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How to Grow Your Own Tomatoes

Once you have learned how to grow your own tomatoes, store bought quality just won't make the cut anymore.

The tomato is used in more sauces, canned in more soups, drunk in more juices—to say nothing at all about Bloody Marys—put in more salads, slopped on more pizzas, grown in more home gardens, and pinched, poked, and haggled over in more markets than any 10 of its closest competitors. Not a bad track record for a berry once thought to be an evil aphrodisiac.

However, the only way you're ever going to be able to sample the real thing is to grow it yourself. I was in a room recently that had been silenced by the sound of a store bought tomato thudding down on the table. The puny tomatoes that we buy in our supermarkets are picked off the vine while they're still green, and then artificially ripened on the long trip to the market. As a result, they often have a texture of old stockings and the taste of the cellophane they're wrapped in.

Unique Tomato Gardens

There's no reason why every American can't enjoy zaftig, juicy home-grown tomatoes. Here is everything you need to know about home-growing tomatoes, whether you're a veteran green thumb or a complete novice.

Last summer a farmer I know grew 230 tomato plants in exactly one square yard of garden space. He accomplished this spectacular feat by building a 27' tower spiked with planting holes, which he then filled with rich compost and fitted with a long perforated pipe down the center that he could water through.

Another somewhat strange tomato patch might just run you over if you don't look both ways before crossing the street. There's was a man in California I knew who actually grew tomatoes on top of his Volkswagen, which he drove all over town. The car roof was bashed in with a sledgehammer (intentionally) so that it formed a receptacle for soil, and four tomato plants were set in it.

Vertical and mobile tomato patches are by no means the end of tomato space saving innovations. Other ploys include container planting in apartment or house windowsills or in sky farms 50 stories above street level, land rental, and front-lawn use.

Making Your Own Tomato Patch

If you decide to rent land for a tomato patch, there is a definite procedure to follow. This varies from place to place, and you may be given a hard time, but if you're persistent, you'll find it was definitely worthwhile. In New York and other cities, it works this way:

Note all the street names and the numbers of the houses surrounding the lot you choose.

Go to the borough real-estate registry and consult the map that gives block, lot, and index or parcel numbers. From the deed index find the name of the deed holder, or contact the owner through the lawyer listed on the deed.

If the lot is city owned, a letter should be written to the commissioner of the department of real estate. Describe the project planned, give block, lot, and index or parcel numbers

The lease for the lot should be in writing.

Container Grown Tomatoes

Over 35,000,000 Americans live in apartments, and many more have no room whatsoever in the yard for tomato growing. But there's no reason why apartment dwellers and others without planting space can't harvest fresh garden-ripe tomatoes. Anyone with a windowsill, balcony, patio, fire escape roof, porch, or doorstep has space enough for a tomato mini-garden. In fact of all vegetables, tomatoes probably offer the largest edible reward for the time and effort spent in container gardening. Start a container garden by picking out the sunniest spot available. Remember that tomatoes ideally need at least six hours of sun a day-and then follow these steps:

  1. Container selection. The large containers in which tomatoes can be grown to maturity are only limited by the imagination. Following are some of the containers that have been used for planting bushel baskets, laundry baskets, metal pails, trash containers, plastic sacks, dishpans, wooden barrels, window boxes, large earthenware urns, wooden butter tubs, wine casks, wheel barrows, strawberry barrels, hanging baskets, plastic milk containers, and vegetable crates.
    Many gardeners construct their own tomato containers from redwood or cypress (which don't rot easily) or even from three-quarter-inch plywood. Others build permanent containers of brick, cinder block, concrete, or tile. Even a large plastic bag filled with planting mix can be used—it is just tied after being filled, laid down on one side, and two-inch holes are cut in it to receive two or three plants.
  2. Container size. What is most important from a growing standpoint is that any tomato container should be big enough for the plant it contains. Containers for small-variety tomatoes should be able to hold at least one gallon of soil—the equivalent of an 8" clay pot. For large-variety tomatoes use at least two-gallon-capacity sizes—about the equivalent of a 10" clay pot. For the rampant growers, the bigger the container, the better.
  3. Drainage. All tomato containers must have large drainage holes in the bottom and should be lined with broken pieces of shard, charcoal, or small stones, so that soil doesn’t leak out. Never set a container on the terrace floor, which will bake plant roots on hot days; Instead, set the planter on bricks or boards so that air can circulate beneath it.
  4. Coating wood planters. When building a wood planter for tomatoes, use galvanized nails or brass screws. Fasten two strips of wood on the bottom (one on each end) for the planter to rest on—this will help with drainage and air circulation. To preserve cheap fast-rotting woods, do not coat the inside with creosote, which can kill plants. Use either cuprinol, asphalt compound, or a quick-drying outdoor house paint. Lining planters with copper is an alternative, but it's expensive.
  5. A final cautionary note. Be sure that any window-box planter or hanging container is securely fastened. A window box with soil, for example, can weigh 500 lbs and can easily knock someone's head off if it falls to the street below. Always check with the building superintendent before installing any planter, and have a competent carpenter or handyman check out your plans if you're installing one off the ground at home.
  6. Soil for containers. There are many commercial potting mixes available for filling containers, but here are three do-it-yourself formulas:
    USDA soilless fertilized mix: To one bushel each of horticultural-grade vermiculite and shredded peat moss, add 14 ounces of ground dolomitic limestone, 4 ounces of 20 percent superphosphate, and 8 ounces of 5-10-5 fertilizer. This material should be mixed thoroughly with a little water to reduce the dust during mixing.
    Compost mix: Mix together 3 gallons of good soil, 3 gallons of compost, 2 gallons of builder's sand, and 1/2 pint of cottonseed meal.
    Soil mix: Mix 4 gallons of earth, 1 1/2 gallons of sphagnum moss, 1 1/2 gallons of builder's sand, 1 gallon of dried cow manure, and 1 pint of cotton seed meal.
  7. Varieties. Small Fry is excellent staked in a small container, as it grows about three feet tall. Tiny Tim, which grows only 8-14" tall, falls beautifully from a hanging basket, as does Toy Boy. All larger tomatoes can be grown in containers, too, as long as their containers are big enough—at least 2x2' containers are needed for the giant varieties.
  8. Planting and staking. Plant tomatoes in the same manner as you would set transplants into the garden. Stake all plants except small varieties that will grow in hanging baskets. Almost all staking methods can be adapted to container planting, e.g., a "tomato tree" can be made in a basket by using a cylinder of concrete reinforcing wire; The plants can be trained on trellises or tepees, espaliered to a stake made in an espalier form, etc. Staking will provide more room for plants to grow and they'll be easier to care for and far more attractive.
  9. Watering. Tomato plants in containers need about 1" of water a week and must be watered whenever the soil becomes dry down to a depth of 1/8". This means watering perhaps three times a week during hot, dry weather. Don't overwater, however, or you'll slowly drown your plants. When using a sprinkler, never water so late in the evening that the leaves of plants stay wet at night. This encourages plant diseases.
    If you want to be absolutely sure that water reaches the bottom of the container, insert into the pot a narrow pipe punctured with holes. It should reach from the soil line to the bottom of the container. Fill the pipe with builder's sand and pour water into it. This way water will always reach the roots.
  10. Fertilizing. The fertilizer in the soil mix will support plant growth for about six weeks. After that either use the USDA watering method for hanging baskets, or feed plants once a week with a solution of one tablespoon of water-soluble fertilizer per gallon of water. Be careful not to use too much nitrogenous fertilizer. If you want to use dry fertilizer, feed each plant one level teaspoon of 5-10-5 fertilizer per square foot of soil every three weeks.
  11. Sunlight. Remember that three hours of sunlight on one part of a balcony in the morning and three hours of sunlight at the opposite end in the afternoon do not add up to the recommended minimum of six hours of sunlight unless the plants are moved daily to follow the sun. Always move plants when possible to get maximum sunlight. If a plant is too heavy to be moved and has its back against a wall or other object blocking the sunlight, turn the container at least once a week so that the plant develops symmetrically and is well balanced.
  12. Pollination. If flowers appear on terrace plants but they don't set fruit, there may not be enough wind to effect pollination. Gently shake the plants once a day to remedy this.
  13. Diseases and pests. Container-grown tomato plants are subject to the same diseases, insects, and disorders as plants grown in the garden, and should be cared for in the same way. Weed the plants regularly watch them for signs of diseases, feed and water them, and they'll soon be bearing more tomatoes than you thought possible.
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