The Water-Wise Tomato Gardener

By Gail Cocker, Master Gardener, SCMG

I confess, I just love to grow my own tomatoes. There is nothing better than chomping down on a handful of just –picked cherry tomatoes grown in my own backyard. It has taken a few years, but I’ve finally figured out how to ensure success in my raised bed full of tomato plants.  

            I grow my tomatoes in a 4’ X 8’ raised bed. The soil is sandy loam to which I add a bucket full of compost every spring, just to replenish some of the nutrients lost over the previous growing season.  I try not to dig the soil unnecessarily so that all the busy earthworms can go about their business of aerating the soil and eating the decomposing leaves and plant material undisturbed.  I have found that giving the plants enough space for air circulation is important, so 8 plants is my limit in this box.  

            While good soil is important, equally important to tomato growing success is mastering the moisture requirements of the plants. Tomatoes are notorious for disliking wet leaves, and once I finally got up the gumption to install a drip irrigation system and quit using a sprinkler, my tomatoes rewarded me. 

            If you are growing in a raised bed it is simple do it yourself project to install a drip irrigation system.  There are plenty of kits available on the market today, but you can build your own with solid tubing and a hose connector, a pressure regulator, end caps,some soaker hose tubing, 3 T couplers, and a Y clamp at your faucet (so you can use a hose independently from the irrigation system). I’d recommend 3 lines running down the length of the bed; 2 either side of each row of plants. There are plenty of YouTube videos available to watch and give you confidence.        

            If you still need convincing, be assured that this watering system will repay you many times over beyond just reducing the risk of your plants developing blight or other fungal diseases from wet foliage. First of all, you can be assured of more even and uniform watering which will in turn promote strong and healthy root development. And you will encourage less weeds by keeping the moisture close to your plants. No doubt about it, you use less water.  No more watering around the raised bed… all the water goes directly where its needed… to the plant roots. Less evaporation than with a sprinkler. As well, because the water is trickling into the soil, it gets fully absorbed… no more puddling or nutrient run off.  You can set your dripline system to a timer and it will do the watering for you… even if you are away for a few days!  The last benefit is no more unexpected showers; you can pick your tomatoes and water at the same time!

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