This is where I share my sad garden soil story so that tomato sauce gardeners will take heed, avoid my mistakes and hopefully avoid similar garden soil problems.
When my husband first built my raised bed tomato sauce garden, we were surrounded by over two acres of soil that hadn't been touched in years. This is because we were the first to build a house on our land.
In spite of the fact that I had peas and strawberries growing like crazy in this native soil, I felt, for some strange reason, that I needed to purchase "better" soil to fill up my new raised garden beds. So I located a local company advertising an "organic garden mix". This seemed like a good idea and I filled up my beds with it, and planted my tomatoes in imported garden soil.
Unfortunately, a major component of my fancy soil turned out to be sand because I noticed that water quickly drained right out of the bottom of the bed.
Apparently you cannot just order up good, healthy garden soil. It takes time and the right nutrients to build up a perfect balance of microbes, worms, and other critters that structure the soil as they eat, poo, move and die in it. Purchasing a garden soil mix may be a good way to fill garden beds if you do not have native soil available, however be prepared to do some work before you can expect the soil to produce the tomato sauce of your dreams.
As I continued to work with the garden soil I purchased, I became more frustrated. We dumped bag after bag of composted steer manure from the hardware store into the beds and worked it into the soil thinking that would do the trick. But, of course, it didn't help as quickly as we wanted it to and the water (along with the minimal nutrients) continued to run through my beds. We had no choice but to spend tons of time, water and money to keep the plants hydrated all summer. We did get some ripe tomatoes but not as many as we were expecting from over thirty plants.
We also noticed a new pest had arrived: potato beetles. These insects ate lots of little holes in the leaves of all my plants but I couldn't tell if the damage compromised my crop at all. When nutrients are lacking or out of balance, that's when various pests are most likely to take advantage of weakening plants and attack them. Even if the plants do not look like they are weak, if there is a significant pest attack taking place, it is most likely that the plants are stressed in some way.
The following season, the soil in all of my exposed beds had eroded and become compacted due to winter rains and snow. As result, the beds were half empty and I was ready to plant some early crops in some of them such as carrots and lettuce. I decided to go ahead and take soil from the tomato beds thinking I would refill them later with something else.
We thought that re-filling the tomato beds with compost would greatly improve the water retention. So we ordered up a load of composted sawdust mixed with composted steer manure. The compost seemed great at first but then...
Over the next few weeks, as this compost dried out on the top, it formed a thick, hard crust in the top several inches of my tomato beds. Since we were very busy with work and family at the time, we had set up a watering system on a timer and didn't pay much attention until we realized our plants looked pale and sickly. What was happening was that the water rolled over the crusty surface of the compost and ran down and out of the edges of the beds, without hydrating the tomatoes much at all. Since we had planted basil along the edges of the tomato beds, they recieved the majority of the water running through and were bigger than the tomato plants. Again, our tomato sauce production was very small.
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