Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tomatoes - 3rd Time's a Charm?

"It's time to plant your tomatoes when you look up at the mountains, and you see leaves on the trees at the very top" - Gardening wisdom from my husband's grandmother

As both of our families are from Appalachia, my husband, Brandon, and I have many family members who grow, can, and preserve food. It's amazing the wisdom you can learn from them. They don't go by charts, calendars, or detailed websites. Their knowledge has been handed down from generations before them who relied on growing and preserving their own food to survive. I've found their advice more valuable than Google!

Although I, too, spent most of my younger life in small town Appalachia, I downplayed my country roots for many years. I was focused on my education and my career, and I set my sights on living in a city where I could pursue these dreams.

In recent years, however, I've surprised myself by taking an interest in going back to basics and trying my hand at gardening. I suppose this was for several reasons. I love the taste of fresh vegetables. I like learning new things and doing things myself. While I'm not super picky on being 100% organic all the time, I like knowing that the foods I eat are local and don't have a ton of preservatives on them.

However, it's time to be honest with myself. My prime motivation is salsa. Yummy, fresh, spicy salsa. I don't need a complicated recipe - tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, and a little lime juice. I suppose I love it so much because it combines my love of fresh veggies with my love of spicy foods. The key is it all has to be fresh.

As you can see, and probably already know if you live in this part of the country, the trees on the mountaintops have had leaves for a few weeks now.  Yep, we're a little behind on planting our tomatoes, but I don't think it's too late! According to this article, you can plant tomatoes as soon as nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees. I haven't found a deadline on when it's too late to plant. Since the 8 weeks it takes tomatoes to mature will transpire before it gets chilly in fall, I think it's still okay.

The problem is that we don't exactly have a great track record in the tomato raising department...

Year 1

We tried two options :
  1. In-ground garden next to house with herbs and jalapeno peppers. The soil near our house isn't great (it's kind of a red clay), and it gets a lot of drainage from a slope in the backyard. The herbs and peppers were hearty enough to deal with it, but the tomatoes didn't dig it. The tomatoes were fresh and delicious, but we only got a few, very small tomatoes.
  2. We also tried using a Topsy Turvy. The plants were bigger than the in-ground plants (likely due to the rich soil we put in the bag), and that method looked very promising. However, we had a huge windy thunderstorm that summer. It tossed the Topsy Turvy around, breaking the plant. If you try a Topsy Turvy, I highly recommend bringing it inside during storms!

Year 2

We tried in-ground in the same spot, but the hot dry summer didn't bode well for us. Again, only a few, small tomatoes.

Year 3

This time, we're starting over, and starting small. We have only purchased 6 tomato plants, and we're trying a new method - a raised bed. Since the soil and drainage in our yard is so poor, we decided this method might be the best for us. After a weekend of running, family time, and a little outdoor fun, we took Memorial Day off and start our raised tomato bed.

Here's how we did it:

  • We bought supplies - We headed out in Brandon's truck, and purchased the following:

I love B's truck. Makes me wanna roll my windows down and cruise (I love the song, "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line)! I even sing, "Brandon's Mitsubishi without a lift kit looks a whole lot better with me up in it!" Now you know how much of an odd bird I am.
    • A 4'x4' raised bed kit, found at Home Depot.
      • We started small on size, but the kit is expandable if we want to grow the garden next year.
      • There are many plans out there to build your own, and it's probably less expensive that way. However, this was so easy and for the most part didn't require tools.
      • The kit was about $40. I know, you're thinking, "those are going to be expensive tomatoes!" As a business nerd, I prefer to think of it as a capital expenditure that could last more than one year, not a component in the unit price of the tomatoes.
    • 5 bags of organic soil (I prefer to use the organic kind) to fulfill the almost 8 cubic feet of soil required (as provided on the raised bed kit package) 

    • 6 tomato plants
      • We started from plants. I know starting from seeds and later transplanting seedlings is a more natural process that gives you more control. Perhaps we try that in the future, but for now, we're keeping it simple.
      • We purchased tomatoes by Bonnie Plants. I'm new to learning about GMO's, and I'm admittedly not knowledgeable there. However, Bonnie states on their website that their plants are not GMO.
      • We chose two kinds of tomato plants to try:
        • 4 plants - "Rutgers Heirloom", a good canning (i.e. salsa) tomato according to the label
        • 2 plants - "Big Boy", Brandon recommended it as a classic slicing tomato
    • Because the soil in the raised bed isn't compacted, it only required a small hand spade to dig the hole for the tomatoes. We already owned one, as well as gardening gloves to wear.
  • We found a flat, well drained spot, and put together the raised bed.

This was child's play for my handyman, B. I helped too (I promise!) but I was the one taking pics.
    • Because the herb garden next to the house doesn't drain well, we chose a flat area farther away from our house above the slope in our backyard.
    • I wasn't kidding when I said that the raised bed kit we purchased was easy. It basically consists of dovetailed planks that fit right into corner posts. It took less than 10 minutes to set up!
  • We filled the raised bed with all but one bag of soil. Time to get dirty!

I'm not afraid to get dirty. With gloves on, of course. :)

  • We planted the tomatoes.

    • We dug holes with the spade, and gently placed the tomato plants in those holes. We placed 2 rows of 3 plants in the 4'x4' space to give them plenty of room.
    • The "Big Boy" plants were in a biodegradable package that could simply be transplanted entirely into the soil.
    • The Rutgers heirlooms had to be gently lifted from a plastic carton and placed into the ground
    • We covered the plants with soil.
  • We opened the last bag of soil, and used it to cover the plants even more.

And now we're off! I can taste the salsa now! Although this is what we did to begin, the work is far from over! Here are our next steps:

  • Set up a cage around them. Tomatoes need to be secured against a stake, cage, or other structural element to stay off the ground. We have a couple of cages from last year, which we plan to use once the plants are a little bigger.
  • Water regularly with watering devices. A friend of mine who is a true Appalachian and avid gardener and homesteader recommended I try using these watering devices. They stake into the ground, and you can place a liter sized plastic bottle into them. They water only the roots and keep the leaves dry (as recommended).
  • Mulch the area. I plan to use grass/straw clippings collected after mowing to hold moisture into the soil.
That's it! Fingers crossed that this year our tomato plants will thrive and I can make fresh salsa from my own garden! Any advice for me as I take on this endeavor again this year? What are your success tips?


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*As I referenced, my poor track record makes me a novice gardener at best. I'm simply sharing what I'm trying, and hoping it will work!


  1. This is helpful! I'm not anywhere near being able to grow a garden, but it is on my bucket list when I have a home with an actual yard someday! I always remember my mom growing tomatoes in a pot in the backyard. Nothing better than fresh veggies from your own dirt! I hope you have tomato success this year!

    1. Thanks, Alicia! Pots are a great option, too, even on a patio. I agree, nothing better than a fresh tomato from the garden. Hope this helps when you're ready to begin a garden of your own. :)