Here’s the second part of our new gardenerd’s question:
“I buy organic and local produce here [in Paso Robles], but my heart’s desire is to grow most of my own veggies. I also want to do so organically, without using pesticides. I have tried the last two years with truly disastrous results and I’m really discouraged. I’m thankful I found this site as I’m hoping it will assist me in trying again. I especially crave homegrown heirloom tomatoes. I finally did 3 plants in pots last year and they had bugs galore and then this horrible rotten part at the end of the tomatoes. I also only got about 1 tomato per 2 to 3 weeks. I don’t think this is normal? “
Oh boy, do I love these kinds of questions! I get so excited, the answers all start spilling out of me at once. Okay, where to start? Here are my suggestions for happier tomatoes:
First of all, that horrible rotten part at the end of the tomato is called Blossom End Rot. You can help prevent this by throwing a handful of Epsom salts into the bottom of the hole you dig before transplanting your tomato plant. Not to bore you with the science, but Epsom salts help with the uptake of calcium, which is very important for the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant). I’ve read about other suggestions like crushing up eggshells around the base (I’ve never tried this), but given that you have a bug issue as well, you might want to keep the food items to a minimum.
Secondly, but quite possibly the most important thing, you have to start with good soil. Given that your soil is clay, you probably want to buy or make a good soil for containers with lots of moisture retaining properties. Also, tomatoes love acid soil (meaning the pH is somewhere between 6.2 and 6.8). Although, my tomatoes grow just fine in our neutral 7.0 soil. You can get a simple pH tester at your local nursery or hardware store. You can amend the soil with compost and acid loving fertilizers to help that along.
There are a few other possibilities to take into consideration when it comes to tomatoes. Here are a few:
Over watering is possible reason for your tomato problems. I know this is one of the hardest things to do, but you have to restrain yourself with the watering can. Tomatoes curl up in the hot sun as a defense mechanism. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that they are thirsty. Water tomatoes once a week, and when they set fruit cut back to watering every 10 days. Most people kill their tomatoes with kindness. Of course in 100 degree weather, you may have to water more often, but use the advice above as a guideline.
Temperature – tomatoes have trouble setting fruit (meaning that those flowers turn into tomatoes) if temperatures are above 90 degrees. The flowers can shrivel up and drop rather than setting fruit. To combat this, try planting earlier in the spring so that by the time to hot weather hits, you’re tomatoes are already set. I put my tomatoes in around the end of March and wrap the cage in plastic as an insulator. I keep the plastic on until June Gloom passes. The tomatoes are happy and thriving once the sun comes out.
Pollination – give your tomatoes a gentle shake every day or so when you start seeing flowers open. They are self pollinators, which means they don’t require insects to pollinate them, but they can always use a little help from you. Hold the plant by the main stem and shake it a little to help distribute the pollen. You may experience a better harvest in the end.
One final suggestion addressing your insect problem is to make sure you get good quality plants and soil to start with. Sometimes bugs lay eggs in the soil, sometimes transplants have diseases that we don’t notices when we buy them. Don’t let this discourage you. If you want to try some really good starts, I suggest Seeds of Change for Organic seedlings. Check out their site for a great selection of heirloom tomatoes and other great vegetables.
Good luck and keep us posted on your results!