There is little doubt that tomatoes are one of the most popular and widely grown plants in the home garden. Often, people are happy to have just a tomato or two off their plants. There is a way to make the crop easily exceed this, however. It is uncertain which American Indian tribe came up with it first, so it is easiest to simply call it the Indian method.

Tomatoes are indeed fruits, and technically, they are berries. They belong to the nightshade family, just as potatoes do, and both tomatoes and potatoes originated in the Americas, though they are now grown in most countries. The Indian method of growing them keys on some simple to understand needs and traits of this plant.

Sun lovers

Tomatoes love sunshine. They also enjoy the heat, as long as they can get plenty of moisture, without sitting in it. The first step, then, is to find a sunny location with well draining soil, for the place where the tomatoes will be grown. It is helpful if the soil is fertile, however compost or rotted manure can be worked in to the dirt a few weeks before the tomato seedlings are planted. This method of growing almost always uses seedlings rather than planting from seed, because it becomes easier to encourage a large root system, as will be seen.


For a foot tall seedling, dig a hole three feet deep and at least two feet across. In the bottom of the hole, put fish or fish entrails and offal, to the depth of three to six inches. This is the real secret of this method of growing tomatoes. The fish can be ocean or fresh water fish, and many fish stores may even give away the leavings. They can be easier to come by if the gardener is also an angler who often catches trash fish.

Put a thin layer of soil over the fish, and a couple inches of course vegetable matter over the top of that. Last years corn shucks and silk are great, but lawn trimmings or dried leaves will work. It can also be helpful to add some dried, crushed egg shells to eventually provide calcium to the tomato plants, since they have high calcium demands. Lack of calcium causes ripening tomatoes to rot from black spots, often from the bottom.

Fill in the hole with soil until it is about a foot deep and water the hole well. When the excess water has drained away, carefully clip off all but about the top two or three sets of leaves from the seedling. Don't worry, this isn't going to hurt the plant and is going to lead to tremendous growth.

Place the tomato plant in the hole and fill the hole in with soil until the dirt is just below the bottom set of remaining leaves. This will usually leave a bowl-shaped depression around the plant, which is ideal for holding water. Indeed, this depression should be filled with water to help gently compact the soil around the stem of the tomato.

Keep the plant watered, but allow it to dry out a little bit before adding water again.

What happens

Clipping the leaves and burying the stem causes the stem to put out roots. Within days, this enormously increases the root ball of the tomato plant. The roots spread both down and out. Within a few weeks, the plant roots get to the bulky plant material, which is mostly composted by that time. There is a burst of growth. A week or so later, something amazing happens. The roots hit the layer of well-rotted fish. It wouldn't be understating it to say that the growth that follows is explosive. The result is a huge bush that produces a great number of blossoms, and subsequent fruits.

I used this method several times, in relatively poor soil in southern Oregon, with far better than average numbers and amounts of tomatoes resulting. We moved to a place in the Willamette Valley in north central Oregon. The soil was pretty fertile, and there was a river about a mile away. I decided to use the Indian method, since I had a ready supply of trash fish.

Being used to growing plants in a harsher environment, and because I was given a large number of tomato seedlings that were all but dead, I planted 42 tomato plants. I was pleased when, after a week, every one of the plants that were only an inch or so tall, above the point to where they were buried, started putting out new leaves and growing bushier. A week later, I was surprised at the growth. Each plant grew to a couple feet in height, within days. A week after that, I was totally astonished.

The growth was enormous and fast. The smaller tomato bushes ended up four feet tall and about the same in diameter. All were totally covered with blossoms. The amount of tomato fruit and the size of them was unbelievable. I no longer have the pictures of it all, but I had cherry tomatoes the size of baseballs, slicing tomatoes the size of beefsteak tomatoes, and the one beefsteaker that I had produced a fruit that weighed over two pounds! Try putting that on a burger!

Having so many tomato plants that were producing so well did cause a problem, though. We canned stewed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato soup, salsa, ketchup, chili sauce, barbecue sauce, 255 quarts all together. We ate fried green tomatoes, tomato salads (no greens, just tomatoes), tomato sandwiches, gave tomatoes to everyone we knew and quite a few whom we didn't, and tomatoes were still rotting on the vine. Thankfully, our chickens liked tomatoes, rotten or otherwise.

I advocate this method for growing tomatoes. I absolutely do not suggest using this method to grow 42 tomato plants, unless you plan on supplying a small city with tomato fruits. I believe that it is the best way to grow tomatoes, but I refuse to be held responsible if you take it upon yourself to grow too many plants.

(The picture is of a Roma tomato plant, using this method, planted in July, and in poor, clay soil. The plant is a little more than a month old in this picture and is already 4 feet tall, with many fist sized Romas and more blossoms on the bush.)

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