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We have used this “recipe” for growing tomatoes for YEARS and it has never failed us. We always have the best, biggest, juiciest tomatoes on the block!
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Growing up, we had the best home-grown tomatoes every summer. I assumed that all home-grown tomatoes were as good as ours… until I realized they weren’t. Ours really were THE BEST in texture and flavor. Our tomatoes were always bigger, juicier, and more flavorful than everyone else’s… and I’m not just saying that. When we were younger we never realized the effort it takes to getting perfect tomatoes and that there is actually a “recipe” for growing tomatoes… and even a SECRET INGREDIENT. Follow our advice and your home garden will yield the most delicious tomatoes filled with nutrients and flavor!
Our History of Growing Tomatoes
Ok, so I am getting way ahead of myself. Let me go back and begin by telling you about our Uncle Larry (a.k.a. the best gardener ever). Our Uncle Larry always has an IMMACULATE garden. He is a gardening genius. He has worked for years in the National Parks and knows anything and everything there is to know about any living (and non-living) thing in nature. Every time I hear him speak, I am blown away with his vast knowledge. He is truly one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.
I have so many fond memories of going with him on hikes and learning tons of different facts about everything around me. (Can you tell the difference between a fir, a spruce, and a pine just by looking at ONE of their needles? I can — thanks to him). He has studied and taught about gardening and really does know all the tricks to getting plants to grow. It’s like he has 10 green thumbs — literally. I am sure his thumbs are permanently stained green from all the planting he has done. Years ago, he shared his secrets with our parents, who passed them on to me, and now he is allowing me to share his secrets with YOU. Yay! You should be totally excited about this. I know I am!
Getting Started Growing Tomatoes
First, you start with a tomato “start”, seedlings, or transplants. Ask your local nursery what tomatoes grow best around where you are living, or get one of every kind and find out for yourself after the first year (Last year we tried a bunch of different varieties and we had the best success with our Early Girls and Sun Golds). Before planting, trim away the first row of stems sprouting near the base of the plant to encourage better growth. As your tomato plant starts growing, be sure to prune off any “suckers” from the main stem (click here for more details on pruning away “suckers”). You’ll know the plant needs pruning when the leaves near the bottom are yellow.
Some Popular Tomato Varieties
- Indeterminate Tomatoes: Big Boy, Beef Master, Black Prince, German Queen, most cherry tomatoes varieties and most heirloom varieties.
- Determinate Tomatoes: Ace 55, Amelia, Better Bush, Biltmore, Heatmaster, Heinz Classic, Mountain Pride and Patio.
Time to Plant
Dig a big hole into your soil where you want your tomato plant to be. (Think about twice the size of the plant you are planting.) Take half of the displaced soil and place it in a bucket. Now this is where it gets a little tricky because your “recipe” will be slightly different depending on the size of your hole. This isn’t measured in cups as much as it is measured in fractions.
You are going to make a planting mix with 4 different ingredients. The soil in the bucket is half of the mix. The other half of the mixture is made of equal parts of manure, potting mix… and the secret ingredient which is… you ready?… alfalfa pellets (like what you feed to horses). Tomatoes LOVE THIS STUFF. I I don’t know what it is (our uncle Larry could probably tell you) but for some reason it makes all the difference. Yes. Alfalfa pellets.
So.. your recipe is ½ soil, ⅙ manure (or fertilizer or compost), 1/6, potting mix, and ⅙ alfalfa straw pellets. Toss/stir to combine.
Just Add Water… and Miracle Grow
Water down the hole a little bit so the soil is damp before you place the tomato in. Plant your tomato in the middle of the hole so the top of the pot soil is an inch or so lower than the soil in your garden. Fill in around the tomato plant with your “planting mixture”. Once your tomato plant is nice and snug in it’s new home, water it down with some Miracle Grow for Tomatoes (as directed on package).
More Alfalfa, Please
Spread a handful or two of alfalfa pellets around the base of your tomato plant and water regularly.
Once we plant our tomatoes we use milk cartons (see picture below) with the tops and bottoms cut out to protect the tomato plant from pests and weeds while it is still young. Once the tomatoes grow up about 6″-8″ above the carton (so about 18″ in height, total), we carefully cut the carton off of the plant. This is when we place a tomato cage over the plant (carefully).
As your tomato plant grows, use stakes or long dowels to support the weight of the branches, vines, and fruit. You do this by putting the stake/dowel through the tomato cage and carefully placing the stems/branches over the top of it, allowing the stake to take some of the weight off the branch. Also, as you can see from the pictures, we place a black plastic sheet in our beds that trap the heat. Tomatoes love “warm feet.” If you decide to do this, it is easiest to lay down the sheet before planting and cut holes where you want the tomatoes to be planted.
Tips and Tricks to Try
Three weeks after planting (and every subsequent three weeks after that), gently cultivate two handfuls of alfalfa pellets around the base of your plant (you can just use your finger tips for this. You don’t want to get it too deep) along with about 2 Tbsp. of Vigoro Tomato & Vegetable Garden Plant Food plus calcium. The added calcium to the tomatoes will help prevent against splitting and cracking, as well as bottom rot or blossom end rot.
Frequently Asked Questions About Growing Tomatoes
Early to mid-May is the best time to plant tomatoes – after the last frost of the spring. Tomatoes hate the cold so any frost could kill the plants.
The third week of July is usually our cut-off for late growing season tomatoes.
As we mentioned above, alfalfa pellets are our secret ingredient to amazing tomatoes.
Read Next:Best Canned Tomatoes from Italy: How to Find the Best and How to Spot the Knock-offs
What To Make with Fresh Tomatoes
So there you have it. The secrets to uncle Larry’s FAMOUS tomatoes. If you ask me, it’s time to use these ripe tomatoes in the kitchen!
I know this post is old, just want to chime in on your comment about “bottom-rot”. It’s blossom end rot, putting fertilizer with calcium, egg shells, gypsum or using a calcium-mag fertilizer is great for the garden but the problem is the tomato plant is having trouble getting calcium to the fruit (usually occurs in large tomatoes or heavy producer). They sell blossom end rot spray that you spray the tomato fruit, leaves. Putting gypsum around top of ground will help a little but the spray will work if your soil is depleted or you have huge tomatoes you don’t want to lose. Helps peppers also. Hope this helps.
I am so glad someone wrote this recipe to grow tomato’s. Our recipe is a little different. We lived across the street from the Chesapeake bay and lived to fish. my mom would send off to Campbell’s soup people and they would send her ( looked like veena sausage cans with a pop top.) and she would water them when they got so tall she would transplant them. My grandpa had a 250 acre farm and 11 children. Mom always said he had workers not kids. Mom knew how to plant crops and when she got married had a big garden. She would dig a hole put three eggs (cracked) , and Epson salt in the hole and a whole fish then cover that with dirt. She would Alfalfa pellets and put that on the dirt. She said Grandpa would grow Alfalfa and use that. Then she would water that really good then another layer of dirt. Plant the tomato plant and fill dirt around the plant. She would use 1 Tablespoon of Epson salt to water the plant good. Mom always had the best garden of anyone we knew. Her tomato’s from Campbells grew so tall and meaty and huge!!! She used the Epsom salt and Alfalfa on all of her Vegetable’s and Epson salt on flowers also. S he would water her plants with Epson Salt ( 1 tablespoon per gallon of water) She had the biggest Roses and house plants!
I was at a nursery one day looking for flowers. I heard a lady that worked there tell a lady if she wanted to learn how to make Miracle Grow and the lady said “YES that stuff is so Expensive” The owner said Epson Salt but if you want it to look like Miracle Grow use food coloring. I just smiled.
Wow thank you so much for sharing your Mom’s story with us! That sounds amazing!
I love your story and the tips. We have not had good luck with our tomatoes. Looking forward to trying this next year. Thanks Lynn
Our tomatoes are not producing. We are 72 years old and we have always had enough tomatoes to feed an army. We have plenty of blooms. We need a miracle.
I’m so sorry! That is very discouraging. I hope you do get a miracle. The blooms are a good sign, maybe they are just coming late?
You probably don’t have enough pollinators. I self-pollinate my tomatoes with great results. Flick your fingers quickly in and around touching your tomato blooms. This simulates bee activity and will help your tomatoes pollinate. Has made a huge difference for me when I have low bee activity.
Are alfalfa pellets and alfalfa meal the same thing? Would you use them in the same way if they are the same thing?
I HAVE A HUGE CRop of tomatoes grown in a cut off barrel; however, the birds and chipmunks seem to think they are grown for them. I have tried attaching balloons, old cds, and plastic to no avail. A neighbor gave me a small piece of netting which will work if only I can find more. I purchase 2 kinds of netting but the openings are too big. I need some thing fine enough but easily moveable and tall enough to cover–about 5 feet high.
Hello I had the same problem until I bought 2 plastic owl. I pit them on long tomato stakes and put them in and around and no more problem. We did not even put the fence up this year. Hope this helps
16 April ’17
Thank you for your response back on Apr 11.
I read it also great to use Epsom Salt (Magnesium Sulfate) . Is it ok to use Epsom Salt along with Alfalfa pellets?
Appreciate your response.
9 April ’17
I love your story and the tips. I have been growing tomatoes for many years but always love the hear new ideas, new products, etc. This the first time I have heard of using Alfalfa pellets. I love to try this. You also mentioned using Vigoro Tomato & Vegetable Garden Plant Food plus calcium. Can this Viogoro plant food be used with most ORGANIC Garden Soil (Espoma Garden Soil) ?
Appreciate your response !
Thank you very much! May Wong, Petaluma, CA
Hi May, I don’t think Vigoro is organic… they may have an organic type but I don’t believe the original is. The alfalfa pellets are the secret ingredient! You will be surprised what a difference they make!
Interesting article. However, you lost me at “Miracle grow”.
You are free to use organic plant growth products. I know EcoScraps offers them
Miracle grow is a brand of plant fertilizer.
Hi Jane. I have a bumper crop of tomatoes this year when everyone around me did not. I have been canning tomato preserves tomato juice and and spaghetti sauce. This winter we will be enjoying them.
My mom was raised on a 250 acre farm. My grandpa used Epson Salt and Alfalfa and it grew the biggest and best Tomato’s , Vegetables and flowers! the old farmers knew what to use. Epson Salt is Miracle Grow just without the color! Try it you will not be sorry!! Trust this lady she knows how to grow everything!!!
Try Tractor Supply or any good feed store for alfalfa pellets.
Where do you buy alfalfa pellets? I don’t think that I have ever seen them. Can you get them at a garden center or a pet store? I really want to try this! Thanks for the post!
you can find them at a ranching-type store. We have a place called D&B here but if you have like a Cal-Ranch you can find it there too. There is a good chance you could find them at a pet store as well. If I were you I would just call around. I bet you will find them right away!
Erica, I’m so happy to see this! But I have a very important question, what kind of manure is Uncle Larry using? There’s chicken manure, cow manure, pig, goat, rabbit, etc. (you get my point). Each kind is different and stronger or weaker than another. Which kind is he using?
Hi Cory— we used steer manure.. I honestly don’t know if there is a difference between them :S Miss you guys! We need to hang out soon! 🙂
Love your article/recipes. How does Uncle Larry keep stink bugs off of his tomatoe plants?
Stink bugs? I can’t say we have had a problem with stink bugs before. I will have to ask him!
Then consider yourself fortunate. It’s an imported pest from Asia. They destroy the flavor of a tomato. They inject an enzyme into the fruit which partially digests it, then they suck it out. Your produce will be covered in tiny holes and will be discolored…sort of a yellowish hue around the tiny, pin-prick holes.