I received a whole flat of plant starts last night from Mrs. S. after church. We're blessed with four vigorous tomato plants: two Romas and two Early Girls. Because we live so far north, it's a challenge to get a good tomato harvest. Here are three tricks I've learned that allow us to harvest early and often.
When we lived in Florida we planted deep. Now that we're back in New England, we trench plant. The plant develops a vigorous root system in warm soil and produces tomatoes several weeks earlier than deep planting. There are two drawbacks to trench planting: drought and root damage when cultivating. Drought is rarely an issue, and I take care when cultivating. If you live in a drier or warmer climate, stick with deep planting.
- Dig a trench 3-4 inches deep the length of the area you're planting and sprinkle in compost.
- Water the tomato starts so the dirt will stay with the roots. Remove bottom leaves if desired.
- Lay the plants in the trench placing the top tier of leaves 18" apart.
- Place a 4" newspaper collar to prevent cutworms around the stem. 2" should be above the soil, 2" below. (Not pictured)
- Replace the soil, press firmly, and place stakes or cages taking care not to sever the stem.
- Water heavily for the first three days, and mulch with straw after 1 month.
Semi-Circular Root Pruning
This is an old-timer's trick that amazes me every time and works in every climate. Once your tomato has green fruit that has grown to full size, use a bread knife to cut a semicircle 6" away from the stem about 8" deep. Be very careful to avoid the main stem if you've trench planted. The tomatoes will ripen within a week instead of the 2-3 weeks it normally takes. The plants continue to produce and can be "root pruned" up to 3 times. The first time you do this, only do one or two plants so you can see the difference in how long they take to ripen.
Wrap the Cages
After placing the tomato cages, wrap black roofing felt or plastic up the first 12" and staple into place. The additional heat and wind protection will increase the yield by about 50%.
My first BLT or Caprese salad is definitely worth the extra fuss!
Update August 2012: I'm adding a 4th trick that made an enormous difference this year: Epsom Salts. Following directions on the package, work some into the soil before planting. When the first flowers appear, sprinkle salts around the drip edge of the plant and spray the foliage with 1 Tbsp. of salts dissolved in a quart of warm water. Re-apply spray every 10 days throughout the harvest. My tomato bushes are loaded -- over 40 fruits per plant!!!