My very first job out of Texas A&M graduate school was working for Alston Nursery on 9th Avenue in Port Arthur, Texas. It had previously been the Eagleson Nursery, home of many camellias and the Eagleson holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Eagleson’) which I still grow. I didn’t end up staying long as I was soon offered the job of Bexar County Horticulturist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in San Antonio. The late Norman Alston was a nice man, an excellent nurseryman, and a great vegetable gardener. I have a copy of his “Tomato Growing Alston Style” and though a bit outdated, I thought you might enjoy reading it in his words.
Tomato Growing Alston Style
Norman Alston, Port Arthur, Texas 1991
Everyone has his or her BEST way to grow his or her BEST variety of tomatoes. And believe me when I say that I have heard just about all of them over the years. I will also agree with the fact that most of them are good and have produced many fine tomato crops.
Just in case you have never had the occasion to hear the ALSTON METHOD, and if you want to hear the ALSTON METHOD, here goes mine. In addition to giving you my theory I’m going to attempt to answer some of the many questions asked us.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO PLANT?
The very best time to plant would be between 9:00 A.M. and 10:00 A.M. on the morning after the last frost. Predicting this date is just a shade above the capability of most of us so we suggest waiting until around the first of March. Keep in mind that you might still have to cover them a time or two if you plant that early. If you are one of the big-time planters and don’t want to be bothered with covering plants then wait until at least March 15th. If you wait until then you will have ripe fruit just about soon as your neighbor who planted in mid-February with a lot less trouble.
WHAT IS THE BEST VARIETY TO PLANT?
Boy, can I stir up a can of worms here!!!!! As I stated before, everyone seems to have their favorite, and rightfully so. Some soil will grow Better Boys a lot better than it will grow Celebrities or any other variety. So if you have had good luck with one variety then let that variety be your main crop. In addition to your big planting, branch out with one or two of the new varieties and at least give them a chance to show their stuff. Up until this year (1991), Better Boy has been our big seller but has lost ground to Celebrity and Carnival the past two years. President is coming on strong and shows signs of being one of the top varieties in a short while.
The ones mentioned above are our recommendations if you are planting for production. I’ll still stick my neck out and say that the best-tasting tomato is the GULF STATES. I’m talking about the true GULF STATES and not one that is mislabeled.
HOW DEEP DO I PLANT PLANTS?
The deeper the better if your garden is well-drained. If you are planting a plant six to eight inches in height I would leave only about three inches sticking out of the ground. Tomatoes will sprout roots on any part of the stem that is covered with soil, so the deeper the plant is put the more roots that you have to support the plant. Planting that deep will also let you have a root system deep enough to utilize some of the deeper moisture, requiring less watering in the heat of the summer. We sometimes hear of laying the plant down on its side and covering it with a layer of dirt. If you do this the roots are still near the surface and require more water than deeper planted ones and should you cut the roots while hoeing or cultivating the plant you will see an increased amount of Blossom End Rot. Drastic changes in moisture that is taken into the plant is a major cause of this problem. Don’t follow these suggestions if planting peppers and eggplants.
WHEN AND WITH WHAT DO I FERTILIZE WITH?
At the time of planting dig your hole two or three inches deeper than is needed in order to plant as we mentioned before. Drop in a tablespoon of some good commercial fertilizer (13-13-13 or 12-24-12) are good ones and cover this fertilizer with a couple inches of dirt. Now plant your plant as suggested above. It’s always a good idea to water the plant in a little in order to get the air pockets away from the root system. If the plants continue to grow at a reasonable rate of speed, the next fertilizer required will be a side dressing of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) after it has set its first cluster of fruit. I side-dress my plants every three or so weeks with 34-0-0- using one or two tablespoons per plant depending on the size of the plant, and continue this until I get tired of picking tomatoes or until the heat kills the bushes. During the first few weeks if the plants look like they need a little help it would be advisable to water them with an application of Peters 20-20-20 or Miracle-Gro or any other water-soluble fertilizer. (Note: Ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) is no longer sold so he would have used ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) now.
HOW DO I PRUNE OR SUCKER MY PLANTS?
I personally think that too much pruning is done on tomato plants. The leaves were put on a plant for the purpose of manufacturing food picked up by the root system into a usable solution for the plant. Sunlight coming in contact with the leaves, through the process known as photosynthesis does this. If too many leaves are pruned off you have removed a major factory needed in the development of fruit. In addition, if too many leaves are removed the fruit that is formed will sun blister or scald. I remove the suckers from the plant up to the third cluster of fruit and let it go on its own from there.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO WATER TOMATOES?
One of the biggest mistakes made in growing tomatoes is OVER WATERING. A big percentage of all problems brought in to us is in some way related to excess water. It can be caused by poor drainage but most of it is caused by what comes out of the end of the garden hose and how it is applied. Drip irrigation or some other way of soaking the soil without letting the water come in contact with the leaves is recommended. Just laying the hose down and letting the water run out at a slow rate of speed is satisfactory. Soaking the soil to a minimum depth of 4 to 6 inches once or twice each week in dry weather is enough. Sprinkling by hand or with a sprinkler usually wets just an inch or so and will cause the roots to come to the surface. This creates a need for more frequent watering and also weakens the support of the plant. One other thing sprinkling does is cause water and mud to splash on the lower leaves encouraging disease problems.
Just because your plants wilt a little during the day does not mean that they need watering. Ol’ Mother Nature causes plants to wilt or droop down in the intense sun so that a lesser amount of leaves are exposed to the sun lowering the amount of moisture that transpired or is lost to evaporation. PLANTS DO NOT NEED TO BE WATERED ON A SCHEDULE.
WHAT DO I NEED TO SPRAY MY PLANTS WITH TO PREVENT INSECTS AND DISEASES?
Nothing! Don’t pollute the environment any more than it already is if not needed. Keep a close watch on your plants and call us if you see anything that moves or looks like it could be a problem.
WHAT ARE THE BROWN SPOTS THAT FORM ON THE BOTTOM OF MY FRUIT?
This is Blossom End Rot and is a disorder in the plant caused by a combination of major changes in moisture level in the soil and the availability of calcium for the plant. Garden lime or Gypsum should be added to the soil quite often at a rate of 5 to 10 pounds per 100 square feet. This will aid in the prevention of Blossom End Rot to a degree but only to a degree. The moisture level must be kept as near and constant as possible to control the problem. Keeping a good layer of good mulch on the soil will help. Notice sometimes how much more Blossom end Rot you see immediately after heavy rain.
Products are available that contain liquid calcium for the purpose of spraying on the plant just as soon as the fruit is set. We have used this with very good results in the past. The purpose of this product is to allow calcium to be more readily available to the plant and fruit. The product contains Calcium Chloride and has no harmful problems if used according to the instructions.
We are by no means saying that our method is the best way to grow tomatoes and it might not work for you. We are saying that it works for us and has worked for several years and we will continue to use it until I hear of something I like better.