Because of the onslaught of “organic” foods and their benefits, many gardeners are interested in organic vegetable gardening. With rising prices at the supermarket, organic vegetable gardening is an affordable solution as well as practical. A little preparation and dedication will produce what the gardener is sure to consider the best tasting vegetables!
Growing tomatoes is perhaps one of the easiest tasks in an organic garden.
Depending on what area of the country you live in, tomato seeds should be started indoors approximately 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. If you live in an area with a short growing season, consider starting your seeds indoors 8 weeks before the final frost.
To start seedlings, purchase small pots, flats, or peat pots. My personal favorite is the peat disc. The peat disc comes as a small circle about a quarter inch thick. When the disc is immersed in water, it expands to form a little planter. The peat is held in place by fine mesh, and the seed is inserted in the top. When the seedling is ready to plant outside, the entire peat disc is inserted in the soil. The beauty of the peat disc is no loose soil – it is all contained by the fine mesh.
Grow your seedlings in a well-lit area. If you don’t have access to growing lights, keep your seedlings near a sunny window for at least six hours a day. In preparation for moving outdoors, place a fan nearby and lightly blow air across the plants. The fan simulates the idea of wind and strengthens the plant stems.
Before moving your seedlings outdoors, prepare your soil. Tomato plants thrive in well-drained, nutritious soil. The best organic fertilizer is aged manure. Be sure to use aged manure because fresh manure contains too much nitrogen and will kill most plants. Manure can be purchased at gardening centers or obtained from local farmers. Some people are concerned about the odor of the manure. If the manure is properly aged, the odor will be almost undetectable. Plus, once the manure is worked into the soil properly, the odor disappears. The next choice for fertilizer in the soil is a well-rounded gardening soil or potting mix. Some soils are labeled “for organic vegetable gardening.” Obviously, those would be the better choice over regular soils.
To prepare your organic garden area, work the manure or gardening soil into the ground. How far down should you dig? Remember that tomatoes are deep-rooted plants, meaning that their roots will grow deep so you want your soil to be deep as well.
If your garden area is flat, tomatoes will grow better on soil mounds because they allow better drainage for the plant. To create soil mounds, dig a large circle between 8 to 10 inches in diameter and approximately 4 to 5 inches deep. Mix the manure / gardening soil into the dirt dug from the ground. Continue adding and mixing the manure / gardening soil until you have a heaping mound about 4 inches high. Plant the seedling on top of the mound. The mound may seem a little high at first, but over time with watering and weather elements, the mound size will lower.
Ideally, tomatoes grow best on a hillside because of natural drainage. If you are preparing a garden on the hillside, dig trenches about 6 to 7 inches deep and work the manure / gardening soil into the trenches. Allow the soil to mound an inch or so above the starting dirt level. Plant the seedlings in the trenches.
For container plants, make sure you use a pot no smaller than 5 gallons. To encourage drainage, add a bottom layer of rock to the pot. For the soil, choose a well-aerated soil and one that tends to not become denser with watering.
Watering: Water plants at the base at least every other day, and water from the top of the plant washing the leaves at least once a week. (Watering from the top provides extra nutrients to the leaves and washes off potential pests.) Because the plants are deep-rooted, make sure the watering time is long enough. Do not allow your tomato plants to wilt. Wilting causes undue stress on the plant and may reduce tomato output. Container plants require watering once a day, if not more depending on the heat level.
Mulching: Adding organic mulch to the base of the tomato plants helps to regulate soil temperature and prevent water evaporation. Organic mulches are grass clippings, leaves, bark, or pine needles. Some gardeners also use newspaper. Mulch should be added after the soil temperature has warmed up, preferably not when the seedlings are planted. Waiting about a month after planting is usually sufficient, depending on the geographical location.
Sunlight: To insure high yield on your plants as well as tasty fruit, make sure the plants receive a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day.
Pests: The purpose of organic vegetable gardening is to avoid using chemicals. When it comes to controlling pests, sometimes this seems almost impossible. The key to controlling pests is to eliminate them as soon as they appear. If you can see the pest, remove it and squish it.
The first step to avoiding pests on your tomato plants is to place the plants far enough apart that they will not be touching as they grow. The second step is to stake your plants and not allow them to trail on the ground (see “staking” below).
Common pests for tomatoes are mites, aphids and stink bugs. Mites love hiding under the leaves in dry, warm areas. Spray a garden hose underneath leaves every week or so to dislodge the mites and wash them away. Aphids can be washed off as well and particularly dislike soap. If you have an aphid problem, consider recycling your bath water or dishwater to eliminate the aphids. Gently pour the water over the plant, wetting all leaves and the stem. Stink bugs are the most difficult to get rid of and may require the use of a commercial pest control product.
Staking: As tomato plants grow and begin to produce tomatoes, the weight of the tomatoes pulls the branches and stem down. Plants should be staked at a young age so they are accustomed to staking. The options for staking are plant stakes, wire cages or trellises, all available at local garden centers. If using a plant stake, carefully insert the stake into the tomato mound and avoid damaging roots. A wire cage can be placed around the outer edge of the mound. Remember that some tomato plants grow taller than 6 feet so make sure your staking object is tall enough!
Once your stake, cage or trellis is in place, take a piece of rope or a 1-inch wide strip of fabric (cut up rags from the rag bag work great) and wrap it around the stake. Gently hold the tomato plant upright if it has begun to travel along the ground and loosely tie the rope or fabric around the stem. Don’t try to get the plant totally upright on the first try. It is better to tighten the rope / fabric over a couple of days rather than all at once. As the summer progresses and the plant grows taller, continue tying it off every 8 inches or so.
Harvesting: Harvest your tomatoes when they are beginning to “pink.” Look for tomatoes that are green with a hint of orange red. Pick the tomato and place it in a sunny window for ripening. Leaving the tomato on the vine until it is completely ripe encourages bugs and birds to feast on the tomatoes.
At the end of the season, before the first frost, pick all of the tomatoes from the plants. The ripe tomatoes will keep for about a week in the refrigerator. The green tomatoes can be stored in a box and covered with newspaper for up to six weeks. Periodically check the box and remove the tomatoes that are starting to ripen. Allowing a ripe tomato to remain in the box will encourage other tomatoes to ripen faster.
Growing tomatoes in an organic vegetable garden can yield excellent results. Some plants will yield extraordinary results. If you have more tomatoes than is humanly possible to consume, consider canning your harvest or selling the tomatoes at a local farmers’ market.