Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tomatoes in Trenches

A combination of factors resulted in lanky tomato plants this year. It's hard to provide enough sun for the young plants through a window. Ours is east-facing, so they get a blast of sunlight in the morning, then reflected light for part of the afternoon.

This year, though, the weather has been unusually cool and rainy, so the plants have spent more time indoors. Straining to get more sun, they grow taller and spindlier. Now that planting time has finally arrived, I've decided to try a different technique for transplanting them into the garden. Instead of digging a deeper hole to accommodate the taller tomato plants, I'll be planting them in trenches.

I dig a hole about 18 inches long and 8 inches deep. I've placed a plant, still in its pot, inside the hole to give an idea of scale.

Next, add plenty of compost to the trench. The idea is to create a kind of earthen ramp inside the hole, where it's plenty deep at one end to hold the root ball, then grows increasingly shallower toward the leafy end of the plant.

Lay the tomato plant inside the trench so that the topmost leaves have several inches of clearance from the soil surface. Tomatoes have the admirable ability to form roots all along their stems. Covering most of the stem with soil will result in lots of roots.

Cover the length of the plant with a mix of soil and compost, carefully bending the leafy end up and clear of the trench. Tamp the soil down around the plant to eliminate any air pockets. Soak the area with water.

The final step is to mulch around the tomato plant. I like straw. I like the natty look of straw in the garden. I like the fresh farm aroma. This year I'm trying the mulching method Charles H. Wilber describes in his book, How to Grow World Record Tomatoes. Wilber holds the Guiness record for tomato production relying on compost, lots of space between his tomato plants and straw mulch. He's grown plants almost 30 feet high.

Wilber cuts blocks from straw bales and lays them tight one against the other around the tomato plants. A thick layer of mulch holds moisture in the soil and suppresses weeds. Wilber recommends partially rotted straw to help feed the tomatoes.

I don't have any partially rotted bales of straw on hand. I bought two new bales from the farm supply on a trip to Annapolis. I used my fork spade to cut blocks about two inches thick from the end of a bale, and arranged the blocks around the plants in a square. The straw blocks make a tidy garden bed, and the only thing left to do is install the cages I made last year from concrete reinforcing wire.


Laura said...

I'll be interested to see how this works for you. Mine got similarly tall this year with spending 2 extra weeks inside. I ended up digging holes more than a foot deep. I think this would have been easier.

Think the straw from the chicken coop would be too hot for the mulching technique?

Ed Bruske said...

Laura, the straw from your chicken coop sounds ideal for a compost pile. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so it might be ideal as a mulch, leaching nitrogen when it rains and helping the starw to break down. Why not give it a try?