Companion Planting with Tomatoes

Collards Growing at the Base of Tomatoes.  Hog Panel Trellis.

Collards Growing at the Base of Tomatoes. Hog Panel Trellis.

The sun is slowly heating up in the sky over South Texas, and the soil is ready for spring planting.  Now is the time to get those tomatoes into the ground.

To achieve the greatest production from your tomato plants, you might consider companion planting.

Companion planting is the close spacing of two, three, or more plants together, where each plant helps and strengthens the others.  Every plant in nature—every vegetable, herb, fruit, and flower—grows better when planted in the right combination with other plants.

Nature always strives to create diversity in plant life, and companion planting harnesses this productive power of nature and channels it into the garden.

The best companion for tomatoes is collard greens.  Plant four collards closely spaced around the base of each tomato, and continue this pattern down the row.  The leaves of the collards will grow together and form a dense canopy over the soil.  This canopy preserves soil moisture, prevents weeds, and provides a sanctuary for beneficial predators–frogs, toads, lizards, and lady bugs.

Collards emit a subtle odor that repels many of the insect pests that attack tomatoes.  The tomatoes will vine thickly up their trellis and offer much-needed shade to the collards, while the collards keep the soil at the feet of the tomatoes nice and cool.  And best of all, you can harvest your collards along with your tomatoes all through the hot summer season.

Marigolds make excellent companions for tomatoes.  Densely plant a couple dozen marigolds around the base of each tomato plant.  The perfume of marigolds pushes nematodes away from the roots of your tomatoes.  And the vibrant yellow and orange flowers set a colorful stage for the lush green tomato vines.

Dill, basil, and cilantro are also excellent companions for tomatoes.   Plant these herbs generously throughout the tomato bed and let them go to flower.  These herbs are beautiful, edible, and their aroma repels many insect pests from the garden.

The best combination of all is to plant collards, marigolds, and herbs all together throughout your tomato bed.  The plants will not crowd each other.  Instead, they will work together to maximize the beauty, fragrance, pest resistance, and food production in every square inch of your garden.

Collards Companion Planted with Tomatoes

Collards Companion Planted with Tomatoes

Breaking Down a Tomato

Tomato Handful

Farming methods can raise or lower the nutritional value of produce.  Planting techniques influence health.  We can see this by following a tomato through a large-scale conventional farm compared to a tomato grown in your own backyard garden.

On large-scale farms, tomatoes are fertilized with synthetic chemicals.  These chemicals cover the basic NPK requirements for plants, but often fail to replace the micronutrients that tomatoes demand from the soil.  In your garden, your own homemade compost builds healthy humus-rich soil that replenishes the full profile of vitamins and minerals that your plants require.  If the nutrients are not available in the soil, they can’t be taken up by the plant and delivered to the fruit.

On large-scale farms, growers select tomato varieties that ripen quickly and simultaneously for ease of machine harvesting.  These fast-growing varieties can actually outpace the ability of the plant’s root system to absorb nutrients from the soil.  Big farms also select for varieties that produce large, roughly square-shaped tomatoes.  These square-shaped tomatoes fit more easily into packing containers and thereby reduce transportation costs.  In your garden, tomato varieties are chosen primarily for health and flavor.

On large-scale farms, tomatoes are picked unripe, before vitamins, minerals, and lycopene are fully maximized in the fruit.  Once tomatoes are harvested, they stop absorbing lycopene.  Lycopene is an anti-oxidant, and we want the highest dose of this cancer-fighting compound in every bite of tomato.  In your garden, tomatoes are picked ripe and red on the vine with the maximum concentration of lycopene fully developed in the fruit.

Potassium is an essential mineral in plant health, and it is critical to human health as well.  The best way for people to get potassium is through their food, and the best way for plants to get this mineral is from the soil.

On large-scale farms, the plants themselves are treated with industrial applications of potassium.  In your garden, potassium and other minerals are added to the soil through compost and homemade wood ash—the ideal source for plants.

Moreover, the sweetness of a tomato—actually, the flavor of any fruit or vegetable—is the result of potassium.  Potassium molecules unlock the sugars in plants, and when more natural potassium is available in the soil, more sweetness develops in the fruit.

It is easy to taste the difference in your own ripe, red, freshly-picked tomatoes, but the differences in health are just as great, and just as important.  And your own garden is the perfect place to get the sweetest taste, and the greatest health, from your produce.

Native Leaf Mulch for Tomatoes

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in South Texas gardens, but tomatoes are also one of the most difficult vegetables to grow.   The intense heat of our summers, and the relentless Gulf winds, are great challenges to the gardener.

Tomatoes can withstand a lot of heat during the day, 100 degree temperatures or higher.  But it is the nighttime soil temperature that matters.  Tomatoes can only set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees.  When the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees, the plant may live, but it will not make tomatoes.  That’s why tomato plants often stop producing by July or August.

But you can cool your soil and produce tomatoes through the heat of summer with good mulching.

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Mulch serves as a blanket of insulation over the garden:  mulch prevents weeds, stabilizes soil temperature, and helps retain moisture in the soil.  Good mulching can dramatically reduce the amount of water required for the garden.

Mulch also prevents the soil from drying out in our relentless Gulf winds:  90% of the microbial activity of the soil is found in the top four inches, the layer that dries out the fastest.  Mulching protects this delicate layer of topsoil.

The best mulch material is always the most native, and the very best mulch of all is raked-up leaves from the trees on your own property.  Native leaves have a special relationship with your soil.  The leaves and soil have lived together in biological harmony for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Their chemistry is highly adapted and they are perfectly matched for growing vegetables.

Native leaf mulch is available in vast quantities, usually right in your own yard, and even better, native leaf mulch doesn’t cost anything.  Every year, millions of bags of freshly raked-up leaves are sent to landfills and transfer stations; leaves that would have made perfect mulch in backyard gardens.

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

On our farm, we have been using live oak leaf mulch for years.  There is a myth that live oak leaves contain an acid that hurts plants, but that is not the case.  Our gardens absolutely love their thick live oak leaf mulching.  And as the leaves slowly decompose, they add structure to our garden soil and actually improve the soil Ph.  We even use oak leaves in our compost piles, and as bedding for our laying hens.

The leaves of any native tree will work as mulch:  oak tree leaves, pecan tree leaves, and even the duff, or detritus, of mesquite trees make wonderful mulch for gardens.

The thickness of mulch applied to the garden depends on the heat; the hotter the weather, the thicker the mulch should be.  By the month of August, the mulch around our tomatoes is 6 to 8 inches deep.  This thick layer of mulch keeps the soil cool at night, and our vines are full of ripe red tomatoes into the hottest part of summer.

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

August Tomatoes

High, 98; Heat Index, 109; Low, 80; Humidity 76%; Wind SSE at 21

Friends, we invite you to stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today for wonderful ripe red tomatoes, freshly picked from our garden.  We also offer eggplant, butternut and scaloppini squash, hot peppers, okra, mint, oregano, and basil.

You may find our pastured chicken in the frozen section, as well as our pork chops, ribs, pork roast, ground pork, and fresh bacon.  We collect our farm fresh eggs daily and deliver them to Kimmi’s store with our produce and herbs.

Tomatoes at 98 degrees

Wonderful August Tomatoes

It is nearly impossible to grow tomatoes in Rockport in the blistering heat of late July and August.  Tomatoes typically do not set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees.  The noontime sun can rot tomatoes on the vine in a single day, and burn the vines to dust.

In our Spring gardening talks, we discussed some of the techniques we use to grow prolific tomatoes through the worst of our summer heat.  Drip irrigation beneath a deep oak leaf mulch, early morning and evening shading from oak trees, native wood ash and crushed oyster shell amendments, and strategic companion planting are some of these methods.

However, the key factor in our ability to produce such sweet, flavorful, and prolific tomatoes in this intense heat is the health of our soil.  This factor is more important than all the other techniques combined.  There is no shortcut to developing this kind of soil health, and there is no possible way to duplicate it with chemicals.

Each successive year that we employ our heritage farming methods, we increase the health and vitality of our plants, animals, and environment.  And with each new garden cycle, the taste of our produce improves.  The taste of our food is very unique—it is the flavor of our farm, a distilled taste of Rockport.

More Tomatoes and Eggplant to Come

Click on the photo above for a better view of our tomato garden.  We plant one row of tomatoes on a fence trellis, then two rows of eggplant, then another row of trellised tomatoes, and repeat.  The tomato vines grow extremely tall and dense, and having eggplant on either side allows easier harvest.  We have just finished harvesting all the collards, cabbage, chard, lettuces, radishes, carrots, beets, and turnips that grew on that space as companions to our tomatoes and eggplant.

You can see many green tomatoes still on the vine, so we expect to offer tomatoes through the middle of August or longer.  Stop by Kimmi’s store to get yours.  Thank you for shopping locally!

Two More Weeks of Tomatoes

Three Good Recipes for Green Tomatoes

The following green tomato recipes are delicious and exceptionally healthy.  Kimmi’s Oven-Fried Green Tomato is the healthiest and lightest fried green tomato recipe you will ever try!   And her Green Tomato Rice is a hearty dish, perfect for a blustery winter day.  Thank you Kimmi for these fabulous recipes!

Green Tomato Chutney is sweet, spicy, tart, and wonderful–use this chutney to spice up any holiday meal.

Oven-Fried Green Tomatoes

(Thanks Kimmi Norvell for this wonderful recipe!)

Ingredients:

• 1 Four String Farm fresh egg*

• ½ cup cornmeal

• ¼ cup flour**

• 1 teaspoon cornstarch, tapioca or potato starch

• 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

• ½ teaspoon fresh ground sea salt

• ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper

• 4 large Four String Farm green tomatoes

*For vegan, sub ½ cup water & 1 ½ teaspoon ground flax seed combined in blender at high speed for 30 seconds. Pour in a wide and shallow bowl, allow to sit for until thickened.

** For gluten free, sub with quinoa, oat or brown rice flour.

To prepare:  Preheat oven to 425 and grease cookie sheet. Beat egg in one bowl and combine dry ingredients in another bowl. Cut tomatoes into ¼ to ½ inch slices. Submerge into egg or flax mixture and allow excess to drip off. Place in cornmeal mixture and press to ensure even coverage on each slice. Flip tomato and press again. Place on baking sheet. Bake all tomatoes for 15 minutes, or until bottoms are golden brown. Turn over and bake another 15-20 minutes. Remove and serve immediately.

Four String Farm Green Tomato Rice

(also from Kimmi!)

Ingredients: 

• 4 slices of fresh Four String Farm bacon

• 1 bunch of green onions, sliced

• 4 medium green tomatoes, peeled and chopped

• 1 fresh farm jalapeno pepper

• 1 clove garlic, minced

• 1 cup long-grain brown rice

• 2 ½ cups broth of your choice

• 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme

• Fresh ground sea salt and pepper

• Dash of hot sauce, optional

• ¼ cup fresh grated Parmesan, optional

To prepare:  Sauté the bacon in a medium saucepan until crisp. Remove and drain. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings. If you choose not to use bacon, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté green onions for one minute, add green tomatoes and sauté for one minute more. Add garlic and jalapeno and sauté for about a minute. Add broth, rice, thyme and seasonings and bring to a boil. Stir, cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. If using, stir in Parmesan and sprinkle with bacon just before serving.

Serves four.

Green Tomato Chutney

Ingredients:

• 2 1/2 pounds firm green tomatoes, about 6 cups diced

• 1 cup golden raisins (or if you can find them, 1/2 cup currants)

• 1 cup chopped onion

• 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1 1/4 cups cider vinegar

• 1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices

• 1 teaspoon chili powder

• 1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger

To prepare: Cut tomatoes into 3/4-inch dice (you should have about 6 cups). Combine all ingredients in a cast iron pot; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for about 1 hour, until thickened.

Spoon chutney into jars and refrigerate up to three weeks (it will last much longer, but flavor deteriorates). We pressure can our chutney, and will happily provide canning instructions upon request.

Makes about 3 pints of green tomato chutney.

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