Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting Started

Good Morning Gardeners!

With the bad weather we had yesterday in Alabama, I'm glad I got my tomatoes in the ground on Saturday. It's also nice to see them get a free watering. In general, my spring planting marks the end of any rain until fall. You see, my dear little plants don't seem to like that icky free water that falls from the sky. No, they like the expensive, treated stuff that comes out of the hose. One year while I was at the beach and the phone rang. "Hmm, who is calling me at the beach?", I thought. It was the water department asking if I had filled a pool that month. That's how much water I had used trying to keep my plants alive. It was a very dry year. How embarrassing.

Anyway, as I was planting my tomatoes, it occurred to me that some people might like some advice on how to do it. Let's cover the basics...location, bed preparation, cages, watering, fertilizer, plant selection and planting.

1. Location. You need a nice sunny spot. I mean REALLY sunny. Tomatoes can't get too much sun. They like it really hot.

2. Bed Prep. I live in North Alabama where we have heavy red clay soil. Millions of years ago, this whole area was under water. The space and defense industry brings people here from all over the world, and they always think our soil is awful. Honestly, it's good soil and just needs a little help to be great. I have a raised bed, which many people find tempting to fill with nothing but glorified potting soil. Do not do this! You need your native soil, even in a raised bed. I used about 70 - 80% red clay, amended it with peat moss and compost (I don't make my own, so I like mushroom compost from the home improvement store) and then tilled it really well to mix it in. Make an effort to learn what the soil in your area needs.

3. Cages. You need good cages to grow tomatoes. I just do not like those spindly things from the hardware store. If you were only going to grow a three foot tall plant, that would be fine. I have higher hopes than that. My cages are six feet tall, really sturdy and collapse flat for storage. Email me if you want specifics. You can see them in the picture. It is also popular to make them out of sturdy chicken wire. Something galvanized that won't rust. As the plants grow, you can tie them to sides of the cage for support. You can use pantyhose or something else soft, but I prefer the velcro type stuff.

4. Watering. If you live in dry area, watering is critical. Tomatoes like regular water so their skins don't split. I have a special hose that runs down the middle of my bed, that you can also see in the picture. It is made so that you can push little sprinkler heads into it wherever you need them. You can get this in the home improvement place in the same area where they have the underground sprinkler systems. I think this is sturdier than just drip hoses, but the water is just an inch above the soil, so it's similar in function. You don't want to water most vegetables from above, because wet leaves can lead to diseases.

5. Fertilizer. All soil is different, so you might want to get a test kit to see what your soil needs. Plants need three basic nutrients...nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. My red clay soil is plentiful in all but the nitrogen. Before I plant, I just sprinkle a good amount of blood meal over the soil and turn it in by hand. This provides slow released nitrogen all season. What you DO NOT want to do with veggies is load them up on quick release nitrogen fertilizers all summer. What you will get is all leaves and no fruit whatsoever. In fact, if you have been plagued by big, healthy-looking plants with no fruit, that is most likely the problem. And herbs just, straight up, thrive on abuse. Don't over water them, never fertilize them. Treat them like you want them to die and they will grow like crazy just to spite you. I love herbs.

6. Plant selection. Some things are easier to grow than others. If you are just starting out, let me suggest onions and radishes. Seriously, anyone can grow an onion. And it's great to have fresh green onions in the summer. Potatoes are also easy. I grow heirloom tomatoes, which are supposed to be fussy, but I don't think so. Black Krims are a great choice. In general, cherry-type tomatoes are "indeterminate", which means they keep growing all season, as opposed to growing to a certain height and stopping (which are "determinate"). A really easy cherry type is the Yellow Pear tomato. Honestly, this is more like kudzu with fruit. Mine have always gotten huge and tend to spread to nearby tomato cages and the fence. Your neighbors will love you when they find bags of these on their doorsteps. Hot peppers, like jalapeno and cayenne are also easy and fit in well with tomatoes. Herbs are also easy, and they are so expensive in the grocery store, you'll be glad you did. Beware the mint. It is also super invasive.

7. Planting. Most plants need a hole big enough to sit in where the soil comes up to where the stem meets the dirt in the pot it is already in. Tomatoes and peppers are different. They will form roots all along the stem, where it touches the soil. In the photo of the tomato plant in the hole, you can see that I pulled off the bottom set of leaves and planted it several inches deeper than it was in the pot. The other is what it should look like after you put the soil back around it and tamp it down well. (How did these pictures end up on their sides? I have a lot more to learn about blogging!) This is a beautiful plant from Tasteful Garden. The plant will send out roots along that stem and it will be stronger and healthier. One last note is to give your plants a little breathing room. I always plant something between my tomatoes (like alternating them with basil or hot peppers), instead of having them right next to each other. The plants can spread diseases from one to the other if they are touching.

Go good luck with your planting. I hope I didn't make it sound too complicated. It really isn't. You just need a little knowledge and some good hardware to start. Just jump in there and you'll figure it out. There is so much information available, you'll have lots of resources to help you.

"Till" Next Time,



  1. Good morning Lori! I just saw your comment above that "potatoes are easy". I'm trying to grow potatoes for the first time this year and I'm wondering already if I did something wrong with my banana fingerling seed potatos. They had very tiny eyes and almost invisible sprouts when I put them in the ground. Should I have let them get sprouts before planting? I think I put them in about two weeks ago. How long before I should expect to see something coming up out of the ground? I have 6 left that I didn't plant and I pulled them out of the fridge and put them in a bowl in the window. I figured I'd let them sprout and then try again to plant them if the others don't come up....I have some sweet potatoes on thier way from Johnny's seeds, and I'd like to correct anything I've done wrong before I put them in the ground too. Thanks! I'm in Southeast.

  2. I had to laugh at your "tomatoes like it hot" They actually hate it here after about the end of May and we kind of struggle to give them shade and keep them cool.