My professor, David Lindquist,(in case there are any copyright issues here) emailed this to me today, so I thought I'd share with anyone out there who likes tomatoes.
Tips on Growing Large Productive Tomato Plants
1. Obtain an indeterminate variety tomato plant such as “Better Boy” or “Brandywine”. Determinate or bush varieties such as “Roma” or “Celebrity” are unsuitable since they produce only one crop of tomatoes and then stop. For really big plants, consider growing indeterminate cherry tomato varieties.
2. Plant the tomato in well-drained sunny soil. Give the plant some room for spreading roots. If drainage is poor, form a raised bed. The fertile clay soils of Ohio are improved by adding lime (abundant calcium is needed when growing tomatoes), a bit of Miracle Grow fertilizer or generic equivalent, and well-decomposed organic material such as composted manure or other compost.
3. Support - Place a support around the plant. The tomato cages sold in stores are okay for growing bush tomatoes, but useless for large plants. I use 6” x 6” square iron rebar mesh to make a cylindrical cage about 15 or so squares in circumference and about 5’ tall. Additional cages can be stacked as needed to support the plant as it grows. Alternatively, the vines can dangle over the cage after they reach the top.
4. Mulching - If the soil is cool, don’t mulch heavily, wait until the soil warms. You may consider a black plastic mulch to help warm the soil as spring this year has been cool. During warm weather straw mulch is good. Peel off thick squares from a straw bale and arrange like floor tiles around the plant. Straw is an excellent food for, and source of, beneficial protozoans (check out “hay infusion” on the internet). Because straw is light in color it reflects to give the plant more light from underneath. However, since it is reflective, straw also keeps the soil from warming up. Use good judgment. Tomatoes hate cold feet. Feel the soil with your hands. If it is cool, warm it up. When you water with the compost tea described below, the straw will gradually darken as it decomposes, which is a good thing.
5. Watering - Water the plant with dechlorinated water. If tap water is used let it stand in an open container for at least a day before watering. Chlorine is toxic to soil life. Do not let the plant dehydrate and wilt during the summer or you will slow the growth. Tomato foliage has a characteristic blue-green color when healthy. Don’t overwater, but a steady moisture supply is key to high growth rates. Water the roots not the leaves. Wet leaves invite pathogens to set up shop.
6. Compost Tea - Brew some compost tea. There are many variations on brewing methods detailed on websites. There is a lot of interesting chemistry and ecology involved in making and using compost teas that will be described in the book I am writing. Here is one method to make an aerobic compost tea. Get a small aquarium pump (about $15 in a pet store) and a length of hose and some hose connectors to run three line branches from the pump. Use twist ties to attach some large screws or other pieces of metal on the end of the hose lines to weigh them down so that they will stay underwater. Arrange the hose ends in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket and add about 3 gallons of water. If tap water is used, run the pump for a half-hour or so to remove the chlorine. Add compost to nearly fill the bucket. Composted manure is a second choice if compost is not available. Brew the tea for 2 days with the pump on. If the weather is cool brew an extra day or so. During brewing, aerobic bacteria and protozoans will multiply. If you want, you may boost the microbe populations by adding a handful or two of a source of sugars and amino acids at the beginning of brewing. Examples of complex sugars are molasses or barley malt. Protein powder, such as ingested by athletes, is an example of a good source of amino acids. There are many options. Soluble fertilizers may be added. Simple sugars such as cane sugar can be used as an additive, but more diverse beneficial microbe populations are cultured using more complex sugar sources. After brewing the tea should have a pleasant earthy smell. Water the plant with the tea. If you let the tea settle to clarify somewhat you can then put it in a sprayer and spray on the leaves. Although wetting the tomato leaves when watering generally is not a good idea, the tea contains beneficial compounds and microbes, which warrant its use on the leaves. Give the tomato plant tea often, about once each week, throughout the growing season. Sneak some soluble well-balanced fertilizer in on occasion and add lime again towards later summer.
7. Training - Train the growing vines up the outside of the cage for maximum sunlight by tying them to the cage. As a tomato plant grows, new branches (i.e. suckers) form at leaf nodes. Allow at least six or more vines to become established on the plant for training. Once you are satisfied with the number of vines, remove any new suckers that emerge so that energy of summer goes into producing fruit on the main vines. Remove the new suckers when they are small (about an inch or so long) so as not to injure the plant. Don’t remove flower clusters, leave them on to form fruit. As the plant gets large, you will have to remove suckers on a daily basis. This task is not unpleasant since you will be tending an impressive plant. When the plant reaches the top of the first cage, lash another cage on top and get out a step-ladder to train the growing vines.
8. Pest Control - Squash bugs will eventually find your Garden-of-Eden and start sucking on the tomatoes. Their damage is evident as lighter spots on the fruit where they have sucked out the juice. They emit a characteristic foul odor when crushed. To catch them by hand, come up from under the tomato. The squash bug’s natural defense is to drop, so you will not catch them as easily from above. Another method is to place a wooden board in the garden, which will have squash bugs under it in the morning. A 1% mild dish soap solution sprayed on the fruit is very good deterrent for squash bugs. The soap masks the surface of the fruit from detection by the chemical receptors of the bug. The soap film must of course be reapplied after rain. As the weather cools in the fall, the tomato plants will become stressed, an invitation for aphids to take up residence Aphids are easily controlled by knocking them off the plants with a stream of water from a garden hose.
So, maybe that'll come in handy...if I get home early enough I might try some of this out. I hate tomatoes that aren't in the form of ketchup...but my parents like them, so I might give it a shot.