Happy Monday, my frugal friends! Today we feature a post from our blogging pal Cameron over at Thrift Hounds. Cameron shares on his blog funny and inventive ways to save money and live frugally. And as a bonus, his wife has an awesome food blog. 🙂
There’s probably still a snowstorm or two on the horizon here where I live in Denver before summer arrives, and yet I – like you, maybe – am already already obsessing over how to coax as many pounds of tomatoes as possible out of my beloved tomato plants this year.
Tomatoes, like zucchinis, have the reputation of surprising gardeners with more produce than you thought possible (to the point where you start bribing reluctant coworkers to take them off of your hands).
In fact, most gardeners are ecstatic to get 10 or 15 pounds of fruit out of each plant.
But with some careful planning and maintenance, you can push your plants to produce up two or three times that amount.
So, if you’re serious about canning a serious arsenal of marinara sauce, peeled tomatoes, pickled tomatoes, Chipotle Salsa, and/or chow-chow this year, here are four tricks that will put your tomatoes into overdrive, whether you’re growing them in containers or on a homestead:
Maximizing Your Tomato Yield
Invest in Quality Seed
Do not, under any conditions, buy whatever Lowe’s or Home Depot is trying to sell you.
Instead, call up your local agricultural extension or garden club and ask about the next plant sale or tomato seed swap. Different species of tomatoes produce dramatically different results depending on where you live, and your local university will be happy to point you towards varieties that produce abundantly in your particular climate. Here in Colorado, some tomatoes that do well in the Midwest or back East tend to choke, while other varieties (particularly “black” Russian tomatoes) thrive.
Knowing what species fit well with your local growing conditions particularly matters because poorly-selected tomatoes can be especially vulnerable to disease. According to the Colorado State Agricultural Extension, there are a number of nasty bacterial, viral, and fungal threats to healthy tomato plants: fusarium and verticillium (soil fungi which cause stems to wilt), and tomato spotted wilt virus (which causes weird-looking rings on both leaves and fruit, as well as reducing yields), among others.
If you live in a wetter climate, you might have to contend with blight, which has caused many a tomato lover’s dreams to go up in smoke like a Ford Fiesta taking a hard left turn.
The easiest cure for sickly tomatoes is prevention. Buy quality seed!
Select heirloom varieties–ones that were originally selected and time-tested for disease resistance. When you talk to your local agricultural extension, ask what tomato varieties they developed before 1950. Victory Seeds, Baker Creek, or another well-respected heirloom seed company might likely carry what you’re looking for.
It’s All About that Mulch
If you’re a hard-core tomato grower, you’ve probably seen ads in garden catalogs for an entire rainbow of plastic mulch colors, all promising you’ll have tomatoes coming out of your ears because of how they bounce different wavelengths of light back onto the plants to spur growth.
Most old, cantankerous gardeners I’ve talked to – and most garden catalogs – swear by red polyethylene mulch. However, a study at Penn State found that blue mulch actually produced the heaviest and most abundant fruit. Weird, I know.
At any rate, any hue of colored mulch will practically double your tomato yields, according to the Penn State tomato geeks. Even black plastic works pretty well, so steal some trash bags from under the sink while your spouse isn’t looking, tear some plant-sized holes in it, and mulch to your heart’s content.
If you want to avoid plastic products, hunt down some organic mulches that replicate the color you’re going for. At minimum, avoid bare soil or skimpy mulching, which will severely curtail your tomato harvest.
Chill Your Seedlings
I first read about tomato vernalization–the process of chilling a seedling promote initial flowering–in Nancy Bubel’s indispensable book, The New Seed-Starter’s Handbook. She claims that dropping night temperatures to 50 or 55 degrees around tomatoes started from seed can dramatically increase initial flowering and ultimate yields.
If you’re going to take this route, which remains somewhat contentious among home gardeners, try it for 2-3 weeks when your plants are 1-2 inches tall. Jamming them in a cool corner of a basement or even sticking them outside (depending on the weather) will work.
Trick Out Your Root System by Using the Trench Planting Method
When they’re ready to transplant their mature plants into the garden, most tomato gardeners dig a big ole hole for their plant, mix in some compost, maybe snip the bottom set of leaves off of the plant, then bury it deep in the soil.
These gardeners are stifling the gigawatt potential of their tomatoes.
Tomatoes can grow deep root systems quickly from just about anywhere on their stems. And to capitalize on that ability and help your roots feed deeply and broadly into the soil, try this method instead.
Dig a trench about as long as the height of the tomato plant you’re setting out in your garden and about six inches deep. Take your tomato plant out of its transplant container and moisten the roots so they don’t dry out, then lay the plant gingerly sideways in the trench so its top set of leaves juts up and out at a very slight angle. Then fill in the trench with a mixture of soil and compost and water liberally.
Let it hang out for a day or so and you’ll notice that the plant will start to curl up towards the sun, anchored by a rapidly sprawling horizontal system of roots that will provide a dramatically improved system of nutrient and water delivery from the soil.
I’ll be featuring other tomato hacks later this growing season, including ideas on caging, fertilizing, and crop protection. I want to thank Rick and Laurie for the opportunity to share these ideas as a beginning blogger just getting my feet wet, and for the incredible wealth of frugal resources they’ve shared with their readers over the past few years.
Good luck this gardening season, frugal farmers!
Cameron T. is a high school English teacher, dad, husband, experimental gardener, intractable penny-pincher, and fiscal avenger who blogs at www.thrifthounds.com. Recently, he wrote about his quest to find the cheapest high-performance toilet paper in Denver.