You’ve decided to create a container garden of one or more containers, or are using raised beds. You have the containers/beds…but what do you fill them with? As I mentioned in my tomatoes in containers post, it’s time to talk soil.
Ready Made or Mix Your Own?
To be honest, I would rather go with pre-bagged, if I could find exactly what I wanted, in the amounts I needed, at a good price. Given that I am still trying to fill something along the lines of 15 containers from 5 to 25 gallons each, that doesn’t quite work out — for me or the plants. For that kind of quantity, quality bagged potting soil can be expensive. However, if you are just filling a couple of 5 gallon containers, bagged potting soil might be just right for you.
The most important thing for container plants is that the roots have enough water and air. In order for water and air to penetrate the soil, it needs little spaces to slip into.
As a somewhat exaggerated example, it’s almost impossible for air and water to penetrate much into concrete. However, water and air pass easily through gravel. (Although I don’t recommend trying to grow in either, LOL.) 😉
So what you are looking for is soil that has enough space for air and water, but not so much that water pours right though it. Just keep thinking about Goldilocks and getting the mixture “just right”. 😉
Potting Mix, Garden Soil – What’s the Difference?
A potting mix is made especially for growing plants in containers. A bag of garden soil, though, is made to be mixed in with your current soil — not just placed in your containers without any intervention.
A good potting mix is fluffy, with plenty of perlite or vermiculite and sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir (in addition to compost, of course). Garden soil tends to be heavy, with little or no perlite, vermiculite or moss/coir. Putting the bagged garden soil into your containers without lightening it up some will doom your plants to a slow death. Or at the very least, a much smaller harvest, because the plant roots have a hard time breathing.
What About “Mel’s Mix”?
Mel Bartholomew, of Square Food Gardening (SFG) fame, recommends the following mix. Although I don’t use the SFG method with the grid, etc., I do like the basics of his soil mix. It is:
- 1/3 Compost
- 1/3 Vermiculite
- 1/3 Peat Moss or Coconut Coir
The catch is that the compost needs to be from several sources. In other words, look at the ingredients that go into the compost you plan to use. If you’re not making the compost yourself (and maybe even if you are), you don’t want everything to be from one source.
For example, instead of buying 3 bags of compost that are all based on cow manure, you would want a bag of the cow manure-based compost, one of humus-based and another of poultry litter-based.
That being said, if you can’t find compost made from varying ingredients, try to at least get some from different manufacturers.
BTW, I do recommend reading Mel’s book, the All New Square Foot Gardening, Third Edition.
Well, there are other “goodies” you can use to feed your soil, but that is a whole separate post. I’ll come back and put a link to that post when I have it completed. I am doing some experimenting, and so far the results have been quite interesting.
Mixing it Up
I typically mix my contain gardening soil up in a wheelbarrow — those 20 gallon pots really take a lot to fill them up! But sometimes, I only need to make up enough for a small planter.
For a small batch, I get one of those 5-gallon buckets (like you can get at Home Depot or Lowes) and scoop in a few trowels worth of compost. Next I’ll put in a trowel of vermiculite, another of perlite and then a scoop or two of coconut coir. I’ll mix that around with my trowel until it’s nice and blended, then pour it into its pot.
If the pot doesn’t end up being quite full enough, I’ll just throw in a handful or two of each of the above, then mix it all up by hand.
Compost is Your Plant’s Friend
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little more about compost. If you have your own pile, you have ready access to it, and it’s probably full of all sorts of goodies for your tomato plants. If you don’t have a compost pile, you’ll need to go with a bagged compost.
When you walk down the aisles of your garden center, you’re likely to find several different brands of bagged compost. Take a look at the bags and read the ingredients. In Florida where I live, it’s heavy on the composted cow manure — believe it or not, we’re one of the top states for producing cattle (and you just thought we were beaches). What’s harder to find are composts from forest humus or mushroom compost. Read the labels, and if you can, get at least two different kinds. Each type is a little different with the (good) soil bacteria and/or (good) fungi, and so provides a more balanced set of nutrients.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all you need in your container is compost, though — it’s a bit too heavy (been there, done that). You will need to mix it with one or more of the perlite, vermiculite, etc. before planting your tomatoes in it.
For the few times I’ve planted in straight compost, the plants didn’t do so great. Yes, they grew and produced tomatoes but they seemed didn’t grow or produce as well as the containers where I had a mix.
Whew — that was a long post. Hopefully this has been helpful for you!
If you’ve been gardening for awhile (and maybe if you’ve just started), you’ve likely heard about something called “compost tea”. It’s organic, good for your plants and acts as a fertilizer. And while you will have to make it yourself, it’s pretty easy. Want to learn more about this tea — how to make it and how to use it? Read on!
What is Compost Tea?
It’s kind of what it sounds like — a liquid that is created from compost and/or additional ingredients. It can be a “steeped” variety, or a “brewed” variety. They both feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants. However, they go about that feeding in a different manner.
Depending on what you put into the tea, it can act as a fertilizer, a (good) bacterial/fungal agent, or both. It can be watered in or used as a foliar feeding. Let’s find out what’s needed to make this tea.
(By the way, it’s not only just for tomatoes — all plants can benefit.)
Does it Work?
The first thing you might want to know is — does it really work? From using it myself, I can whole-heartedly agree that it does work. I put off using tea for quite a few years, because I thought it was too much of a pain to make. Turns out it can be very, very simple (or as complex as you want).
Personally, I use the simple method – at least for now. And I have to say that within literally 2 days, I saw a significant change, for the better, in the majority of my plants. Within 4 days, all the plants had responded favorably. In a previous post, I mentioned that one of my tomato plants had doubled in size within a week!
And it’s all organic!
The Steeped Method of Compost Tea
This is super-easy. I make it in 5-gallon buckets, but you can scale it down or up as needed. Here’s how to make it:
- Take a 5-gallon bucket, and into it put one heaping trowel (a small hand shovel) of fresh compost or two heaping trowels of bagged compost.
- Fill the bucket to the top with water.
- Let it sit at least overnight, and even better is 24 hours.
- Use it while watering your plants. First water normally, then add a cup or two of the tea to the base of each plant, depending on the size of the plant.
You can use it immediately, or within a week of making it. Either way, give it a quick stir before you use it. Note: It should look really dark, like coffee or a really strong tea. If yours is more like weak coffee or tea in color, just add some more compost next time.
You can also use worm castings in place of some or all of the compost, or in addition to the compost. And if you like, add in some liquid kelp — maybe a tablespoon or two.
You can use this for foliar if you like, but I think just watering it in works just as well. I used just worm castings for my first two batches, but my next batch will be a half bagged compost and half worm castings (1 trowel bagged compost + 1 trowel worm castings)
The Brewed Method of Tea
It’s a little different, and takes a little more effort. This kind of tea basically encourages good bacteria and fungi by feeding them, and then it is sprayed onto the plants as a foliar or using it as a supplement to watering. There are lots of companies that sell a brew mix that is ready to use, or you can make your own. Either way, the process is pretty much the same.
Use de-chlorinated water. If you have chlorine in your water, either use a chlorine filter or just put water in a bucket and let it sit overnight (or better, 24 hours) to let the chlorine dissipate.
Put together the following in a 5-gallon bucket along with your water:
- 1 trowel of compost (or, worm castings)
- 1 tablespoon of molasses (blackstrap, if you can find it — otherwise regular)
- 1/4 teaspoon humic acid
- 2 tablespoons of liquid kelp
Stir together to mix thoroughly. Then you will need an oxygen source, like an aquarium pump with tubing and an air stone.
With the aquarium pump outside the bucket and the air stone in the bucket (connected to the pump via tubing), run the pump and let the tea brew for at least 4 hours — 8 hours is better.
Use immediately as either a foliar feeding or a cupful after you water your plants. You’ll need to use it quickly, as this doesn’t keep well. If you can’t use it all in one day, you will need to keep the air stone in. to continue the oxygen.
If the above brewed recipe isn’t quite to your liking, there are quite a few companies that sell a product that is ready to brew. All you need to do is add the de-chlorinated water and air stone, and then brew the length of time recommended in the instructions you receive with the product.
Note: Also follow the directions for how to use the finished tea — some products require you to dilute it further before using it on the plants.
Using Compost Tea
This post is already pretty long, so I’ll do a separate post for how to use compost tea. As soon as I have the post written I will link to it.
Worm composting is a way to generate worm castings. Why do you want to add worm castings to your tomatoes? Because they organically feed both the plants and the soil.
What Exactly is Worm Composting?
Worm composting is also known as vermicomposting, it’s a somewhat unusual way to recycle your kitchen scraps.
Basically, the worms eat the scraps, and after they have digested it, excrete the “leftovers”. These leftovers are called castings and they are a superb soil conditioner and plant fertilizer. Worms are amazing; they can eat almost their own body weight a day. Naturally you won’t have just a few worms; 500 is a good number to start with. More if you generate a lot of kitchen scraps every day.
Where Can You Vermicompost?
Worm composting can be done anywhere where the temperature is moderate and the bin isn’t in direct sunlight (in warm climates). You don’t want to cook your worms!
The best temperature for your hard-working worms is between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You don’t want the bin temperature to go below 50 or over 88 degrees Fahrenheit. This may mean you need to put the bin inside your home in a spare corner. Not to worry, once your worms have settled in and started munching, there is no smell, providing you haven’t overloaded the tray with scraps.
Getting Started with Worm Composting
To get started with worm composting, you’ll need some trays, bedding and (naturally) worms. Red wrigglers are the best worms for vermicomposting. To get some of these hard-working worms, you can try a local bait shop. No bait shop nearby? You can order them online, to be shipped to you.
Check with a gardening center to see if they have worm composting trays. If they don’t, you can easily order them online. You’ll want at least a 3-tray system, with 4 or 5 trays even better.
The worm bedding can be anything organic, like coir, shredded newspaper (black and white only; no color printing), sawdust, hay, dried leaves — anything to mimic the worm’s natural environment. The bedding should be very slightly moist, but not soggy or wet.
Add the kitchen scraps (shredded or chopped a bit so they are easier for the worms to eat) and let the worms have at it!
You might have an organic garden shop near to you that carries worm composting supplies; if you do — great! Get your trays, worms and bedding and you’re all set.
If you don’t have anywhere locally to get your worms or supplies, check out some online worm composting kits.
Why Do Worm Composting?
Why vermicompost? Because your plants love worm castings! I’m not sure what about the castings make the tomato plants so happy, but it does. But if you can’t (or don’t want to) do any worm composting, you can buy some worm castings. If you can’t find the castings locally, here’s where I get mine.
Here’s to your composting success, however you get your castings!
What is compost, anyway? You have heard the term, and you know it’s good for plants, but why? This post will take a look at just what is composting, and why you want to do it (or at least use it).
What is Compost – Really?
The definition of compost, according to Wikipedia is, “aerobically decomposed remnants of organic matter”. The nice how-to article at Gardener’s Supply describes compost as, “Organic matter is transformed into compost through the work of microorganisms, soil fauna, enzymes and fungi.”
So in other words, composting recycles kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, leaves, grass clippings, etc. into something often called “brown gold” because of its value to your garden. It looks like rich soil, and smells slightly sweet and earthy.
Compost’s biggest value is being used as a soil amendment. When compost is mixed in with regular garden soil, it adds beneficial bacteria and fungi, along with nitrogen and other nutrients.
Compost helps to lighten heavy soils and enrich sandy soils. Earthworms love it, as do plants of all kinds — including tomatoes, naturally! Compost is a natural fertilizer, adding nitrogen and trace elements to your garden.
You can create your own compost, or you can buy it. The purchased compost I like the best is composted cow manure, but I also grab some mushroom compost when I can find it.
However, unless you have a very small garden, buying enough compost to truly enrich your soil could get quite expensive. That where creating your own compost can come in awfully handy.
Compost is Recycling
One of the nice things is that compost is recycling. Organic items you’d normally throw in the trash become stuff that gardener’s dreams are made of. This includes paper products, kitchen scraps (except meat and fats), grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, weeds (as long as they are not blooming), manure, etc. All of these eventually turn into glorious compost!
And you know that junk mail you get? I’ve started shredding it, then adding the shredded paper to my compost bin. I just make sure not to shred anything that is printed on slick paper, like catalogs. But if it’s just on regular paper — it’s a welcome addition to the compost bin!
How to Compost
I’ll be writing several more posts on composting, such as vermicomposting (using worms), urban composting, using bins, compost tumblers and the like. So stay tuned, and as I get the articles written, I’ll come back and put in links to those pages.
Fertilizing tomato plants is necessary for optimum growth (both for the plants and the tomatoes). But is there a best way to fertilize? And what about organic fertilizers versus chemical?
Let’s take a look at feeding your tomato plants.
Fertilizing Tomato Plants Organically
Organic fertilizers tend to break down slowly, releasing their nutrients into the soil over time. By “feeding the soil” the plants become stronger and less prone to attack from insects and disease. A good organic approach would be to use a combination of compost, peat, aged manure (or the bagged varieties from the store), and organic amendments such as blood meal and bone meal to create a rich soil.
With this approach, additional fertilizer is usually only necessary only once or twice a season; just after the blossoms appear, and again when a plant is laden with fruit. Good organic fertilizers for this use include fish emulsion, seaweed emulsion, and “manure tea” (fresh manure placed in a large container, filled with water, and allowed to “steep” for about a week). Make sure to dilute any such liquid fertilizer until it is the color of weak tea; even organic fertilizers can “fry” plants if applied too strong!
The organic method of gardening also benefits the environment by not adding chemicals that can upset the balance of nature. We’ve all read about how these chemicals can harm wildlife, not to mention ourselves when they infiltrate the water system. Chemical fertilizers work quickly, but they also leach out of the soil quickly.
Using Chemical Fertilizers
Having made the pitch for the organic method, I realize that not everyone is comfortable using organic methods yet. I do urge you to give the matter some thought, but if you much use chemical fertilizers, here are some general rules:
Fertilizer strength is measured by the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K) to inert ingredients. For example, 6-6-6 means there is 6 lbs. of nitrogen, 6 lbs. of phosphorus and 6 lbs. of potassium per 100 lbs of fertilizer. A mixture of 4-12-6 would mean 4 lbs. of nitrogen, 12 of phosphorus and 6 of potassium per 100 lbs.
Look for fertilizers with a higher phosphorus (middle) number. Phosphorus is what fuels the production of flowers, and flowers are how fruits are formed. Try to make it a relatively balanced mix (5-10-5 would be ok, 5-10-8 would be better). You might try Miracle Grow for Roses (you read that right, roses), and use it at 3/4 strength.
Don’t use a “bloom booster” fertilizer with a super-high phosphorus count and really low on nitrogen and potassium. You might be favoring blooms, but your tomatoes may fail to develop properly later on, because the leaves and roots didn’t get enough of what they need.
Do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer! You’ll be sacrificing fruits for leaf growth!
Do not fall into the trap of thinking “If a little fertilizer is good, more is even better!” Wrong! Too much fertilizer can kill the plants. It’s much better to use the fertilizer at 1/2 strength and fertilize a little more often.
Organic + Chemical
Yes, you can mix organic and chemical fertilizers, and in fact I often do. I amend my soil with plenty of compost & manure, then add kelp meal, bone meal and blood meal. A little fish and/or seaweed emulsion finishes it off.
However, I like to add some of the Miracle Grow for Roses (2/3 strength) at the time the blossoms are starting to open, just to give the plants a little extra “snack”. I might give a little extra (1/2 strength) if the plants have a heavy tomato load.
That’s what I do — you are free to use whatever fertilizers you’d like, for your own circumstances.