Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Great Tomato Experiment

We all know tomatoes love heat and need at least 75 days to make that wonderful delicious fruit we all crave. My problem is that I just don't get enough heat in my micro climate to really grow to nice sized tomatos. In fact, the last two years, I didn't get to harvest any until late October! If it freezes before then, the whole tomato season is over in one night.

Determined to solve this and grow great tomatoes, I'm trying something new things this year. Like short season variaties that mature in 55-65 days.

And tomatoes in a bucket...

First, I acquired a LOT of food grade buckets for free from a local bakery. (Good for them in that they're recycling; good for me in that I can afford this project!) My husband cut the bottom off each bucket on a saw - can't remember... table saw or ban saw? Either might work.

Next he cut chicken wire in a square large enough to cover the bottom and continue a bit up the sides. Then he attached it with a staple gun. We didn't bother about the sharp prongs sticking out inside because they're way down at the bottom and it's not likely we'll be working in that area. However, he did use a round piece of lumber that he inserted into the bottom of the bucket to keep it from collapsing when he stapled. This just kind of helped it keep it's shape. Once stapled, he removed the wooden form.

Finally I dug a hole large enough to sink almost the entire bucket in the ground, leaving just the rim sticking up above. Before placing the bucket in the hole, I fluffed up the bottom of the hole and added a bit of amendment. After placing the bucket inside, I filled in around the outer edges.

Finally, I removed all the side leaves from the tomato plant except the very top set in order to encourage root growth from the stalk of the plant. Then I filled in with a mix of soil and amendment almost to the top leaves and added straw as a final step.

So now to explain the WHY behind this all...

Protection. First and foremost, I needed to keep the gophers from eating my tomato plants! They take the entire plant down into their hole if you're not on top of them. The chicken wire will eventually wear out, but not this season. It can easily be replaced in necessary.

We live with wind all year long (although my property is one of the least windy in the area). The sides of the bucket will protect the seedlings from high winds until they are a bit stronger.

Although rare, we've had snow as late as June on the mountain. Since I saved the lids, if we have a late cold snap and the plants are still short, I can just put the lid on to keep them warm (and maybe weigh it down with a rock).

Root growth. The open bottom allows for roots to go deep (as long as Mr. Gopher doesn't notice). If the bucket were closed, there wouldn't be a need to sink them in the ground. If you're gardening on a balcony, this will certainly still work, so go for it! But if you have the land, utilize it for mineral nutrients and maximum growth.

Heat. The plastic will help trap some needed heat! A friend used black buckets at first, but that cooked the plants, Later she tried the white buckets and was successful. So I'm hoping the bucket makes the tomatoes very snug and happy so they'll produce lots of big fruit!

Watering. Even as the plant grows larger, the bucket will act as a water well, concentrating the water right where it needs to be. The straw will help it from drying out (our summer humidity is usually around 10% - pretty low). It's important that tomatoes not get too much water, but rather consistant water, otherwise the fruit will get cracks. With a dripper down in the bucket, this will make for very efficient watering!

For support, I'm installing 6' metal posts - one between each bucket. Sturdy and strong, these will allow me to tie up the tomatoes as they get larger.

Perhaps not the prettiest planting arrangement, but I'm desperate! I think once the plant fills in, it will look a lot better.

And now I wait...

And dream of juice, ripe, homegrown tomatoes...

Updates forthcoming!

Have you ever tried this method? If so, please chime in with tips and let us know how successful it was!


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