Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 1)

It's the time of year when I start really craving tomatoes. It's been months since I had a flavorful, juicy tomato, and the mealy pink things in the grocery stores right now just won't cut it. The good news is that we can start prepping now for a season of plenty.

Like all good growing, the most important thing to focus on is soil. You won't have good crops unless you have good soil. Wherever you're growing, it's a good idea to add fresh compost to your tomato beds each year. My favorite kind of compost to use is cotton burr compost. We have it in abundance here in Memphis, and I get the best results from it.

I also highly recommend double-digging your beds. (You can find my instructions for double-digging here.) Tomatoes need ample space for root growth, at least 12-18 inches. Don't think you have that kind of top soil? Double-digging helps create it! The photo below shows one of my raised beds. The foreground has been left alone, but the background has been double-dug. You can see from where my hand is that I've added four or five inches of soil space just by double-digging. Mixing in your compost amendments and loosening the lower layers of soil help the plant's root zone access essential nutrients that don't move around through the soil, like phosphorus. Aerating your soil helps water flow through your soil instead of puddling on top, which helps prevents the spread of disease.

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

After you've got your soil plan in place, it's important to figure out what kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. If you aren't interested in starting tomatoes from seeds, please consider shopping for your tomato starts at your local farmers market. Plants that you purchase at big box stores are often chemical-laden and stressed. I've seen plants at those stores with hiding aphids and early signs of disease. Buy your tomato starts from the farmer whose tomatoes you like the best. That way, your starts will probably also come with some good, region-appropriate advice. 

Here's what you should know about before selecting your tomato plants:

  • Do you want an heirloom or hybrid? Heirloom tomatoes are often beautiful, but they are much more susceptible to disease. Hybrids are often grown to be resistant to certain diseases. If your tomato patch has suffered from disease pressure in the past, I recommend going the hybrid route. 
  • You should also decide if you want indeterminate or determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes flower all at once and are more compact than indeterminates. They usually bear fruit over two or three weeks, then begin to die. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing vines and flowering and thus require more staking, pruning, and support. 
  • Most importantly, what kind of tomatoes do you want to eat? There are cherry, beefsteak, sauce, plum, and grape tomatoes, and each one of them has their own culinary personality.

I start all of my tomatoes from seed. Personally, my three favorite varieties to grow are from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and they are Celebrity, Tiren, and Red Pearl. They're all hybrids. I like to grow hybrids, because we have heavy pressure from fungal infections in our muggy climate. I plant my seeds in 50 cell 1020 trays filled with Pro-Mix and put them under grow lights. I plant my seeds four to five weeks before I plan on planting them outdoors. I water them lightly every single day. They can germinate beautifully in trays without the use of fertilizer, but they need feeding about three weeks after germination. At that point, I soak each cell with a diluted fish emulsion mixture.

You should only start your tomatoes from seed if you can commit to lightly watering them every day. Consistent moisture is crucial while they are in trays.


This should be enough to get you started! I'll follow up tomorrow with information about how to transplant, fertilize, stake, and harvest. 

Tell me about your favorite tomato varieties! You can leave a comment here, or tell me all about them on one of my social media pages

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

The Great Pumpkin Challenge, Part One: Double Digging

One of the best things about growing for a school is the freedom to explore and learn about new crops right alongside my students. This winter, I got a bee in my bonnet to try out a crazy crop I've never grown before: Dill's Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, the granddaddy of all giant pumpkins. 

I love the whimsy of a giant pumpkin. It brings to mind images of Hagrid's garden or Cinderella's carriage. There's a problem, though. I have horrible luck with all plants in the squash family. Growing without the aid of synthetic chemicals, I can only get one or two early rounds of squash from a plant before I'm beaten my two greatest nemeses: squash bugs and squash vine borers. To be honest, I'm a little nervous about growing a pumpkin at all, much less the world record-holding species for size and weight. Go big or go home, right? 

If everything goes well and I actually produce a pumpkin, it won't be ready until fall, but it's time to start the growing process now.

Healthy plants come from healthy soil. Last summer, I added about ten cubic yards of pure cotton burr compost to this raised bed. Over the fall, I grew radishes, beets, mustard, chard, lettuce, spinach, and turnips in it. I got too busy and ran out of time to plant a good winter cover crop, so I just mulched unused areas of the bed with straw. (Healthy soils want to be covered at all times!)

Here's what the bed looks like now.

I've started to rake away the straw mulch that I used over the winter in order to double-dig this behemoth of a bed

Double-digging is a soil preparation technique associated with the Biointensive growing method. According to Ecology Action, double-dug beds "aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, and improve water retention." Soil fertility is maintained through the heavy use of compost.

To get started, you measure off the area that you want to dig. I'm starting with a 2 x 20 foot section. I set out flags to show divide the area in 2 x 2 foot squares. 

Before you dig, please make sure that the area is free from water or gas lines. 

mary riddle double digging

Start with your first square and shovel the top 12 inches of soil into a wheelbarrow. Then, take a pitchfork and loosen up all of the newly-exposed soil underneath. I don't move on until I can sink my pitchfork in 12 inches without effort.

Move on to your next square. Shovel the top 12 inches of that square into the empty hole you just created. Again, take your pitchfork and loosen the exposed soil. Repeat that process with square after square. When you reach the end, fill the final hole with the soil waiting in your wheelbarrow. 

To ensure that I'm not compacting the soil when I'm working in the beds, I stand on a plank in order to more evenly distribute my weight through a larger area. 

I've got a lot more of this bed to finish. This is an intense workout, so my back demands that I take my time. I'm getting started now so that I can be ready to transplant pumpkins into the bed by Zone 7's April 15th final frost date. 

Stay tuned. You can follow along with #TheGreatPumpkinChallenge on my social media pages

Keep your fingers crossed for me! 

Mary Riddle

Look at that nice, fluffy soil! Now where did I put that Instagram filter that removes all those weeds?

Look at that nice, fluffy soil! Now where did I put that Instagram filter that removes all those weeds?