Check out that gorgeous tomato plant! Just two short weeks ago, this little one was newly transplanted, with just a couple of leaves sticking out of the ground. Today, it is standing tall and strong, with roots as deep as it is tall, and it has me thinking that it’s probably time to dig out the tomato cages and stakes this weekend. With a weather pattern that hasn’t given us with more than one or two dry days at a time, getting these first few tomatoes in my raised beds off and running was a piece of cake this year – with exactly the kind of even, consistent moisture that they need (and really good soil in the raised beds), I haven’t had to water them since the night I transplanted them.
The tomatoes at the community garden are a different story.
The community garden is tough for a number of reasons: The soil is pretty sandy and not very rich, so it retains very little moisture after a good watering or rainfall. Add to that the fact that the community garden has full sun exposure and no neighborhood buildings or trees in close proximity to block the wind, so what little moisture is able to stick around, quickly evaporates on a sunny or windy day. Last summer’s extremely hot weather and lack of significant rainfall from July onward only added to the challenge, so for this year’s garden I wanted to come up with something that would help get the water down a little deeper, where the roots would be able to use it more efficiently and it wouldn’t be largely lost through evaporation.
I started with two 3″x10′ sections of perforated drain tile, which I was able to pick up at the local big box home improvement store for $3.05 a piece (the drain tile curls up, so they were easy fit into the back seat of our little car).
Finding perforated tile (rather than the solid style) was the primary objective, as those little slits all around and along the tubing are going to be the key for a good deep, slow watering. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see the thin slits that are in each grove all the way around the tubing (look right where the shadow begins towards the bottom).
Using a tape measure and a utility knife, I cut the tile into 1′ long pieces, which is about how deep each of my tomato plants were going to be transplanted (it was a looong, cold spring). It was quite easy to cut and didn’t take long at all to work my way through both sections of tile.
I ended up with 20 pieces (one for every two tomatoes in the community garden plot).
When it came time to transplant the tomatoes, I first spaced out the plants for the first row (one plant every 2′), and then went through and spaced out one section of drain tile between every two tomato plants (centered 1′ from the plant on either side) before I started digging.
Each tomato plant was transplanted as deeply as possible, removing all leaves except the top two pairs, which were left at ground level while the remaining stem was buried below the surface. Most of the tomatoes were planted 8-12″ deep, which meant I spent a lot of time digging big deep holes, but the trade off is I’m going to have a nice, deep root system, which will also help with keeping the plants evenly watered.
With the piece of drain tile in place, I started to fill the dirt back in around the tile on all sides, taking care not to get any dirt inside the tube.
The end result is a 3″ wide wells that will bring the water much deeper than I could ever get it by just watering on the surface. Each well holds just a little over a gallon of water, and as that water soaks in, it is not only slowly draining out the bottom of the tile, it is seeping out of the slits along the side of the tile as well, providing moisture to the soil all along those deep roots.
And so I worked my way through 4 rows (40 tomato plants) with a water well between every two tomatoes (for reference – and a better idea of the big picture – they are the black dots in the tomato rows in the garden layout). It definitely was a time and energy intensive project, but hopefully it will be well worth it in the end.
Utilizing this kind of deep watering will be beneficial in keeping the tomatoes evenly watered, and hopefully will lessen the occurrence of blossom end rot (something paste tomatoes are especially susceptible to). It should also simply improve the overall health and productivity of the tomato plants, and in theory, it will become even more efficient over time as I work to build this soil up. If I have good success with this method this year, I may go as far as putting one in between each plant next year, but this is a good start to see if it makes a noticeable difference. If nothing else, it’s been a great conversation starter out at the community garden!
Update: This post has received a lot of traffic lately, so for those of you wondering how it worked, it was very successful. I observed significantly less blossom end rot in the paste tomatoes (what did occur was contained to just a couple of varieties and only occurred after periods of particularly wet weather), and I was able to cut my watering time in half (from watering the tomato plants every day to every other day), making the return on this minimal investment pretty significant. I will definitely continue to use this method for my tomato plants going forward.