The Great Tomato Growing Experiment

MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZSeptember 30, 2012

Remember plstqd telling us about fish heads and aspirin?

"This is my second time planting using the instructions from some fellow in Scottsdale, where you dig a deep hole and add a fish head, an eggshell, a couple of aspirin and a handful of bonemeal. My plants were going great guns last year using this method until the frost nipped the tips off, so I have high hopes again for this year."

So - - the experiment is on. I have 4 of the same variety, Cherokee Purple and two beds side by side. Today I planted them (the larger of the beds also has a Black Cherry plant) so this is as close to being a perfect experiment set up as I can get it. The right-hand bed got fish heads (actually one-half head each. They were salmon and huge), 2 aspirin, a couple of well crushed egg shells and a handful of bone meal.

I love a good experiment.

I hope that most of the tomatoes you folks picked up from me are managing, it's time to get them in the ground if you have not already. My Silvery Fir Tree is setting fruit and many other plants have flowers setting. Pagancat, I read your email that the Silvery Fir Tree didn't make it and the very next email I opened was from someone who said the SFT was doing the best of all. Who knows?? Let the growing begin!!

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Pagancat(Phoenix, AZ)

Yeah, well... could have been operator error, too.

Do the fish heads ever attract racoons?

Okay, I finally bought rabbit fencing, so I can get them 'maters in the ground really soon.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2012 at 9:36PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

No racoons here in Urban-Ville. But I dug a *really* deep hole....2'. I doubt anything smells it that far under the dirt. That's what plstqd said anyway, and it makes sense to me. That's a deep planting hole. But I'll let you know if either of the dogs or the cat sniff it out. All part of the experiment.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2012 at 10:57PM
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tomatofreak(Z9 Phx USA)

Sigh..... I've only got two left out of six. I moved the Black Cherry because whatever nibbled on the basil took a few bites of the BC. It looked like it would do well at first, but then withered and croaked. The two I have left are Sophie's Choice and Glacier. Glacier is having some leaf curl so I'm watching it carefully. No experimentation here; just trying best tomato practices. If I find some plants at a nursery, I may give the fish a try.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2012 at 5:23PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

tf, are the plants in the ground, in the same containers when you took them home or new containers? Glacier is a cool weather grower so should start to perk up with the cooler temps.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2012 at 5:59PM
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tomatofreak(Z9 Phx USA)

All plants were in the ground when I first posted an update. Because it was - and still is, grrrrrr - hot, I planted them in a bed under 50% shadecloth and near enough to sunflowers and okra to get some added protection. I'm hoping the trench method I used will get some strong root growth going and maybe some blooms.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2012 at 1:21AM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

The shade cloth and natural shade of surrounding plants should help until the heat breaks - hopefully this week. Here's something I picked up from various conversations on this board and others: a day or two before I transplant *anything*, I water it well so the soil is moist and will wick up water from a reservoir. Then place the container in a tub of water to which I've added a liquid root stimulant (not too much, just a small dose) for a couple of days to give the roots a good dose. I like the liquid ferts from the hydro store, specifically Botanicare's Liquid Karma or Roots Organics Buddha Grow. They are a bit pricey but you could do the same thing with liquid vitamin B1. It helps prevent transplant shock.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2012 at 7:40AM
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That's a really interesting tip, Mary, I'll definitely keep that in mind for next time I transplant something. It's always a bit heartwrenching watching over the plants after they've been transplanted, and crossing your fingers for them.

I have two surviving plants of the four I purchased from you: one Cherokee Purple, and one Stella's Choice (I lost one to wilt, and one to "operator error" as pagancat so nicely put it). They've mostly been settling in since being transplanted, and are now starting to put on a bit of growth. The Cherokee Purple has the very beginnings of flower buds, but so far nothing from the Stella's Choice. I'm hoping that once it cools down, they'll rev things up a bit.

I do have two "over-summered" tomato plants that are thriving. They're covered in blossoms (too hot yet for fruit set, but it looks promising), and are putting out lots of new growth. These were planted in February as clones from a Celebrity and a Champion that I bought at Lowe's last October. They were planted with the fish head method, and allowed to sprawl instead of being staked or caged. I'm not sure I'm in love with the sprawling thing as far as pest control and being able to walk between the lemon tree and the garden bed in my very tiny yard goes, but I do think it was instrumental in helping them survive the heat. They got no artificial shade over the summer, just the shade from the nearby eggplant and okra. There was some browning and loss of leaves near the "base" of the stems as you can see in the second picture (some of that jumble is dried up eggplant leaves), but otherwise they hung in very well.

Just planted, February 12, 2012, north side of bed, looking south:

Taken today, north side of bed, looking southwest (excuse the mess, I've been digging out bermuda, and put the leaf litter down so I wouldn't get so muddy when I water):

Closeup, taken today, east side of bed, looking north:

I'm not holding these plants out as shining examples of the fish head method or anything, but I will say that other than one application of magnesium to green them up, and two top dressings of compost, they got no other fertilizer. And considering that we just came through a mighty hot summer, the fact that they survived at all is pretty impressive to me.

So, I look forward to seeing the results of your experimenting, Mary. It could all be a load of bunk, but nothing's more fun than trying stuff to see if it works.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2012 at 7:47PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

That's "Sophie's Choice" not Stella's. [grin] I have one of those too, it's hanging on but stuggling. I think it's going to make it.

I tried the sprawling technique last spring too and agree it helps keep the heat off the bed but it's hard find fruit to harvest and difficult to apply ferts to the soil. I'm thinking of trying it again with the Marianna's Peace that's trying to stay alive. We'll see.

I love all your pics plstqd, keep us posted how the fall/winter tomato crop does and I'll do likewise.

    Bookmark   October 3, 2012 at 7:26AM
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Pagancat(Phoenix, AZ)

Sheesh, I'm going to have to learn to read, I'm afraid. My silver fir tree tomato is doing fine. I lost Sungold and Stupice.

The temps this week look very promising, also partly cloudy, yay!

Wow, Plqstd, looking good!

    Bookmark   October 4, 2012 at 6:22PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

OK Peeps, I know you are all hanging on the edge of your seats to learn how this turned out........

The only tomatoes in that section of garden that are still alive with bright green stems and leaves are - the two Cherokee Purple in the 'fish head' bed. They ain't lookin' great but they are alive. I've started watering and hope to see more new growth.

Was it the fish heads and aspirin? I don't know for certain but let the results speak for themselves. My guess is that the roots received more/better nutrients that allowed them to hang on.

Interested in other comments.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2013 at 12:27PM
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Thanks for the update, Mary, I was curious about your results.

I lost most of my tomatoes in the big freeze, and I'm honestly not sure if I'm going to bother planting any more this spring. I love garden fresh tomatoes, but they can be such a struggle here. I got a moderate amount of fruit on my sprawling clones pictured above, but anywhere the fruit was touching the ground, it got nibbled on, and if I didn't pick it as soon as it started to show a blush, the birds went after it.

My Sophie's Choice is still alive, but looking a bit sad. The leaves are all purplish, which from my reading is a reaction to the cold, and an inability to take up phosphorus as a result. I'm hoping now that it's warming up, it will take off and give me those yummy tomatoes I'm dreaming of. Any tips for helping it out would be most welcome.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 11:29AM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

Hi Leanne, I can relate to your dismay about backyard gardening. Between the birds and the hornworms, it's hard to keep up and easy to be discouraged. Sometimes just going to the Farmer's Markets and letting others deal with the growing seems a good solution.

I forgot to mention my one Sophie's Choice also made it through winter but then it's one of the cool weather growers and was in a container and not part of The Experiment. I pulled it up so I would have the large container for a fresh plant. I didn't like the tomatoes, they were not 'crunchy' but a bit mealy. I'm thinking that may have been due to the long hard winter the plant experienced.

Currently all three of my raised beds are planted and covered with mosquito netting. We rearranged things since you were here for better shade/pest control. I took up the 'keyhole' garden that was created with staw wattles and added one more 4'x6' raised bed. Here's a pic from two weeks ago, only one bed planted. The tomatillos planted in mid-Feb have started to set fruit so I need to open the covering to get some pollinaiton, hopefully it will not become a bird free-for-all.

Thanks for checking in, I wondered that I had not heard from you for a spring order. Take a break, maybe try again next spring.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 7:21AM
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Yeah, I'll probably break down and try tomatoes again. Guess I'm a sucker for punishment :) I really need to beef up my soil first, though, my garden did very poorly over the winter, and I think a lack of nutrients in my soil is to blame.

The new beds look great, Mary. Is the larger frame for a greenhouse, or shade cloth, or?

Did you plant tomatillo starts or start them in the ground from seed? I would never have dared plant in mid-February, but hearing that you're starting to get fruit is interesting. Last year I planted a couple of tomatillo starts around the beginning of March, and they grew and flowered like crazy, but didn't set any fruit until the fall.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 11:34AM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

The tall structure is for shade when it's needed. The mosquito netting is for bird/pest control. Oh - and to block out my salad lovin' canines! The beasts.....

I started the tomatillo's from seed same time as the tomatoes. Thanks for the heads up on when to expect fruit. Chili peppers are the same. They grow all summer but don't produce until Christmas-time.

I know where you can get bunny poop if you want some. You don't compost kitchen scraps???

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 11:49AM
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Oh yes, I most definitely compost kitchen scraps. In fact, I added 15 gallons of compost to the bed in the fall, but it didn't seem to make any difference. I added some manure over the weekend, but may take you up on the bunny poop source offer if that doesn't seem to help. Isn't bunny poop the one you can add directly to the soil without having to age it first?

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 9:38AM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

Yes, bunny poop is not hot and can be added directly to the bed. You may also want to buy some garden soil from Pioneer or Singh. It will make a huge difference.

I'll send contact info re: the bunny poop to your email.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 10:23AM
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if you have a pick up you can make your own soil or you can use multiple 5 gallon buckets. 25% sifted dirt , 25% manure , 25% sand , 25% forest mulch and you have a common garden soil. with the exception of the forest mulch you can pretty much get all of it for free , dairys for the manure , const zones for the free dirt and mayby free sand too if theres a old wash going through.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 8:55AM
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So again I am trying a tomato plant this year. I've failed to produce even a single good tasting tomato the last 3 years. This year, I'm putting it in partial shade which is probably more like full sun in other parts of the country. I added manure and plenty of mulch so hopefully I will finally get a home grown tomato.

Where do you get the mosquito netting. Sounds like a good idea. I got those awful stink bugs on my tomatoes last year.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2013 at 1:04AM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

toucan, I bought at an army surplus store. The netting is designed to fit over an army cot and is perfect for the size of my beds and the pvc hoops.

Good luck, I feel your pain. Growing tomatoes in Phoenix is a real challenge.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2013 at 6:48AM
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I started a few tomato plants from seed, they're ready to go in the ground. The variety I chose (Kellog's Breakfast - because it's my favorite) I know it will be a miracle if I get to eat a fruit from it. My hope is to somehow get it to survive through the summer and hope it manages to put out some fruit in the fall. I can't say that your experiments have been encouraging. We shall see.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2013 at 12:55PM
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