Okay, so this is about tomatoes. But why now? We've only begun to get them started, right? Well, there are some things that are good to know ahead of time... way before they get big enough to bear fruit.
For example: Planting garlic and marigolds next to your tomato plants right from the start helps to ward off bad bugs. Had I done this last year, I totally could have spared myself the trouble of using the aphid buster. Each time I sow at least two garlic cloves per tomato plant, and try to surround the entire bed with marigolds, I can sleep easy at night knowing they are protected.
Another good thing to remember ahead of time is to save your eggshells. These can be ground up and sprinkled around the base of the plant as it begins to fill out the tomato cage. Why? Tomatoes (and some squash) are susceptible to that nasty blossom-end rot and the calcium in eggshells helps to prevent it. Even if you forget and a rotted spot turns up, just add at least one ground shell per plant and with each watering, it'll slowly go away. Really! The plants will be stronger, the fruit meatier, and everyone will thank you for it.
Now, as the plant starts to reach around a foot tall, what's the first thing that always happens? It wants to put out fruit. While I love the fact that it works so hard to produce, I can't let the little momma do it yet. Why? It doesn't allow for a strong plant, which is the foundation of a great producer. So as soon as you see the first flower buds, pinch them off; and do so for at least 2-3 weeks. The plant will get the hint and stop trying to make fruit for a while. Then it will concentrate on growing. What you'll end up with is this:
These tomato plants tower over their supports... and me! I'm a mere 5'2" and the supports (plus the boxes) are around the same height. But they don't just tower, they fill! The stems were super strong and the plants completely filled the entire space. And for the record, these are NOT your basic Home Depot, hybrid-monsters. We planted Cherokee Purple, Copia, Purple Russian, Amish Paste and more. These plants (being heirlooms) are typically... well... small, temperamental and delicate to say the least. The garden above is in a community garden lot, and the sis and I had many other plot owners coming up to us wondering how our plants grew so large. Someone mentioned "shocking" and another talked about "compost teas" and all we could say is that we did none of that. We simply pinched off the first flowers.
Once the plants turn back from bearing fruit and concentrate on getting strong, it will seem like they've forgotten that they have to make tomatoes altogether. You probably won't see a hint of a flower for some time. But trust me, when they get back to it you won't know what hit you. You'll harvest baskets and baskets of fruit all the way until the very end.
This is the same view as the previous pic, but widened out to show you the last two tomato plants we put in. Somehow, neither of us were able to pinch the flowers in time. (Different schedules, things come up you know?) They started putting out fruit almost from the beginning and though healthy, they didn't grow as large as the others. Not even close really. But in the end, does it matter?
I think so. We picked at least 5 times the amount of tomatoes from the larger, stronger plants. I've been growing my tomatoes this way for at least 4 years now and I won't do it any other way.
Well, I hope this helps. If anything, try it this way with just one plant and see if there is a difference. I have a feeling you'll be convinced...
Tip: Trouble with hornworms? Very little stops these guys like your own two hands. Just pick them off as you see them, walk over to the chicken coop and throw 'em in. Watch your chickens go gaga over it and have yourself a good chuckle. Squeamish about touching them? Keep tongs in your garden bucket and you're good to go! Your tomato plants will reward you for it.
Tip: When it comes to watering think about the stage the plant is in. If you can divide the life of the plant into 3 parts, the first is right before it puts out fruit (water as normal; making sure it isn't too wet or too dry), the second is during the major production (step it up to deeper watering), and the third is when things begin to wrap up (cut way back). Keep an eye on the color of the leaves which is your clue to what it needs. A visitor asks, "What do you mean by deeper watering?" Well, I would like to answer that with a link to someone who can say it much better than I. reclaimgrowsustain.com While I don't use the method they've suggested (I just stand there longer with my hose) I do agree that tomato plants appreciate deep watering.
Update: It is mid-June (2013) and my tomatoes are growing strong! 4 of the 7 plants have reached 5 ft and all (finally) have tomatoes starting. This is when I expect to see non-stop production until the end of the season.
I stuck a yardstick next to the plants to show how tall they are... and I don't think we're done yet. Wow!