Worst Soil Amendment For Tomatoes?

Rachel Shadoan is a writer of exceptional wit. I know because she posted a story of gardening loss on the NW Edible Facebook page that was both so terrible and so hilarious that I read it twice. I asked for her permission to share her tale of tomato-growing woe (and lessons learned) here.

This story appeared originally on Rachel’s blog, Being Shadoan, as part of a longer post on the dangers of the home-remedy. I encourage you to read the entire post in its entirety. It’s hair raising…nostril hair raising.

In the summer of 2009, I decided I was going to have a garden. Why I decided this was a good idea when I was working full time, going to school full time, planning a national convention for a technical sorority, and preparing to leave for grad school, I have no idea.

But I was determined. I had my 5-gallon buckets all full of hand-mixed potting soil. I had planted zucchini, and tomatoes in spades! What had started as a five-bucket garden quickly ballooned into a 20 bucket monstrosity.

Overkill, you know. It’s how I roll.

Things were going pretty well. My tomatoes were beautiful and lush and setting fruit. Sure, the neighborhood cats immediately decided that my beet box was perfect to relieve themselves in (obliterating my poor beets, which never stood a chance against the onslaught of ammonia), but some loss is to be expected in a first garden.

And then the bottoms of my heirloom tomatoes began to turn brown. Then the brown spots went squishy, and began to rot.

My plants had been afflicted with blossom end rot.

Now, blossom end rot isn’t that big of a deal. The rest of the tomato is fine; just cut of the squishy brown bit and nosh away.

But this was a matter of pride! My beautiful heirloom tomatoes should be beautiful! Not brown and squishy, or deformed from amputation.

So I began my investigation. Blossom end rot, it turns out, is caused by a calcium deficit. The plants need the calcium in order to build cell walls: without it, the cell walls collapse, causing the brown squishy nastiness. The calcium deficit is most often caused by insufficient and inconsistent moisture, as the plants need moisture to absorb the calcium. The official recommendation is to set up a drip irrigation system that keeps the plants at a consistent level of moisture.

Well, they’re in buckets, which makes a drip irrigation system kind of impractical. Plus, a drip irrigation system seemed like it would be expensive and difficult to develop.

I thought, “What is wet and is full of calcium?”

“Milk! Milk is wet and full of calcium!”

So I sent my roommate Brian around the corner to Braum’s to pick me up a couple gallons of skim milk. (After all, I figured the fat wouldn’t be too good for the tomato plants.) We waited until the evening, because I didn’t want the milk sitting in the hot soil all day, turning to stanky, nasty yogurt. As the dusk descended, I poured two thirds of a gallon of milk on each of my heirloom tomatoes.

Almost instantly I knew I had made a horrible, horrible mistake. Within moments the leaves of the plants began to curl up and turn yellow, like the whole plant was cringing in horror. Seeing this, I decided to abort the plan, and got the hose to flush the milk out of the pots.

Only, the milk wouldn’t come out of the pots. Waiting until evening had not been sufficient time for the soil to cool down, and the milk had curdled on the roots.

Within hours, the plants were dead (though I did spend days trying to revive them in various ways). The milk, however, stuck around, rotting stinkily in the pots. It was not a good year for the garden, for sure.

Rachel Shadoan

I think I speak for everyone when I say: this is a situation crying out for self-watering containers. Thanks for the laugh, Rachel.

We all have garden experiments or experiences we wish could have been learned or suffered by anybody else, or ideally, by nobody at all. I’m mostly over the loss of last year’s garlic crop. Mostly. Okay, actually I try to just not think about it. Do you have a garden loss that still makes you cringe a little bit?


  1. says

    Raspberries. I killed ten raspberry bushes in just one season. But in my defense, it WAS a billion degrees that summer. We didn’t get around to getting an irrigation system in, so I probably didn’t water as much as I should. And also, being new to brambles (other than those DH brushmows down in the pasture) I was at a loss to which canes to keep, which canes to cut, and exactly what is a sucker anyhow????? I ended up keeping the green stuff, cutting the brown stuff and now I find out that is the OPPOSITE of what you do with raspberries?!? What is with THAT????
    Maybe I’ll try again in the spring.

  2. says

    Nothing that really makes me cringe, but we had one horrible attempt at growing tomatoes in containers when we were apartment dwellers. Too little sun, although we literally carted the containers around our little area of lawn to catch what sun there was. Inconsistent watering, in that it ran right through those containers to the point we started catching it to use again. It was a lot of hard work with almost no yield. Never again.

  3. says

    Oh that was a painful tale! My first full sized garden attempt in 2010 yielded only sugar snap peas. I learned a valuable lesson about the need for soil amending as I lost pretty much everything else. :(

  4. says

    I use crushed egg shells in the planting holes of tomatoes–about 2 T per plant. Since they’re solid, they don’t break down too fast. Great use for eggshells.

  5. queen of string says

    We had a few successes last year, once we worked out the soil in our new home contains zero nutrients, so you have to add them! My big failure was zucchini, we had one, from four plants, still not sure why. Celery was a close second, there were four plants that got to 2 inches high and stopped. They are still where I planted them, still alive, still 2 inches high :-(

  6. Kimberly says

    I don’t see what the problem here was, other than possibly something that was IN the milk (store boughten milk is poison now days anyway), as I use milk in my garden ALL the time for this very thing. Works wonderful. Of course I use raw milk that’s surplus from my goats, or soured a bit, and no one wants to drink it (if I don’t feed that to the chooks and pig first).

  7. Betty Richardson says

    Tomato plants also like Tums. About six around the growing plants. Tums contain lots of calcium and are inexpensive. I have also used calcium pills.

    I learned this from a gentleman who worked in the garden center at Lowes.

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