Tomatoes like well-drained soil, and they generally like it to be moist, but not wet. However, they also need to keep their leaves dry, so as to keep soil-borne bacteria off them. Tomatoes also don’t like to keep bouncing back and forth between dry and wet – especially when they are fruiting.
Growing tomatoes in containers make all the above a little more difficult, especially in the summer when it’s hot. But there is a way to help keep the soil more evenly moist, not to mention help to keep the leaves dry.
Mulch is a Gardening Must-Have
Mulch is an excellent idea for all kinds of gardening, both traditional in-ground as well as raised beds and containers. It serves to cut down on weeds, keep the roots cool in the summer and also helps to keep the soil more evenly moist. And of course, it keeps soil off the leaves of the plants, which helps to keep them healthier.
Kinds of Mulch
There are all kinds of mulching material. Some of the most popular are:
- Hay or Straw
- Landscape Cloth
- Wood Chips
- Newspaper or Cardboard
Each has pros and cons, and it all depends on your needs and your wallet as to which is best for your garden. Let’s take a look at them.
Hay and/or Straw: This is a relatively inexpensive option; where I live, a bale of decent hay is about $9, and that covers all my containers with a thick layer of mulch. It’s also a great filler for my large 20 and 25 gallon containers — they use a lot of potting mix, and by putting a layer three or four inches thick at the bottom allows for additional drainage and less potting mix. Not to mention it eventually composts down itself. The biggest con is that if you have a small container garden, a bale of hay will be way too much for you to use up.
Landscape Cloth: This is a nice option if you like a clean look to your garden. It comes in rolls that are 3 or 4 feet wide, and anywhere from 50 to 300 feet long. Look for landscape cloth that is permeable — it lets water through — and check to see if it’s at least a “15 year” ground cloth. Not that it will actually last 15 years, but you should be able to get several years from it — I have some that is 4 years old and still going strong. The biggest con is that you also need to weight down the cloth somehow. The best way is to use earth staples — U-shaped thick metal wire usually about 6 inches long. You’ll need to “staple” the cloth into the ground every 6 to 12 inches. Kind of a pain, but once you have it in, it’s pretty maintenance-free. I use it mainly for weed suppression around the garden, but you can cut an X in the cloth, peel back the edges and plant your tomatoes in the soil. Just don’t put earth staples near the roots!
Wood Chips: This is the mulch you see at the big box stores, in the large bags. Inexpensive, so if you have a large area to cover, it can be fairly economical. Just be careful you don’t get the really big chips, as they are better for things like trees — and they also tend to attract bugs. The smaller chips or shredded ones are better for the veggies, and there is less of a bug issue. Don’t choose the ones that are colored — yes, the colored chips are pretty but the fewer extra chemicals in the garden, the better. And of course, wood chips eventually do compost down after a few years. I used wood chips way back in the beginning of my gardening, but I like to go barefoot, and wood chips were uncomfortable to walk on (since I also used them for weed suppression in addition for mulching the ‘maters).
Newspaper or Cardboard: If you have a small container garden, this may be your least expensive option. For a container garden, I would suggest you shred your newspaper (all but the shiny insert pages) and use it that way. For a traditional garden, you can lay out sheets — I suggest at least three sheets thick. You can also use cardboard, but it’s better for weed suppression (unless you have some thin cardboard — then use it like newspaper). Very inexpensive. The only issue is that if you use sheets, you will need to weight them down, at least until they start integrating (i.e. discomposing) with the soil. No newspaper? Yep, use regular printer paper, or even your shredded bills — put ’em to use!
Whatever Mulch You Choose…
…use it! Here’s the way I use it, to help keep the soil moist. Water the plants about half as much as usual, then add the mulch. Finish by watering in some more, wetting the mulch thoroughly. I water the plants less often, but when I do, I water them deeply. My goal is to have my plants get a nice deep root system, so that they are less susceptible to drying out. And the bonus is that I don’t have to water every day, unless it’s extremely hot and there hasn’t been any rain.
A week or so after the initial mulching, I like to add a little more, and again, water it in. I also trim back the bottom leaves, so that none are resting directly on the mulch.
Choose the mulch best for you!