons: water, water, water, etc) and decided that shopping at my local farmer’s market every Friday was the best choice. With one important exception: tomatoes. I’ve been growing tomatoes for over 20 years and haven’t missed a summer yet. Tomatoes are a high-water use crop, but as I grew almost nothing else this season and traditionally use very little water for my ornamental landscape, I felt the water use was justified. Besides, the taste of a vine-ripened tomato cannot be matched, and this summers’ tomatoes were outstanding. No doubt every summer I will continue to grow tomatoes, worry about water use, and then enjoy the harvest.
From conversations with fellow gardeners over many years, I have found that people believe there is more of a science to growing this crop than with any other crop. A science with details sometimes so specific that even phases of the moon are to be considered when determining the best planting time. Not so with me. I plant as time allows; this was especially true when I was working full-time. But because a few of these methods were well thought-out and interesting, I decided to write about 3 methods I tried during a warm summer a few years ago. For this very unscientific experiment, I chose 6 Sun Gold tomato plants (all from the same grower) and used 2 plants per method. All plants had full sun and equal amounts of water, all were watered at the same time each morning, and all were planted during the first week of June (much later than I usually plant). All plants were fertilized with organic fish fertilizer, in identical amounts, and on the same mornings.
Method 1: Plant Deep and Late. (Planted in a raised bed.) This method requires the gardener to remove all but the top 2 – 3 leaves of the plant and then bury it up to its neck in rich soil. Plant during the first week of June only. The theories behind method 1: greater planting depth facilitates root growth, stem strength, and decreases the amount of energy a young plant spends in maintaining existing foliage. Late planting ensures soil warmth which facilitates root growth. Proponents of this method claim it results in highest yield and best tasting fruit.
Method 2: Plant in Black Plastic Containers Only. This simple method requires that plants be grown in large black plastic pots. It claims that the containers heat soil faster and retain heat longer than in-ground planting; resulting in a faster growth and higher fruit yield. I used 5 gallon-size pots and high quality, organic potting soil
Method 3: Cover Plants with Fabric at Night until nighttime temperatures reach 60˚F. (Planted in a raised bed.) This method required that I cover the plants at night with plant fabric. Since I had some porous black plant fabric on hand (used for covering raised beds during winter), I chose this material with which to cover the 2 plants, from sunset to sunrise. These plants were in the same soil, and the same raised bed, as the plants grown using method 1. The theory behind this method states that covering the soil at night retains soil warmth, which facilitates faster plant growth.
Method 1 resulted in strong, sturdy plants with an abundance of healthy foliage, but produced no more fruit than what I had seen in past (normal) years.
Method 2 resulted in very fast growth and a slightly increased and earlier fruit yield but the plants wore out by mid-August when fruit production decreased considerably. Since black plastic pots dry out faster than in-bed plants and I did not give extra water, this probably caused the decreased fruit production.
Method 3 produced no noticeable increase in fruit production or taste, nor in plant size or strength. In short, lots of extra work for no benefit.
This was an enjoyable experiment; but in truth, I found no difference in the quality of the tomatoes when compared to my usual method – plant in mid-May, water as needed, fertilize when I remember, and hope for the best. Someday I may try a few of the more creative methods suggested – planting only during a full moon, planting only on certain days of the week or time of day, surrounding the tomatoes with companion plants (I always have summer blooming plants in the landscape), or doing a little dance before each watering. But for next summer, I will most likely stay with my usual planting methods – after all, our tomatoes are consumed almost as soon as they look ripe enough to eat. And that’s good enough for me.