I would like to say that the secret to great tomatoes is eating more Chinese food but there is a little more to it than saving your chopsticks during the year because they are helpful when growing tomatoes. I have been growing tomatoes for 44 years. I have grown them in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Virginia, and most recently in North Carolina which is where I learned how to grow tomatoes long ago by watching my mother and my wife's father.
I have been writing about growing tomatoes for at almost eleven years with my first article being, The Spring Tomato Ritual. While tomatoes are one of the three things I have said Southerners should grow, gardening especially for tomatoes can be challenging here on the coast. The rhythm of gardening is different here on the coast. As hard as it is to believe, we picked our last full sized ripe tomato on December 27, this year. We got our last ripe cherry tomatoes on January 14, which was the same day we cleaned the green ones off the plant. We were still eating ripe homegrown full sized tomatoes in January. We finished the last of our ripe cherry tomatoes the third week in February. We have had some great tomato seasons on the coast with some beautiful crops and once picked over 100 tomatoes in one day. We drove some of them to relatives in the Piedmont area of the state where tomatoes are not usually ripe until early July. We often get our first ripe homegrown tomatoes the last week in May.
Since I love early (and late) tomatoes, growing tomatoes is something that I take seriously. You might not have as much tomato love as I do, but some of my tips might help you be successful in what can be a challenging gardening climate along the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. The difficulties that you face on our NC coast are far different from the climatic challenge that can make tomatoes something of a gardener's annual victory in eastern Canada.
Our coastal climate is very dependent on where you live. Our home and garden area is on the water or Raymond's Gut just off the White Oak River about three miles up river from Swansboro, NC and the Intracoastal Waterway. Our climate is tempered by the water but we have had frost as late as March 29. In fact just last year on that date I lost half of my tomatoes to frost even though they were covered with plastic pails.
I am getting head of myself. For me tomatoes start with seed. I usually order my seed by the end of the first week of January. The year I planted my seeds on January 30. As you can see from this picture of my tomato seed incubator, it is something of cobbled together outfit. I use the standard plastic four pack planting pots and square plastic trays that I found at Dollar General for $1 each. I fill each tray with four four packs. I use one of the trays on the top and bottom to start. I use potting mix that I buy from Redfearn's Nursery in Cedar Point. It is the same potting mix he uses to grow his own plants. I fill each hole with potting soil, wet it a couple of times, and then pour off the excess water that has collected on the tray. I make a couple of small indentations with a chopstick and try to get just one seed in each hole. I put the plastic tray top on the cubes, put them on a table that gets sunshine in my office and wait. In a week to ten days I have a good crop of tiny tomato seedlings.
As you can see from the picture, there are often two or three seedlings in each hole. When the plants have gotten their second set of leaves, I take the plastic tray that I used for the top and put four more four packs on it. Again I fill them with potting soil, wet, and drain. Then I use a plastic knife and spoon to divide the cubes with more than one plant. I carefully place the plants that I separate in a new hole. Remember to add soil where you took out soil and to carefully add soil around the moved plants. I water the transplants and survivors after adding more planting mix. It is not unusual for the seedlings to get leggy at this time and need a little support. I cut chopsticks in half and position them as needed to keep the plants going straight. Sometimes I change the sticks as I rotate the trays three or four times each day as the plants turn towards the sun.
About five to six weeks after I have planted the seeds (around the middle of March this year), I re-pot all my tomato plants into standard peat pots. Each peat pot get about two tablespoons of potting soil in the bottom, a tablespoon of composted manure, a sprinkle of bone meal, and a few Osomocote long-lasting fertilizer beads. On top of that goes another tablespoon of potting soil. I then use my plastic knife to loosen the plant from the edges of the cube and lift it out with a plastic spoon. I like to make certain all the cubes are wet before I start this. Once the tomato with its cube of soil is in peat pot I press it down firmly and fill around the plant with more potting soil. Then I water again and transfer to our wagon and wheelbarrow that are used for hardening off the tomatoes.
At this point the tomatoes are living in the garage and going outside when it is nice and coming back in at night. You might notice that many of the plants now require a full size chopstick to keep growing straight. If you look closely, you will see green Velcro planting tape collars on particularly tall plants. This year the plants stayed in the garage roughly ten days to two weeks. Wind can really beat plants up at the coast. That is one of the reasons we use the wagon and wheelbarrow. If it gets very windy or rainy, we put the plants in the garage. They also have to be watered at least once each day.
After getting used to living outside, the first fourteen plants went in the ground on March 24 and I planted another 15 plants on March 26. Before I start putting them into the ground I make sure each peat pot is soaked. Because of our deep, rock free soil, I am able to plant our tomatoes with a bulb planter. I push it into the ground as far as possible and bring out a core a dirt as cleanly as I can. I turn the bulb planter upside down over a bucket and tap the bottom of the bucket with the handle. The dirt and sand falls into the bucket without much work. Once again I add bonemeal and Osomocote to the bottom of the hole. This time I put a trowel full of our homemade compost over that and then I remove the tomato plant from the peat pot, pinch any lower leaves off and carefully place into the hole. I put the dirt/sand back into the hole in such a way to get the plant straight in the hole. Then once again I water the plant. After that I put a couple of trowels of Daddy Pete's Raised bed mix around the plant. Daddy Pete's has a little mulch in it and it helps keeps the plants moist.
By soaking the roots and soil around the tomato plant and then burying it and watering again, you remove most of the risk of the tomato plant dying from being too dry. In general once tomato plants are in the ground, I try not to water more than once every three days. That promotes deep root growth. By burying the tomato several inches, it will have deep roots. If you compare this picture of the planted Umberto to the Umberto in its peat pot before it was planted, you get an idea of how much of the plant is underground.
So far I have 29 plants in the ground and have given away 23 plants. I have another 24 left for my daughters. After they pick what they want, I will be giving away a few more to neighbors.
I will be posting further information on tomato pests and even how to prune your tomatoes for maximum yield. I will also be planting a few more tomato seeds on April 15 and June 1. I find that having fresh plants makes it easier for the tomatoes to keep producing in the fall and even into early winter.