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TGN Talks Tomatoes With Dave Freed, Local Changemaker

Nominee: Dave Freed

Home Digs: Cypress, CA

Blog: GrowTomatoesEasily.blogspot.com

Fast Fact: Known as “Dave, the Tomato Guy,” his motto is, If you don’t have a green thumb, I’ll give you one.

Nominated By: Tirzah S. | Hindsville, AR

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Tell us about your background—where you grew up, your education, and what career or life path led to your current role as a Master Gardener, speaker, and tomato enthusiast?

I live in Cypress, California (in Orange County), but I was born and raised in the Midwest in North Central Kansas on a farm with cows, pigs, chickens, corn, wheat—and always a big vegetable garden. We did lots of fishing and hunting, and we lived off the land. I remember hunting with my father for rabbits, squirrels, ducks, pheasants, etc., for our next meal. It was a hard life, but we always had food to eat. I suppose that’s where I got my roots for growing a garden. Eventually, we left Kansas and ended up in California. I have always grown an annual garden and always include tomatoes, as this is the one fruit you cannot buy in the supermarket with a great, homegrown taste.

I worked in the foodservice industry before owning a full-service restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, near the University of Southern California. About 10 years ago, I sold the restaurant and retired, figuring I would relax and enjoy life and probably become very bored within about six months and then get back out into the business world. That never happened, and I’ve never looked back.

I volunteered to become a Master Gardener in Orange County, where we volunteer our hours helping others with their gardens. My heart has always been about growing tomatoes, and I’ve always been a competitor. So, since growing tomatoes easily was always a challenge, I learned how to make it easier, more foolproof, and more simple. People began calling to ask if I would come speak to their group or organization and share my tips on how to grow tomatoes easily in an urban setting. Today, I speak to 15–30 southern California gardening clubs and organizations every year on how to grow tomatoes easily. Last year, I even started a blog. I tell people, “If you don’t have a green thumb, I’ll give you one.”

What do you think makes your techniques so easy to follow? What kind of feedback have you received from your “students”?

My motto may seem rather bold, but it’s really not. You see, if you go on my blog site, I show you pictures of the tomatoes I grow—some plants with more than 100 pounds of tomatoes on them. And I tell you specifically what I do to grow these great tomatoes: which potting mixes, soils, fertilizers, and tomato plants to buy. I explain when to plant and how to water. I give you no room for failure as long as you follow the suggestions. And I have people let me know all the time that they’ve grown tomatoes for years and never had so much success as they do now.

I don’t do everything from scratch. People tend to live in the fast lane and want hassle-free and time-saving methods to grow tomatoes in home gardens. Some people are enthusiastic organic growers, while others are not—I demonstrate how to produce great results either way.

I’ve always said that if I ever write a book, I’ll try to keep it to about eight pages. Short and to the point!

You’ve said you research growing techniques as a backyard farmer before sharing them on your blog and in gardening classes. Can you give us an example of a tip that you found to be a great success? How about one that fell flat?

An idea that was a success was using great potting soil for backyard tomatoes. I detail my steps in the tips below. Basically, use one of the three great potting soils I recommend, then mix in some composted steer manure with compost.

Until this discovery, I was like most others—simply mixing in compost with backyard dirt and planting tomatoes. They never did very well. And you never have to worry about planting in the same spot year after year. If you think you need to change the soil, you dig out the potting soil from the hole and replace it with new potting soil. This is one of the biggest improvements the backyard tomato farmer can make.

An idea that fell flat was grafted tomatoes—attaching a disease-resistant, hearty rootstock to your favorite top, such as the heirloom Brandywine. This was supposed to result in a great root system that produced a huge top with lots of your favorite tomatoes. For several years, I would plant a grafted Brandywine next to a Brandywine with its original roots. Every year, the original Brandywine outperformed the grafted one by a large margin.

You’ve taught others to build self-watering containers. What makes you such a big proponent?

Self-watering containers have been around for a long time. You can find many different designs online. The one thing they all have in common is that they have a water reservoir at the bottom of the container that will hold water for the plants to use as needed.

Remember, a full-grown tomato plant will use 2 to 3 gallons of water every day. Most of the time we do a lousy job of consistently watering our gardens and tomatoes. Self-watering containers help to keep those roots moist—and even more so if you are using great potting soil.

You frequently yield 100+ pounds of tomatoes on a single plant. Can you share some tips for prolific production that are universal across climates and growing regions?

Sunshine. Tomato plants convert sunlight into food and energy. The more sunshine—especially morning sun—the more food and energy your tomato plant has to produce a big top with lots and lots of tomatoes.

Soil. This is probably where the biggest advantage can be gained by the average tomato farmer. I first recommend you dig a hole at least 2 feet deep and 2 feet in diameter. Throw away the dirt, and fill the hole with water to make sure it drains. Then I suggest filling the hole with at least a 15-gallon container of one of the three potting mixes that I mention on my blog, followed by mixing in a little bit of composted steer manure. Plant one tomato plant in the middle of that hole.

Why do I suggest one of these three potting mixes? Because they contain a very large amount of sphagnum peat moss, and 1 pound of sphagnum peat moss can hold up to 25 pounds of water. It’s like surrounding those roots 24/7 with a sponge, which promotes a big root system, which promotes a big top with lots of tomatoes. A small root system gives you a bonsai tomato plant. . . . I know, because I’ve been there.

Schedule. For your city or ZIP code, look up historical weather averages for a guideline on planting tomatoes. They generally need 50- to 55-degree nights to produce pollen—no pollen, no tomatoes. Once temperatures rise to 85 degrees and warmer, tomato plants will generally quit producing pollen. That is your window. (And, yes, there are tomato plants that will produce tomatoes in 90-degree weather.)

Variety. If you plant a lousy variety, you are going to get lousy results. My blog site shows you different varieties that will give you lots of tomatoes—and I mention them in the next question as well. If possible, pick one of those to plant, and buy a live plant.

Watering. A mature tomato plant can easily use up to 3 gallons of water every day. Try to water in the morning, as excess water on the leaves or surface of the soil will evaporate quickly, whereas evening watering leaves the surface soil wet too long and invites disease.

How do you know when to water? Use a moisture meter. You can buy these at your brick-and-mortar stores or online. Stick the probe down into the soil, and the meter will read dry, moist, or wet. If the reading is on the dry/moist side, it’s time to water. Water down deep, slowly, about 18 inches to 2 feet. Using deep watering pipes can help. This water carries all the nutrients from the soil up to the tomatoes and the growing tips of the vines. And then 80 to 90 percent of that water evaporates out through the leaves.

Fertilizer. Tomato plants are very heavy users of fertilizer. If you do not remember anything else, remember to use only a liquid fertilizer that is recommended for tomatoes and/or vegetable gardens.

In liquid form, fertilizer can be taken up by the tomato plant almost immediately. In dry form, it can take weeks or months.

Tomato Cages. You will want to use a heavy-duty tomato cage to keep the tomatoes up off the soil. You can find these at your local nurseries or big-box stores. I like to use concrete-reinforcing wire and make my own approximately 2 feet in diameter and 5- or 6-feet tall, depending on the plant you’re growing. Some of my cages are 3 feet in diameter and 8-feet tall.

Do you have a favorite tomato variety?

There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes. Hybrids, heirlooms, determinants that grow like a bush, and indeterminates that grow like a vine.

  • My favorite hybrids are probably Better Boy, Big Beef, Husky Cherry Red, and Celebrity.
  • Top heirlooms are Pink Brandywine, Red Brandywine, and Cherokee Purple.

For the most part, these are all thin-skinned varieties with great flavor that produce many pounds of tomatoes per plant. Some other varieties produce very few tomatoes even under ideal conditions.

So if you see some of the above for sale in your area of the country, give them a try. No. 1, I recommend that people plant a great tomato each year that will give them lots of tomatoes. After that, try something new.

What do you do with all those tomatoes? Sell them through a farmers’ market, distribute them within the community, do a ton of canning—or give them away to lots of grateful friends?

I love the flavor of homegrown tomatoes, and growing them is a hobby I really enjoy. I do not sell any of my tomatoes. I do not can, freeze, or dry any either. I give away as many as I can to friends, relatives, neighbors, my barber, my dry cleaner, and so on. Sometimes, I just leave a box of fresh tomatoes on someone’s porch . . . and I haven’t had any returned yet!

What do you find most valuable about being part of The Grow Network community?

I come into contact with hundreds of people when I’m teaching. America is probably the most diverse nation on earth, with many differing views on life and politics. Vegetable gardens and homegrown tomatoes . . . turning back to the basics . . . healthy living and healthy eating—all these put us on the same page, and differences are forgotten. The Grow Network offers a forum for all of this, with something there for everyone. When we live life in the fast lane and finally slow down to enjoy a homegrown garden, it’s surprising how rewarding it can be.

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