Well, this has been a great year to write my tomato planting story!
May weather fluctuated from -5°C overnight one week to a rocking hot temperature of 37°C the following week and then back down to a low of 5°C. Now that we are into the second week of June, the weather still is unsettled with wild fluctuations from week to week.
This is how Mother Nature and I tango. You see the tango, much like tomato planting, is not a smooth passionate love story, it is a dance that is intended to remind you that there is drama and suffering in passion. With the tango there is always a lead and a follower and my lead in this dance is Mother Nature. She is a dominant lead pushing me to my limits, but I am seasoned in this dance with her; I am intuitively in tune to her next move. And even though I can hold myself properly and almost relax into this rhythm, in the tomato tango, I must always be engaged and ready in anticipation of what will come next.
This part of the tomato planting story starts with the anticipation of cooler than normal overnight temperatures. You see tomatoes grow the best when the daytime temperature is at least 22°C (73°F) and the overnight temperature does not go below 13°C (56°F). It is recommended that you plant your tomatoes when the daytime temperature will be consistently in that range. Tomato plants grow well when their roots are warm.
You can prepare your planting area in advance of these temperatures by amending your soil with some well composted manure and then laying some black plastic over the area. The plastic will hold the heat from the sun and warm the earth below. You can do this several weeks before you are going to plant your tomatoes.
Once the daytime and nighttime temperatures are in the ideal transplanting range you can go ahead and plant your tomatoes. And this is where we tango. Like I mentioned, Mother Nature is a dominant lead in the tomato tango. Just when you feel you can relax and plant your tomatoes and count on the weather to cooperate, Mother Nature throws in a dip.
And this is how it played out this year. At the end of May, it was hot, the overnight temperatures were good and so I planted. All of my tomato seedlings had at least 3-4 true leaves and my garden tomato seedlings were at least 6 weeks old and were at least 6” tall. In fact, since some of the tomatoes were started in the first week of April, they were 16” tall!
For each plant, I made sure to dig a hole that would bury the stem. I removed the first leaves and even some of the true leaves for the taller plants because tomato plants will root wherever the stem is buried. For my taller plants I prepared a trench so that I could bury a significant amount of the stem. (Check out this video How to transplant tomato plants into your garden or patio pot. to learn how to trench plant.)
To each planting hole, I added 1/4 cup of bone meal, added the plant and then made a basin around the stem about 12” in diameter. This is to ensure that the water pools in the area before being absorbed by the soil. The two benefits of doing this is that one, you will see how much water you added and two, when watering, the water will not just run off – it will stick around and be taken up by your plant.
My raised garden is not that large but it is deep and so I plant my tomatoes 24” apart. I mostly plant determinate tomatoes in my garden and so I will prune my tomatoes regularly to make sure there is good air flow between them.
For the indeterminant tomato plants, I add a stake on the opposite side of the prevailing winds, 2-4 inches away from the plant. I want the plant to move towards the stake when it is moved by the wind.
Each plant is watered deeply and I will do that every day. Tomatoes need consistent watering to grow well. I am pleased, and sigh a bit of relief, my babies are in the ground.
And then Mother Nature and I tango! I notice the weather is going to dip below 9°C for several nights!
But I am prepared. In my garage I have black perforated plastic, tomato cages, clear plastic and packing tape. So, before the cool nights, I remove the stakes and lay down the black perforated plastic. This will help trap the heat from the sun ensuring the roots of my plants stay warm. To further keep the plants warm on the cool nights, I gently push in tomato cages, wrap each one in clear plastic and secure the plastic with packing tape. I leave the top of the tomato cage open so that the plants can get sunlight and good air flow during the day.
In the evening, I place either a cotton towel or a blanket and use elastics in the corners to secure the coverings.
Every morning, I remove the towels and blankets and every evening I put them back on. I do this until the evening weather is in the range that is favourable for tomatoes, at which time I remove the cages and put the stakes back in the ground. I could just leave the cages for the tomatoes that are small, that might be sufficient support for them until maturity. However, my taller plants are now already 21-27” tall, some already above the top of the tomato cage, and I feel that a stake will provide better support throughout the season for these taller plants.
It may seem like these steps to growing tomatoes take too much time and energy and when you have setbacks you may want to give up and go and do something else with your time. But much like the tango, as you master the steps and observe the eloquence and beauty, it won’t be long before you are a passionate devotee of growing tomatoes.
The tango is about as much fun as you can have dancing with a person and I hope that your tomato tango is worth the effort in growing your tomatoes and becomes the most rewarding garden experience you have this year.