How to optimize tomato production with sub-irrigated beds

I previously wrote about our amazing results growing peppers in a sub-irrigated raised bed. This year we decided to dedicate our second sub-irrigated raised bed to sauce tomatoes and our results were better than I could have ever expected. We planted a combination of San Marzano, Amish Paste, Speckled Roman and Romas. The plants grew like mad and by mid summer we had a tomato jungle:

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Our tomato jungle wasn’t just a bunch of green vegetation either! We had hundreds upon hundreds of tomatoes nestled on those vines:

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We had to pick tomatoes each weekend and the harvests were swell:

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Don’t those look amazing? We made some of the best sauce on earth and numerous recipes that called for fresh tomatoes. After all of that, we still had enough to can 60 jars of tomatoes… which means that we get to enjoy that fresh tomato flavor all winter. I never knew how much of a huge difference it makes to use canned garden tomatoes in a sauce rather than store bought, you really can’t beat it! I’m planning to nix the Romas this year and focus on San Marzano, Amish Paste and Speckled Romas. All three tasted great fresh and really contributed to an amazing tomato sauce. Yumbo!

How to optimize pepper production with sub-irrigated beds

This past summer was our second time growing peppers in our sub-irrigated raised beds. This method of growing peppers isn’t awesome. It isn’t magnificent. It is an ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE way of growing delicious capsaicin filled peppers as well as bells and pimentos. Our first year we tried to mix peppers and tomatoes in a 12×4 sub-irrigated bed:

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That was a mistake. Tomatoes need a lot of space and even with constant pruning the tomatoes eventually started shading out the peppers. So this year we devoted an entire bed to peppers and boy was it worth it. We were hauling in bowl after bowl of bell, pimento and jalapeno peppers and we had little to no pest issues. Look at these bad boys!:

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We used Jalapenos in numerous recipes and were able to put back a ton of poppers, hot sauce and jelly. We turned our bells into delicious stuffed peppers, used them in fajitas and still had plenty to freeze for winter. Our Pimentos made some of the best pimento cheese on earth (a favorite Southern tradition)! I’m looking at the various seed catalogs now to see what I want to plant in the pepper bed next year. I’m thinking about adding Thai chili, Hungarian Wax and Santa Fe peppers to the mix. Um, um good!

Great place to find tomato seeds

I came across a link to the Tomato Fest website a few months back. I’ve spent quite a bit of time perusing their collection and trying to find tomato varieties that will work well in our area. I’m specifically trying to find varieties that have been bred to deal with the hot humid summers we have, and the blight that comes with those conditions. Last year we had to do a fair amount of pruning to protect our tomatoes from blight, and I’m hoping I can find a few varieties that won’t require so much babying. I’ll make sure to post my trials to the blog this summer

Converting traditional raised beds to sub-irrigated beds

For several years I’ve been using Earthboxes to grow annual vegetables (beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, etc.). I’ve had fantastic results and I wanted to bring this amazing growing method to two of my raised beds. The concept behind sub-irrigated beds is pretty simple. Water is added to a reservoir in the bottom of a container through a fill tube and a peat-based planting medium is used to wick water up to the plants. An overflow tube is also installed to funnel excess water out of the bed.

Applying this to a raised bed is super easy and I’ll show you what I did to make mine. Here are the steps I wrote down before starting this project:

1. Remove the existing planting medium from the bed
2. Grade the soil inside the bed to create a level base
3. Add a layer of weed fabric to buffer the liner
4. Install a non-toxic barrier (I used a pond liner) to keep water in and create the reservoir
5. Cover your drainage pipe w/ a drainage sock to keep roots out
6. Add perforated drain pipe to create a reservoir
7. Install an overflow tube to let excess water out
8. Add a fill tube to get water into the reservoir
9. Fill the box w/ a peat-based planting medium (we used ProMix BX)

The beds I chose to convert were filled with garden soil so I had to remove and relocate the existing soil:

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Once the soil was removed I create a level base inside the box and removed every stone I could see. To create a cushioned buffer between the liner and ground I laid down a thick layer of weed fabric. Next I covered the inside with a heavy duty non-toxic pond liner and stapled it to the top of my beds to keep it in place. It took some wiggling and shouting to get it installed perfectly but eventually I had a nice snug fit.

To create my reservoir I cut 6″ perforated drain pipe to size, wrapped it with a drainage sock and placed them where I wanted them. Here is the bed with the pond liner and drainage pipe installed:

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To allow excess water to drain I had to drill a hole on one end of the bed and install a short piece of PVC. The PVC was pushed into the drain pipe and run several inches outside the bed. To allow air to circulate I left a small gap between the top of the drainage pipe and the PVC overflow:

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Here’s a picture of the tubing poking out the side:

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Next I installed a PVC fill tube to get water into the reservoir:

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At this point I was ecstatic! I just needed to add a peat-based planting medium, fertilizer and water. To give my beds a healthy start I picked up 5 compressed bails of ProMIX BX and spent half a day opening bags and breaking apart the compressed soil:

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I soaked the top of the soil with water to loosen it up and added a batch of lettuce transplants. The lettuce grew like mad and the sauce tomatoes we grew this summer ended up producing 60 pints of sauce! We also got hundreds and hundreds of peppers from the other bed we converted.

The beds were VERY self sufficient. I filled the beds with water once a week during the hottest days of summer, pruned, added fertilizer as needed and picked a boat load of vegetables. Here is a picture of the bed once we trimmed off the excess liner and filled it with mix:

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I’m extremely happy with results and the ease of growing in our new sub-irrigated beds. I’ll make sure to post pictures this summer once our next batch of vegetables go in.

** UPDATE **

Put up a couple of posts about growing vegetables in sub-irrigated beds:

Optimizing Pepper production in a sub-irrigated raised bed
Optimizing Tomato production in a sub-irrigated raised bed

Having a swinging good time in the orchard

Being outdoors is an incredible experience and I love to take in nature. I love watching bees collect nectar and pollen, birds searching for worms and trees blowing gently in the wind. One of my favorite places to watch this phenomenon is our small home orchard. To make this experience even more amazing I treated myself to a Lakeland Mills log swing this past spring. It went together like clockwork and after a couple coats of stain I’m LOVING it:

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Now after a long day of work in the garden I can pour a nice glass of lemonade and relax in my comfy swing. The only thing missing is a set of outdoor pillows. Hopefully we can find some this year on one of the big store close out racks.