Although tomatoes are a favorite among gardeners, they can be tricky to grow, especially if you’re averse to using pesticides. You can be pretty sure the ones you see in the supermarket have been doused in toxic substances multiple times during their short lifetime. But hey, one of the pleasures of home gardening is to have fresh, pesticide-free vegetables.
I’ve grown tomatoes in various places with different climates and soil conditions, including the hot steamy lowlands along the Costa Rican-Panamanian border, the cool highlands of Costa Rica, Connecticut, and South Carolina. In each place I’ve had to relearn how to grow them. Connecticut, by the way, was the best place, in my experience.
Gardening in Costa Rica
When growing tomatoes remember these basics:
- Tomato plants like lots of sun
- Tomato plants are heavy feeders, so you will need to fertilize them several times
- Most tomato plants are vining varieties, so you will need to provide some kind of structure for them to climb on
- In Costa Rica, most tomato varieties grow best at middle elevations, say between 2,000 and 4,000 feet.
Following are some tips and tricks for growing tomatoes. If you know some tomato secrets, feel free to share them with the rest of us.
For years I knew Epsom salts were good for soaking sore feet, but I had no idea they were useful in the garden. The scientific name for Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate. In Costa Rica it is called sal Inglaterra. Why sal Inglaterra? Well, the city of Epsom is located in England, so the name in Spanish makes sense. Sal Inglaterra is sold in small packets at most pharmacies. Magnesium sulfate is highly soluble in water, so in climates with heavy rainfall (such as Costa Rica) it tends to leach out of the soil quickly. Plants need only teeny tiny amounts of magnesium, so in most climates it is not a problem, but if your soil lacks magnesium, then plants can become sick and unproductive. Tomato plants lacking magnesium develop blossom end rot. I mix Epsom salt in a watering can at the rate of about one tablespoon per plant and water my tomato plants with it about every three weeks. Here is a link to using Epsom salt in your garden: http://www.saltworks.us/gardening-with-epsom-salt.asp Lack of calcium also contributes to blossom end rot. I recently discovered a product at our local agricultural co-op that contains high amounts of both magnesium and calcium. It is called Surco Mejorador. Unfortunately it is only sold in 50-pound sacks. I bought one and use it on everything in the garden. Here is a link to blossom end rot: http://bonnieplants.com/library/conquer-blossom-end-rot/
I use hay mulch around my tomato plants in the dry season. In Costa Rica, a bale of hay is called a paca. As you have driven around the countryside you may have noticed signs that say PACAS or SE VENDEN PACAS. Now you know what it means. Buy a couple of bales. Using mulch around your plants keeps down weeds and helps retain soil moisture, very important in the dry season. Uneven levels of soil moisture during the growing season is another contributor to blossom end rot. Also, mulch helps prevent fusarium wilt, a fungal disease very common in tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The fungus is in the soil and is transmitted to the plant when leaves touch the ground or when soil is splashed up onto the plant during rainstorms. Pruning the lower leaves and branches also helps prevent fusarium wilt. Here is a link to tomato diseases and how to prevent them: http://www.tomatodirt.com/fusarium-wilt.html.
ROMA AND CHERRY TOMATOES
Those big fat juicy tomato varieties are wonderful, but more difficult to grow than smaller varieties. I don’t know why, but it seems to be true. So I generally grow roma varieties. Although romas are regarded as cooking tomatoes, when they’re fresh from the garden we’ve found them to be wonderful in salads and sliced on sandwiches.
AN ASPIRIN A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY
Who woulda thunk it – aspirin for tomatoes? Some people say it aids the plant in fending off diseases. Mix one regular strength aspirin in one gallon of water, add a dash of liquid dish soap and spray it on you tomato plants every two to three weeks. Who knew? Has anyone tried this? Here’s a link: http://thegardenersrake.com/gardening-tip-give-your-tomato-plants-an-aspirin
PRUNE THE LEAVES
Last but not least, here is some advice from reader Salli Skinner-Meacham: “I had a lot of leaves/branches on my plants and wondered if they really needed all of those. Internet research brought me to a website from a Polish son/grandson relating how to get more tomatoes from the plants. The upshot is: take all the bottom leaves off the plant and only leave the top three. If the leaf is bent down to the main stem it will snap and then with a little twist come right off. I have cut some off that didn’t want to break, but as close to the stem as I can get. This allows the plant to get more air/oxygen/sun. Tomatoes will then grow from the stem. It does work. I went out and sheared a lot of my tomato plants & then kept track of them to see what would happen. New buds came out of the stem. Amazing. I will continue this practice with tomato growing. The plant looks a little naked but it just took me awhile to get used to it.”