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Grow Better Tomatoes by Amending the Soil

May 15 is coming and we're here in the Garden State! Do you plan to grow tomatoes this summer? It's so easy to just do the minimum, like pick up a couple of hastily-selected tomato plants from one of the big-box stores. But what if you decided to go all in with your tomato crop this year? You'd want to sow the highest quality tomato plants possible, of course.

Thinking ahead to tomato-harvesting season, what could you do with a wonderful selection of carefully cultivated tomato plants that bear succulent, meaty and tasty fruit?

Serve fantastic tomato salads every night, with healthy ingredients like avocado, olives, fresh mozzarella or feta if that's your fave. Brighten up salads with a splash of tangy vinegar or a squeeze of lemon, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs for the final touch. What about sauces? If you had a bountiful tomato crop, oh, what a joy it would be to harvest bushels of tomatoes to make and can homemade sauce for the winter.

You may not have thought about this much, but soil amendments can be the key to growing your best-ever tomato crop here in NJ. What's the soil like where you live? Richy and loamy? Sandy? Red, with a higher clay content that doesn't hold water well? It takes just the right balance of nutrients to produce exceptional tomato plants. Soil, of course, is at the root of it all.

The basics of soil amendment

Improve the growing condition of your soil by either adding in missing nutrients or minimizing negative elements. Through this process of calculated addition or subtraction, you can create an ideal soil environment for your plants to thrive.

Some suggestions for doing this successfully:

Begin with a soil test. You can find a soil testing kit right at your local Home Depot, plant nursery or garden store. This is needed so you can test the pH of your garden soil. If the soil is too acidic or too alkaline, your tomato plants won't grow properly. With soil pH, a reading of 7 is neutral - halfway between acidic and alkaline. Tomatoes happen to prefer soil that's slightly acidic. So if your soil comes up somewhere between 6.0 and 6.8, that's perfect. Your tomato plants will need varying amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese to become healthy, vibrant and produce a good crop of fruit.

Amend the soil as necessary. If your soil is too acidic, limestone or lime (calcium carbonate) will raise the pH to keep your tomato plants happy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, organic mulch, sphagnum peat, elemental sulphur or aluminum sulfate will bring a too-high pH reading back down to the desired range.

Make your own compost. Your own kitchen contains some essential ingredients for creating the perfect garden soil amendments. Eggshells, banana peels, organic plant-based kitchen scraps and coffee grounds are excellent ways to add potassium, phosphorus, calcium and other vital nutrients to your soil. Eggshells, in particular, will increase the calcium levels in your soil which produces healthy tomato plants that bear good fruit. Be sure to rinse and dry the eggshells before adding them to your garden soil.

Consult a gardening expert. If you get confused about soil pH or aren't sure where to start, consult with your local county extension agent or Master Gardener before determining what amendments to use and in what quantities for your location.

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