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There is nothing like the smell and taste of a homegrown tomato. The tomatoes that are picked green so that they will be ripe by the time they reach your grocery store 3 days later just don't compete. Fortunately, these scarlet (or yellow, or purple) wonders can be enjoyed by anyone willing to follow these 10 easy steps.

Remember that good preparation is the secret to successful gardening. Once the plants are in the ground, it is a simple matter of light and water and occasional weed and pest control. Making sure the ground is ready takes up the bulk of a good gardener's time. Steps 1 through 3 are all preparation. With mouth watering, eager for harvest, the impatient gardener often neglects these steps. Ironically, steps 1, 2 and 3 are crucial to a successful harvest. So, give your tomatoes a good start.

(1) WORK THE SOIL, whether mechanically or manually - at least 8 inches deep. Use some elbow grease. Take a couple of days to finish this step if necessary. It will pay off in the long run. Tilling or digging serves to aerate the soil so the roots can obtain water more easily. In other words, it is hard for roots to push through compacted soil.

(2) AMEND THE SOIL. Add some decaying organic matter. Fallen leaves, household compost, cow manure or horse manure are all good choices. Use only the manure of herbivorous animals, as the feces of carnivorous animals attract unwanted insects, not to mention they have a terrible odor. Work this organic matter into the soil well.

(3) CHOOSE SEEDS JUDICIOUSLY. Research what varieties do well in your area. Some questions to consider: Are the seeds from plants grown under organic conditions? Is the seed company reputable? What sort of resistance to disease does this variety have? Early or late harvest? When sowing seeds, follow label directions concerning spacing and depth to sow. The general rule is about as deep as the seed is wide. Keep the soil moist until seeds have germinated.

(4) PROVIDE SUPPORT for your tomato plants. Don't wait until the plants are already sprawling all over your garden space. The best technique is to use a wire cage. Simply staking the plants is not as efficient since tomato plants don't have one main stem, but many side stems that break easily if not supported. Make sure the spaces in the wire are large enough for your hand to reach through when it is time to harvest.

(5) MULCH, MULCH AND MULCH. I cannot stress the importance of mulch enough. Mulch serves as insulation for your precious tomatoes. It forms a mat above the soil that keeps roots warm when it might be too cold and keeps roots cool when it might be too hot. Mulch also conserves water by preventing evaporation of water from the soil. It helps prevent soil erosion as well.

(6) OBSERVE your plants every day. Even if it is not necessary to water or weed, go into your garden anyway and look at your plants. Notice if they are being eaten or if they are starting to look a little yellow. Are there any parts of the plants that look like they are dying? Are the plants wilting even though watered? Check for symptoms that may be corrected before they kill your plants.

(7) CORRECT SYMPTOMS PROMPTLY. It does not take long for a problem to get out of hand if neglected. Identify the bug you found crawling on your plant to find out if it is harmful. A good book on garden pests common in your area is a wise investment. Any organic soap is a good deterrent. Because it is organic, the soap will have to be applied more often than chemical pesticides. Make sure you reapply after a rain (even if you applied the day before).

(8) WATER OFTEN AND SPARINGLY - as opposed to drenching yours plants a couple of times a week. A light watering every day is preferable. This ensures your plants will not be water-stressed which can cause tomatoes to split. It is best to water early in the morning, or late in the day - never in the heat of the day when water will evaporate immediately.

(9) FERTILIZE once a week alternating between fish emulsion, molasses and seaweed. Or, buy a balanced combination of all three and use once a week. Nutrients are just as important to a plant's body as to ours. Follow label directions and apply using an attachable hose mixer/sprayer.


(10) PROVIDE A BARRIER AGAINST BIRDS. There's nothing worse than watching your first tomato slowly grow on your plant and finally turn red - only to have an old crow swoop in and snack on it before you can pluck it off the plant. Put some stakes in the ground around your tomato plants. Then, place some netting over the stakes. You can find the netting at most nurseries, or you can go to a fabric store and ask for tulle (pronounced like "tool"). Anyone who works in a fabric store will know what you are asking for.

Good luck!