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Tomatoes: The Secret Recipe

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By Lilias Pettit-Scott

What would you say if I told you the secret to growing amazing tomatoes involves fish heads?

About six years ago, I was working at Love Apple Farm in Santa Cruz, California, with farmer Cynthia Sandberg, an expert of the pommes d’amour (the French refer to a tomato as the love apple). Cynthia grows over 100 varieties of tomatoes with an “ingredient concoction” she came up with to provide all the necessary nutrients tomato plants need to produce delicious fruit.

You see, tomatoes are finicky plants. Bethany Pratt – Jefferson County in Kentucky’s Extension horticulture agent – refers to them as the diva of the garden. But you can’t beat a homegrown tomato, so I’m going to let you in on a little secret so you too can grow the BEST tomatoes!

Below is the recipe for amending Cynthia’s garden beds in Northern California. Be sure to test your soil before adding any amendments to be sure you have the right fertilizer ratio. Your soil will most likely not need the same type or amount of fertilizer as hers.

Start by amending the garden bed. For a 50 square foot space add:

  • 2 wheelbarrows of compost
  • 5 quarts of 4-6-3 tomato, vegetable, and herb fertilizer
  • 1 quart of worm castings
  1. Remove a wheelbarrow of soil if you need to.
  2. Evenly distribute all of the above amendments over the top of your soil after any weeds have been removed.
  3. Turn the soil over and mix in the amendments as deeply as possible. Use a spade fork, they are the best tool for the job!

Now you are ready to prep your tomato holes. Layout your garden, determining where you will plant your tomatoes. Dig a 1.5-2 foot hole where your tomatoes will be planted (this depth is necessary when using a fish head so critters don’t dig it up). Make sure to space the tomatoes apart by at least 2 feet, 3 feet is optimal.

The Recipe

  • Big Fish Head or Fish Parts (no bigger than a salmon head)
  • 1 handful Bone Meal
  • 1 handful 4-6-3 Fertilizer
  • 1 handful Worm Castings
  • 2 Aspirin Tablets (non-coated)
  • 1 tablespoon Humic Acid
  • 2-3 Crushed Eggshells
  • 1 pinch Mychorrizal Fungi sprinkled on root ball

What is all of this for? Let’s start with the fish head:

The fish provides a slow-released source of nitrogen and calcium as it decomposes. You can sub out fish meal if you can’t get your hands on a fish head. The bone meal is an excellent source of phosphorous which is essential for blossom production. Tomatoes are known as heavy feeders and the additional fertilizer and worm castings ensure the tomatoes have enough macronutrients. Believe it or not, aspirin aids the plant in building a healthy immune system. The salicylic acid in aspirin is a hormone produced naturally by plants when they are under attack. Humic acid promotes microbial activity in the soil, increases water retention in sandy soils and promotes water drainage in clay soil by improving the tilth of the soil. Eggshells are an additional slow release form of calcium and more calcium helps to prevent blossom end rot! And the mychorrizal fungi forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant. Living on its roots, it helps the plant take up nutrients.

Once you have all of your secret ingredients in your planting hole, remove the tomato from its pot and set it in the hole. You want the tomato’s stem to go halfway into the hole so if you need to add soil to make that happen, do so now. Clip off any leaves that will be covered by dirt and then add a scant gallon of water to the hole on low pressure. Then begin to backfill the hole with soil leaving a depression or well at the top. Water 2 more times that first day.

If you are growing indeterminate tomato plants with this recipe they will most likely grow taller than you. Be sure to provide proper staking for the plant. Good luck and send us pics of your tomatoes!

Lilias Pettit-Scott is the urban agriculture conservationist for the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District in Kentucky. She can be reached by email at urbanagconservationist@gmail.com.

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