LAST summer, I took a half barrel and turned it into a compact (about 3 square feet) garden for America's most popular home-grown vegetable - the tomato. For the record, that small circle of growing space yielded 67 ripe tomatoes for a total weight of slightly more than 23 pounds, or roughly $35 worth of fresh fruit at the average ``vine ripened'' rate in our region.
In addition, the vines had 32 green tomatoes ranging from golf ball size to half a pound when frost brought the season to an abrupt halt Oct. 4.
Frankly, the results were less than I had hoped for. Still, under the circumstances, they were impressive enough for me to repeat the project this coming season. Certainly the potential is there to make the half barrel a very useful, even impressive way to product tomatoes.
The obvious advantage of a barrel, as with any container, is that it can turn a sunny patch of concrete into a viable garden, or it can be placed in an area where tree roots would be too invasive for a normal garden. Its disadvantage is that it has to be watered frequently (every day in hot weather) and fed every week once the plants have matured.
A late start, indifferent growing weather during June, and a mistake that toppled three of four vines at the height of the season all mitigated against peak production for my barrel garden last year. And, while nothing could be done about the weather, I can certainly avoid the other two crop-limiting factors during the coming season.
The record, courtesy of my computer, shows that I bought a half barrel from the garden center June 2 and planted it with four 6-inch-tall Jet Star seedlings. The tub was filled with a mix of leaf mold and sandy garden loam, enriched with two gallons of composted cow manure.
After a cool June, July proved a good growing month for tomatoes in this coastal Massachusetts region, and the first ripe tomato was picked Aug. 11. Thereafter the tub yielded between four and 18 ripe tomatoes a week during the eight weeks up to frost in early October.
From the middle of July, I fed the plants a gallon of liquid (5-10-5) fertilizer each week and thoroughly watered them every day when the weather was particularly hot. In order to keep cool under the summer sun, a mature tomato plant can transpire as much as a gallon of water a day.
A setback came Aug. 23 when three of the four vines, heavy with green fruit, snapped the supporting twine and collapsed. One vine broke off completely about halfway up the stem and the other two had badly split stems. While the broken vine sent out new growth, it was too late to set more fruit before frost. The split vines continued producing, but less abundantly than the undamaged vine. The lesson learned: Don't ever reuse weathered twine from the previous season, no matter how strong it seems to be!
Apart from supporting the vines much more securely this coming season, I will also set them out earlier. In my region they could go out at least three weeks sooner, given a little protection against the cold night air. And three weeks of additional growing time in the North translates into a vastly heavier total harvest at the end of the season. It should be relatively simple, too, to provide a barrel garden with protection to take it through the first few fall frosts as well.
If you are interested in growing ``tub tomatoes,'' here's how:
1.Purchase a half barrel.
2.Drill several holes in the base for drainage.
3.Fill it with a soil-compost mix. If you have no compost, add two or three pails of peat moss. Enrich with a little aged manure or organic fertilizer. The idea is to boost the humus content as well as the nutrients in the soil. If your soil is heavy, place a layer of stones over the bottom of the tub to improved drainage. My soil is light enough so that this is unnecessary.
4.Take four wooden stakes, 6 feet long, and nail or screw the bottom 12 inches onto opposite sides of the exterior of the tub (see diagram). I used lengths of strapping bought from a local building supply center. Because the sides of the tub slope out from the base, the stakes project outward, forming a wider circle at the top. This means that the vines grow up into the wider space that they need as they mature. (Note: Long stakes are necessary if you plan to grow an indeterminate tomato variety. If you plan to grow one of the newer determinate ``bush'' varieties, stakes projecting 3 feet above the rim are adequate.)
5.To support the stakes, run a length of wire (sturdy twine is also acceptable) from each stake to its opposite number at various heights. I would suggest putting one set of these tie-wires at 12 inches above the rim, and two more at 18 inch intervals.
For a quick start, fill the barrel to within an inch of the top with the soil mixture a week or two before you intend to set out the tomato seedlings. Drape a sheet of clear plastic over the tub, anchoring it around the base with stones. This places the tub in a greenhouse-type atmosphere that quickly warms up the soil for the heat-loving tomatoes. This step, valuable in the short-season North, loses its importance the farther south your garden is situated.
Remove the plastic, and attach the stakes and supporting cross wires. Set out one tomato plant, about 6 inches in from the rim, alongside each of the stakes.
Limit each plant to one or two stems, pinching out every other side shoot as they form. Support the stems by tying them loosely to the stakes or cross wires.
With their confined root systems, it will be necessary to feed the tomatoes once a week with a liquid fertilizer (or a rich compost ``tea''). Begin this feeding four or five weeks after the plants have been set out. A still better option would be to feed the plants a gallon of half-strength solution twice a week. In hot weather, water the plants copiously (one gallon per vine a day).