Dale Garner is the Etowah County Master Gardeners’ tomato-growing expert, although he denies having expertise. He is in charge of growing vegetables for the Master Gardeners’ annual plant sale. I wrote an article on Dale last year and published a photo of him holding a really large tomato of more than 1 pound in weight. He grows plenty of tomatoes of that size every year. This year, he has harvested more than 26 tomatoes that weigh a pound or more. The largest tomato he has harvested weighed 2 pounds, 12 ounces. The tomato plants in the Garner garden are hanging full of large green and partially ripened tomatoes.

This year, Dale planted 56 tomato plants from seeds, 53 of which are heirloom tomatoes. He planted 23 different varieties. So far, he has lost five plants this year, which he plans to replace immediately. His friend and fellow Master Gardener, Joyce Green, gave him several tomato plants that she started from seed to replace the lost plants. Another friend, Randall West, gave him seeds for nine new varieties that Dale has not tasted because the fruit has not ripened yet. A third friend, Minannete Warren, “who grows plants that are unreal,” gave Dale several seeds of “Tennessee Blue” Tomatoes.

I visited Dale recently and got him to divulge a few of his growing secrets. Each section of his garden is divided into growing grids. Dale digs a deep, wide planting hole for each of his tomato plants, and he never places plants in the same planting hole two years in a row. Each section of the grid is large enough that he can move the hole to one of four different spots. He has a special method of mixing soil for growing tomatoes, and he has a set routine for watering the tomato plants.

Each spring, Dale removes the soil from each of the large tomato-planting holes that are the size of a 3- or 4-gallon bucket. He replaces the old soil with 10 shovels of fresh soil that he mixes in a wheelbarrow with his own compost made from pea shells, corn husks, shredded leaves, 4- to 5-year-old composted horse manure and grass clippings. To that mixture, he adds two shovels of peat moss and one coffee can of Perlite.

He places this mixture in each of new planting holes, then burrows out a hole deep in the soil for setting his plants. After setting his plants, he works one handful of lime and 1 tablespoon of fertilizer (10/10/10 or 13/13/13) into the soil surface. He always plants in late afternoon. Later, after the plants set fruit, he fertilizes again. Every two weeks, if rain occurs, he applies 1 tablespoon each of baking soda and Epsom salt to the soil to sweeten the fruit, making sure to not get the materials on the plants. If no rain occurs, Dale applies the soda and salt every three weeks and waters well.

More on Dale’s tomatoes next week ...

Carol (Bonnie) Link is an Etowah County Master Gardener and an experienced garden writer. Her weekly column is designed to help and encourage others in their gardening endeavors. Send questions or comments to clink43@bellsouth.net.