Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My Tomatoes' Journey: Soil Preparation - Part 8

Before planting tomatoes in the soil outdoors, a little work needs to go into preparing the soil. I will be planting my garden in raised beds. This is certainly not the only way to do it. There is absolutely no shame in using pots for your tomato plants. I used that method for a few years when I first started my garden. But pots will limit the variety of tomatoes you can plant.

Here are my responses to a few questions you should ask yourself when getting your garden ready for planting.

What type of garden space should I use? 

Planting a garden can be as simple as tilling a patch of soil in your yard. Your soil may not be rich, black topsoil, or maybe you don't have the space for a garden plot. Some alternatives are raised beds or pots. I use raised beds, because my soil is more like clay than soil. So, I've hauled in a bunch of lush, rich dirt to my raised beds. This can be expensive depending on how high you make your bed. A higher bed requires more dirt, which means...ka-ching!

Gardening in pots is a great, cost-effective alternative. You don't need as much soil as a raised bed, and you can strategically place the pots in a sunny, safe (i.e., away from animals' reach) location. But pots limit you to the type of tomatoes you can plant. The larger varieties of tomatoes (beefmasters, Brandywines, etc.) don't do well in pots. Stick to cherry tomatoes or something similar if you are gardening in containers.  Make sure there are holes in the bottom for drainage.

Where should I plant the tomatoes?

Your garden plot should be in a sunny location. Tomatoes do the best when they get as much daytime sun as possible. At the very minimum, make sure the location gets adequate morning sunlight as this is the most important time of the day for the tomatoes to get sun. Morning sun will dry off the dew and prevent those pesky diseases that are often brought on by too much moisture.

What do I need to do to prepare the soil? 

If you're using pots, you simply need to fill your container with potting soil. Buy a nice, loose potting soil mixture and avoid the hard, weedy dirt from your yard.

If you're using a garden plot (including a raised bed), you should weed the area and loosen the dirt up   with a hoe and garden rake, or a tiller. Plants love aerated soil. Compact soil prevents the roots from becoming well established. If you're creating a brand new bed, a tiller may be necessary depending on the density of the soil.  Since I've used the same beds a few years in a row, hoeing the area is sufficient.

What about pH levels? 

The acidity (pH) of the soil may affect the success of your tomato plants. Tomatoes prefer a pH level between 6.0 and 6.5. If you don't know the pH of your soil (why would you unless you are a gardening nerd like me? :), you can buy a simple test kit to give you an idea of the pH level. For more accuracy, I went to the local, university-run coop which provides free soil sample testing. You could look in your area for something similar.

It's a lot easier to raise the pH than lower the pH. So, here are some tips if you need to alter the pH of your soil:
Add sulfur to the soil to lower the pH.

Lowering the pH: If you realize your pH is too high (which is the case for my soil), then you can add sulfur. Or another method you can pursue applying compost, compost manure, or mulch. I've tried the latter options in years past with no success. So, this year I used sulfur, which you can purchase at a nursery or home improvement store. Follow the instructions on the package.  
Raising the pH: If your pH is too low, then you can add bone meal to the soil. This is available at a nursery or home improvement store. Follow the instructions on the package. 

I have a lot to learn in the area of soil pH levels, so I'm learning along with you!

When should I add compost?

Now! You can either till in the compost or spread an inch or two on the garden bed's surface. You certainly don't have to add compost to your soil, but it should do wonders for your crop.


I hope that answers a few questions you may have about preparing the soil for planting your tomatoes.  Folks in the south may already have planted, but those in the north may have a few more weeks before they plant. I hope to get my plants in the ground this weekend, so stay tuned!

Do you have any suggestions on how to raise or lower the 
pH of your soil? 

What type of garden space do you use? 

Check out my other posts on My Tomatoes' Journey.

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