My friend Edna shared with me her secret for growing tomatoes: Epsom salts and dry milk. The mixture is blended together and applied by the teaspoonful to newly transplanted tomato plants, and can be sprinkled on the soil at the base of the plants later in the season.
Hm, thought I. Maybe I should give this a try.
So last year I got out my carton of Epsom salts and my packets of dry milk and commenced planting about 100 tomato plants.
I didn’t have the actual recipe on hand, so I merely dumped Epsom salt and dry milk in each hole before I laid down the plant (I plant my tomatoes on their sides, so roots will form along the buried stem and the upward-growing bit is stronger). Despite my willy-nilly method, the plants did fine and I put up about four gallons of sauce by the end of the summer and gave many fresh tomatoes away to friends.
This year I mixed it up correctly…sort of. And this year my tomatoes are mostly brown and looking rather dead. Some have fruits, although most (all but one) are green and all are very small. The one that is reddening is also rotting.
Now, I don’t blame this on the homemade fertilizer (or my haphazard methods). Nope, the culprit, as far as I’m concerned, is this summer’s weather (and possibly the Late Blight I’ve been hearing about). Cool, damp weather does not make for healthy tomato plants (and I’m really glad I didn’t even attempt peppers this year).
So, the big question is: are the Epsom salts and dry milk actually doing anything beneficial for the plants, or is this recipe an old wives’ tale? I was determined to find out.
As it happens, Epsom salts (so called for the town in England where they were first collected) are actually beneficial to certain soils. A simple salt made up of magnesium and sulfur, Epsom salt is a swell addition if your soil is lacking these nutrients. Soil that is acidic is often depleted in magnesium, so a treatment of Epsom salts can be beneficial. If your soil is really depleted in magnesium, however, you are probably better off giving it a treatment of dolomitic lime. This compound will not only deliver the magnesium, but it will also help balance out the soil’s pH, which should make your plants happier all around (unless they are acid-loving plants like azaleas and blueberries).
The dry milk has been a bit more difficult to trace for relevance in the garden. One presumes this is to add calcium to the soil (at least that’s what Edna’s book claimed). And it seems that tomatoes really do like to have a good bit of calcium, and having plenty of calcium on hand helps prevent blossom end rot. Blossom end rot occurs when the plant’s demand for calcium exceeds the amount of calcium available in the soil. This could be caused by too much, or too little, water (excess rain or drought), not enough calcium in the soil to being with, or even an over-application of nitrogen fertilizers, which cause rapid vegetative growth and an increase in calcium demand. Putting a little dry milk in the planting hole may help, but it isn’t a long-term solution.
In the end, the answer is soil testing. If your soil has a good pH level (around 6.5), and if it is provided with proper drainage and watering, then regular amendments of good compost (and composted manures) may be all you really need. But that soil test is the key.
I’ve been reluctant to get an official soil test done for my veg garden. I bought a home-testing kit when I started my garden and have used it a couple times, but I’m not so sure the results I got were accurate (this year’s tests said I had no potassium, no nitrogen, and no phosphorous at all in my soil). Considering some of the beds still have a sour smell to them, which is usually an indication of acidic soils, I may just bite the bullet and send in my soil samples for real tests.
When you get your soil test results back, you should also get amendment recommendations – suggestions on what you can add to make your soil better and your plants happier. By treating your soil as a whole, you are more likely to have success with your garden than you are with spot treatments of dry milk and Epsom salts.
That said, adding a little dry milk, or a sprinkling of Epsom salt, probably won’t hurt your garden. And if it makes you feel better by doing it, then go for it. Just remember: while a little may be beneficial, more isn’t necessarily better; all things in moderation.