Thursday, January 31, 2013
How to grow big tomatoes, peppers, melons, and other heat-loving plants
There are three elements to growing productive tomato plants: a young plant; good soil; and warm soil. The first is key; if you buy a plant that is blooming in its pot, it won’t grow for you, even if it is in good, warm soil. Annuals like tomatoes stop growing and start blooming and making seed when their roots wrap around inside the pot and touch each other. A root-bound plant that is blooming probably won’t grow much even if you bury the stem in soil; you’ll end up with a few fruit on a stunted plant.
It’s nearly impossible to find a gallon plant in the stores that is not already blooming, and if you find one, a 4 inch plant will usually at least catch up with it. Even 6-pack plants will beat gallon plants, which are grown for people who don’t know any better than to buy a big plant. If you want to grow a big tomato plant, buy a small one.
Good nutrition is important; if your flowering weeds are not bountifully large, you should put down about 6 inches of compost on top of the soil and plant into it. Do not mix it into the soil; worms will do it for you. It will suppress weeds, and nutrients from the compost leach downward to the roots as they become soluble and available to the plant. 6 inches of good compost at least 3 feet wide will grow a big tomato plant even on bare rock or concrete.
Warming the soil can be important if the summer is cool, and always helps the plant grow early in the season. Covering the soil with mid-sized, relative flat river rock, of a size to easily move with one hand, will prevent evaporation from the compost, keeping it moist and preventing cooling; prevent weeds everywhere the soil is covered; and soak up and conduct heat during the day and release heat at night when it helps root growth. I used to use 3 larger rocks around each plant, but now I’ve moved to a circle of the smaller rock at least 2 feet wide, after great results with watermelon last year. Covering a whole bed with such rock will prevent cats from digging as well.
The rules for tomatoes also apply to peppers, particularly not using plants that are already blooming in the pots. These are harder to find with peppers; this week, I was having a hard time finding 4 inch plants that weren’t at least budding, but the large 6-packs were good.
When it comes to the squash and melon family, as well as corn and beans, seed is the only way to go. They really don’t like their roots messed with or any degree of root-binding. If the soil is warm, they pop right up; if it is not, a started plant will just suffer in the cold. If the bugs eat your plants, or the seed doesn’t sprout, the soil was too cold; replant.