Posted on 28 April 2010 by

Tomato Chronicles – Preparing the Bed

tomato-farm.JPGBy Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

As the old saying goes, “You made your bed so lie in it.”

This is true for a gardener because the success or failure of your season depends on the type of “bed” one prepares.

If your “garden” area is conducive to disturbing the turf then you have 4 ways of doing this.

Each technique has its pros and cons and some may take time before results are produced. But if you do not live in an area where you choose not or cannot disturb the turf part 2 will describe a way to plant your tomatoes in an alternative “bed.”

Methods 1,2, and 4 require equipment so before starting one of these methods check to make sure you have or can rent the needed tools. Note please make sure tools are sharp and the right length for the user or are ergonomically designed. Both of these hints will help reduce back strain and muscle soreness from the work.

Before you choose your method of bed preparation one needs to look at your environment. First tomatoes need at least 8 hours of sun. The more the merrier so plan accordingly. Also if you are an urban gardener you will want to know where your utilities are located. There is nothing more discouraging then to be digging and cut through your phone or cable line.

Also one needs to consider how much space your need and what else is going into the garden besides tomatoes. The type of staking also needs to be considered because this step can add or decrease space in your garden. Finally if you are working an area that had a garden in it before you need to consider what was in that garden and where it was located. Tomatoes need to be rotated every 3 years to control pests. So plan your “garden bed” carefully before you start to prepare it. This will save a lot of time an effort.

1. Digging


  • Watering hose
  • Edger or sharp spade
  • Garden fork
  • Sod cutter for large areas

Before you start make sure your utility company marks where your lines are so you do not cut through them.


1. Water the area a few days before you plan to work. Damp soil is easier to work with but keep in mind that soggy soil is heavy and compacts which can reduce plant growth.

2. Cut the sod using an edger or sharp spade. Make these cuts at 1-foot increments and about 1-2-foot lengths. Keep in mind the sod will be heavy so be careful lifting. Using your spade or fork lift one end up of your strip and slide your spade or fork down that strip cutting through any taproots and the fibrous roots of the grass. Lift sod up and shake any loose soil back into the “garden.” If you do not cut your strips into 1-2-foot pieces you may roll your strip of sod and use it in other parts of your yard. If your garden is large one may want to rent a sod cutter that would speed up the process verses using just a spade.

3. Check your garden bed’s soil to make sure all roots have been removed and no pests are present. Larvae of a lot of insects can be found in May-June so be careful in your inspection.

4. Fill in your garden space with compost, aged manure, and topsoil. Any combination of this mixture will create a healthy growing medium by which your tomatoes can be planted.

  • PROS – Allows the gardener to plant immediately and does not use chemicals or noisy tools.
  • CONS – Requires a lot of labor and the gardener may not have tools to do the job. The bed itself is exposed to weed seeds because the ground cover has been removed along with the organic matter that has to be replaced.

2. Tilling


  • Tiller


1. Tilling consists of breaking the sod up using a machine. If you are working where a past garden has been a small tiller will work but if you are starting a new garden a heavy-duty unit will be required. Remember if starting a new garden have your utility company come out and mark where your lines are located.

Regardless of what type of garden you are working several passes will be required to break up the sod/soil. Compost, aged manure, and any other additive you would like to add can be placed in the bed before tilling. After the tilling is complete remove any clumps of grass.

2. A tilled bed exposes dormant weed seeds so wait a couple of weeks before planting. This will give you a chance to hoe, pull, and remove any weeds that have germinated.

  • PROS – Tilling keeps the garden’s organic matter intact and is less labor intensive than digging. It also allows the gardener to plant immediately.
  • CONS – Exposes dormant weed seeds and starts some weeds like Canada thistle. Soil type and certain terrain can be difficult to handle using this method. These include rocky environments and clay or wet soils, which clump when tilled.

3. Smothering


  • Plastic-Red plastic for tomatoes
  • Newspaper with print only in black and white
  • Cardboard

Steps for plastic

1. If using plastic simply stretch out the plastic to cover your garden. I recommend using the red plastic which tomatoes love and it increases yield.

2. Peg down the plastic with landscape spikes used for landscape cloth.

3. If using black plastic remove before you plant your tomatoes.

Steps for newspaper or cardboard

1. Lay 8-9 layers of black and white print newspaper or 1 layer of thick cardboard. Place on top compost, grass clippings, leaf mold, or mulch to hold the layers down.

  • PROS – Requires very little labor, keeps the organic material intact and adds to the organic layer as the newspaper and cardboard breakdown. Using the red plastic also provides a reflective property that increases tomato yield. Also allows the gardener to plant immediately if using cardboard or newspaper.
  • CONS – If using this method on a new area or one that has grown up planting will be delayed. Also plastic will kill beneficial organisms due to increased soil temperature.

Hint: This method is my favorite since I live in an urban setting but keep in mind for this to work you must plan. Laying out your newspapers or cardboard in the summer and planting the following spring will produce a much better gardening surface. This extra time will guarantee that the grass is dead but organic material and soil organisms will remain.

4. Applying herbicide


  • Sprayer used only for chemical application
  • Herbicide
  • Protective clothing


1. Pick a sprayer that will only be used for chemical application. All the rinsing in the world will not remove remaining chemical.

2. Go to the local garden shop and purchase a herbicide that kills grasses. Also check the expiration date because older chemicals does not work as well. Read the directions on how to mix and apply the herbicide.

3. Plan when to apply the herbicide. Do not apply on windy days because your spray will drift onto other plants and do not apply during or when rain is expected. This will reduce your herbicide’s ability to work correctly and will contaminate waterways and soil. Also wear protective clothing when applying a herbicide. Some of these chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and cause irritation along with other health problems.

Grass may take more than 1 application of herbicide and weed seeds will germinate since the soil is not treated. One needs to plan accordingly for the extra applications and extended time for the chemicals to work.

  • PROS – This process is simple and quick for experienced gardeners and allows the turning or removal of grass easier
  • CONS – Can harm the environment by contaminating waterways, damage surrounding plants, kill organisms, and cause chemical injury to humans.

Hint: If you choose this method read the directions thoroughly. If they are not clear call the company or your local garden center. Also store and dispose of according to the directions. Please note many communities have chemical disposal days where you can take your chemicals for safe disposal. So mark your calendar for this day if you choose this method.

Part 2

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