Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Are You A Ground Grower?

If somebody asked me what's the trick to good tomatoes, I'd say, "Consistency and dirt."

Consistency because tomatoes need regular care, and if you want a decent crop, there's really no substitute for developing the good habits of a tomato grower. (More on this later ...)

And dirt because it's the foundation upon which your whole season is built. Last year, I tested out a few fancy soil supplements in side-by-side experiments. I wanted to see if I could take my tomatoes to the next level, so I tried a micronutrient foliar spray and a probiotic soil drench. I have no doubt these are great products when used in the right settings, but I personally didn't see a difference between the plants I supplemented and my control plants grown under almost identical conditions (minus the supplements). At first, I thought the problem was me—maybe I just didn't know how to use the stuff.

But in a series of emails with the guy who developed one of these products, he suggested another reason: my growing conditions were already almost optimal. There was very little room for improvement, so he wasn't surprised to hear that I didn't really notice a difference. Basically, he was complementing my dirt.

Before we get into dirt, though, there's one point I want to bring up about growing in containers versus growing in the ground. You can great tomatoes either way, but there is a caveat: growing in the ground in South Florida isn't necessarily easier and does present a few challenges.

For one thing, our soil is loaded with nematodes. These tiny little organisms attack a plant's roots and cause a condition called root knot. Basically, growing in the ground means racing against the nematodes: you want to get a decent harvest before the plants start to lose vitality and your harvest is affected.

And nematodes aren't the only issue. South Florida has several kinds of native soil, including the mucky marl in western suburbs (which can be quite fertile) and the sandy soil in the east (which is lousy for growing anything). In general, though, our native, unimproved soil is not great for growing vegetables. The sandy soils don't drain especially well, and they tend to be deficient in nutrients. Tomatoes don't like this. As a result, plants grown in sandy soils tend to produce earlier, but smaller and less mature, fruit than plants grown in better soil.

I started growing in the ground, and I did pretty well. But over time, I gravitated to large containers for tomatoes (and I mean really large containers, like 25 gallons). Why? Because I realized I was treating the ground like a large container ... I was digging out big holes, then backfilling with the same soil mix I use in containers. Eventually, I just decided to skip the digging and go straight to containers. I haven't been disappointed yet.

So ... if you're planning on growing in the ground, you can still get great tomatoes and hopefully, I'll still have some helpful tips as we go forward. But I would definitely recommend against just plopping your plants into the ground without first improving the soil—trust me, you'll end up with a lot better plants with a lot fewer problems with just a little bit of preparation.

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