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. 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 (I will get to that shortly).
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.. like literally… I am sure his thumbs are permanently stained green from all the planting he has done. ANYWAY– 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. Yayyyy! You should be totally excited about this… I know I am!
Ok — here goes. First, you start with a tomato “start”. Ask your local nursery what tomatoes grow best around where you are living, or get one of every kind and find our 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 plant grows, be sure to prune off any “suckers” (click here for more details on pruning away “suckers”).
Dig a big hole into your soil where you want your tomato plant to be. Think about 2 times 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” so 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 1/2 soil, 1/6 manure, 1/6, potting mix, and 1/6 alfalfa pellets… toss/stir to combine.
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 potted plant 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).
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 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 away 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 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.
3 weeks after planting (and every subsequent 3 weeks after that), gently cultivate 2 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.
So there you have it. The secrets to uncle Larry’s FAMOUS tomatoes.