Doug’s first rule of gardening states: You only have to feed tomato plants if you want new leaves, flowers or fruit.
If you want great crops you have to feed your tomato plants properly.
I’ve had some good-ole boys tell me they never had to feed their gardens because they had “good soil”. I’d just smile and wander back to my massive tomatoes and bountiful harvests because while I had good soil, I also had great feeding.
Compost is king. The fastest way to get an abundance of tomatoes is to provide them with an abundance of compost. I cannot emphasize this enough. The world record for production from 4 tomato plants is 1368 pounds of fruit and they were grown only with compost! (LOTS! of compost)
Back in the 1800’s when New York City had a pollution problem (funny how some things never change) with horse manure, over 800 cartloads of manure a day would leave the city bound for the Jersey and Long Island vegetable growers. Those commercial and estate growers would compost it and apply between 2- 4 pounds of compost per square foot every year.
Modern gardeners treat compost as if it were gold – spreading it thinly as possible. If you want great crops, do what the old-time gardeners did. This weight roughly translates to ½ inch per square foot. If you can see the soil after you’ve applied your compost – you haven’t put on enough.
Call me crazy but I gave up on compost tea.
The theory seems good but the practice was my weak point. I had a “good” tea maker according to tests and research but I finally decided it was too much work and fuss when I had easier alternatives. And without regular testing, things can go south in a big hurry.
There’s so much BS running around about compost tea now it hurts my head. It’s become the mythical saviour of all things good in the garden. 😉
My .02 is to get rid of the compost tea maker and use the compost directly on the garden.
Here’s what I do instead:
I mulch heavily. This feeds the soil microorganisms better than anything else as it degrades. It helps me reduce weeding (always a good thing to help with) and it reduces water loss in the gardens. I spend less time laying down the mulch than I used to spend on compost tea for more benefits.
All plant waste goes into the compost bins. They’re on their own and I clean them out every year or two. I add as much compost as I can around the plants.
Our mulched vegetable garden in the fall with a fresh layer of mulch over top of everything.
Compost activates the soil and mulch feeds the microoganisms. With the mulch doing its thing, I don’t really need anything else other than compost but…
Enter fish emulsion. This product contains an entire range of micronutrients that tomatoes need as well as being a great source of nitrogen – the engine of great growth. Follow the label directions in order to mix the right concentration. A little goes a long way.
Applying compost tea will bring your soil to life and fish emulsion will feed your plants the extra they require without getting in the way of developing soil microorganisms.
I feed my tomatoes at least once a week with fish emulsion and once a month with compost tea. Mind you, the last two years I’ve had brand new gardens on terrible soil and my main job was to try to improve the soil while – at the same time – obtaining a harvest.
There are now a range of organic fertilizers in liquid or solid form readily available in garden centers and any of these will work nicely. Frankly, any fertilizer is better than none 🙂 but I have a preference for organics and for fish emulsion. I’ve been using this material for over 30 years now and it grows a great crop (although it does tend to smell like fish) 🙂
Organic matter is the lifeblood of the soil, particularly for vegetable crops. Because this material is the food source for almost all soil microorganisms (from the smallest to the largest) good gardeners know they have to add it every year. After all, if everything in your garden is eating it, you have to keep replacing it. Think of it as feeding your kids. Only the soil microorganisms are going to be very grateful.
You can add several inches of leaves every year to the garden, keep a permanent mulch of straw or even add a half-inch to inch of peat moss (dig it in well) every fall. But whatever you do, whatever you use, you do have to keep the organic matter coming.
This is particularly true in more Southerly regions or those with sandier soils. The more heat you have, the faster the organic matter is eaten up by those natural processes. And the more you have to add. So even after a very hot summer here in USDA zone 4, I know I’m going to have to add extra organic matter going in the fall over and above what I’d normally add. And yes, I often add it in the spring because I’m too darn tired in the fall to do even more work.
A Booster System
If you’re not content with simply adding regular amounts of compost and organic fertilizer and want the real secret to producing massive crops, then this is the section to read. 🙂
The secret really is in the soil and how fertile it is. So I tend to make “super soil” in my raised beds. I add several inches of composted manure to these beds but I dig it in. The year the beds were constructed, 3 to 5-inches of sheep manure was laid down and the top soil put over top of that. It settled over the first winter, we topped it up with peat moss, dug the peat into the top soil and away we went. In subsequent years, I’ll dig in at least an inch of composted manure (double digging every second or third year in these raised beds) to make the bed full of “super soil”. This soil simply gets better every year with this kind of treatment and yields go up and problems go down.
That’s it. If you add copious amounts of compost and/or composted manure, you’re not going to believe how the tomatoes will respond.
But yes, you still have to water and care for them properly as well as great nutrition. Great soil covers up a lot of gardening “sins” but not all of them.
Click here for more practical organic vegetable gardening tips.