Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mid-Summer TLC for Tomatoes

It's time to add some booster fertilizer to the tomatoes, which are sucking nutrients out of the soil at a prodigious rate to fuel their splendid growth. It's also a good opportunity to catch up with installing the water-saving system that should have been put in when the plants were seedlings.

I use three-foot by three-foot Grow Beds, ten inches deep, for all the vegetable plantings, and have never been able to figure out how to install the long hoses of drip irrigation. And I find all those little plastic fixtures way too complicated. It's a good thing I love the soothing chore of hand-watering with a hose! Water is always an issue in our rainless summers. Our city is not on water-rationing yet in this ultra-dry California drought year but we have been asked to cut back.

Last year I read about sunken clay pots that are used in developing countries to bring water directly to roots and allow the roots to draw water through the porous clay as needed. The water percolates through the clay as the surrounding soil dries out. Nifty! The pots are specially made for that purpose -- beautifully shaped large round amphora-like jugs with narrow necks. It's a very ancient practice going back millennia.

A local equivalent that works well is to use clay flower pots with their drainage dishes and some black rubber stoppers from the hardware store (who knows what their actual purpose might be!). The rubber stoppers can be jammed into the hole at the bottom of the flower pot to create a permeable closed container. You have to be careful to get the right sized stopper for the particular pot.

I tried this last summer and liked the results so I'm gradually adding more pots. I dig a hole next to the chosen plant, trying not to disturb the delicate roots. In this picture you can see why this job is best done when plants are small: numerous white threads of disturbed rootlings. I plop the pot into the hole and gently pack the soil around it. The last step is to fill the pot with water and put the drainage tray on top as a lid. Voila!: an underground supply of supplementary water. It's not enough to take the place of hand watering, of course, but it helps keep the soil from drying out completely. Tomatoes like steady moisture. I read somewhere that they are like children: with warmth and consistency they thrive. Eventually, the hole will be completely lined with a spider web of tiny white roots.

Today, after putting in the irrigation pot and before putting down a couple of layers of mulch, I dug in some organic fertilizer (Whitney Farms Tomato & Vegetable Food 5-3-3), sprinkling it around each plant several inches from the stem and digging it in. It's important to water thoroughly both before and after applying fertilizer. I'm not sure why -- probably it has to do with root burn -- but it's a process I observe faithfully. Like all gardeners I have accumulated a number of rituals that have to be followed no matter what.

The first mulch layer is newspaper -- double sheets folded once to make a thin covering that worms absolutely love. They will snuggle up underneath the newspapers in droves and hopefully do all kinds of nice things for the soil.

The second mulch layer is dark compost -- Mango Mulch is what's shown here -- one to three inches thick. Ritual demands that it be kept several inches away from the plant stems. I think it's to give the stem plenty of air and keep it from rotting, but, again, I'm not sure why this has to be done. If all goes well this tender loving care will give the tomato plants everything they need to flourish.

Full disclosure: every year, no matter what rituals are followed, all my tomatoes get some kind of mysterious symptoms on the lower leaves. It's never enough to interfere with a bountiful harvest but always enough to make me fret and worry and wonder what's going on. There are so many different afflictions of tomatoes that I've not been able to make any positive identifications. These leaves are on the Sungold cherry tomato plant and the Better Boys are showing a similar condition: yellowing with brown spots that get larger and larger. And these are the hybrids which are supposed to be disease resistant!

Each year, however, I learn a little more and try out new things. That's part of the fun -- a big part.

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