If you’re a gardener, chances are you grow tomatoes. Tomatoes are one of the most common garden fruits in the United States and have a reputation for outproducing the needs of the gardener and his or her family. They’re a fairly easy crop to grow, and who can resist a delicious tomato sandwich, right?
If you want to have the best tomatoes on the block, be sure to follow these easy tips for growing tomatoes that are perfect every time!
Pick a Bright, Open Area
Tomatoes love warmth! They need at least 8 hours of full sunlight a day, otherwise they grow thin stalks and produce small, bland fruit. As long as they’re watered well, tomato plants can stand extreme summer heat, so don’t be shy about putting them out in a wide open space with little to no shade. In my experience, the more sunlight they get, the better they perform.
Tomatoes also need their elbow room. Don’t crowd them together. They need to be far enough apart to allow for proper air circulation around the plant. This will reduce the potential for early blight by allowing a wet plant to dry much faster. My dad always said “if you can sit a lawn chair between your tomato cages, your plants are spaced good.” (For reference, dad always used these kind of tomato cages and this kind of lawn chair.)
Rotate Your Plants
It is highly recommended that you rotate your crops from year to year. This will help all of your plants avoid soil-borne diseases. If your tomatoes are planted in the same spot year after year, pathogens in the soil that destroy tomato plants won’t have to go far to find their food. If you move your plants around each year, the pathogens won’t have a chance to catch up with them.
Tomatoes are members of the nightshade family. Make sure you’re not planting tomatoes where other nightshade crops (like peppers and eggplants) have been planted. Try to maintain a 3+ year rotation schedule for maximum efficiency. Lesa from Better Hens and Gardens has a great post about Garden Crop Rotation!
Don’t Use Overgrown Transplants
If you’re buying tomato seedlings instead of growing from seed, stay away from lush green starts with poor root systems. They will suffer for weeks before beginning to grow properly. If you’re growing your own seedlings, be sure not to over-water them. If you keep them moist all the time, the roots won’t have to go far to find water. If you water only when needed, the roots will be forced to grow longer and longer searching for water. This builds a strong root system that will help build a strong plant.
Bury the Stems
When you’re ready to put those seedlings in the ground, snip off the lower leaves and branches with a sharp pair of pruners, lay the plant down in a shallow trench, and cover with soil up to an inch below the remaining leaves and stems. Don’t worry if the remaining foliage is pointing to the side, it will eventually right itself and begin to grow straight in a few days.
The plant will now have extra nodes from which to grow even more roots. These new roots near the surface of the soil will not only help pump vital nutrients and water to the plant, but will also absorb more heat, potentially producing earlier tomatoes.
Water Deeply, Regularly, and Infrequently
All plants need regular watering to avoid wilting and eventual death, but over-watering can be just as bad. As I said with your seedlings, if the soil is constantly moist, the roots don’t have to go far to find water and nutrients. This means they will stay near the top of the soil, not grow long, and won’t be a good base for a strong plant. Let the soil dry a bit between waterings to encourage the roots to dig-in deep looking for water. When you do water the plants, soak the soil good so the soil doesn’t dry out too fast. Water the soil, not the leaves, so you don’t encourage airborne spores sticking to the plants. Obviously if it rains you can’t do anything about it, but that’s why you leave plenty of room between the plants for air circulation. Try not to unnecessarily get the plants wet. Soaker hoses are good for tomatoes.
Pinch the Suckers — or Don’t
Suckers are the leafy shoots that grow from the “V” between the main stem and the branches. There are two schools of thought on dealing with them. You can pinch them off (literally grabbing them where they start at the “V” and pinching until they come off), or leave them. If they’re left on the plant, they will continue to grow and usually produce fruit, however the fruit produced on that plant will tend to be smaller. If you prune the suckers out, the overall plant won’t get top-heavy or produce more fruit than the plant can mature in time for fall. If you prune them, you tend to get fewer but larger fruit. If you’re just not sure what’s best, try pruning one plant and leaving another unpruned to see how each one turns out. That way you’ll know for sure which technique works best for you.
Use a Trellis
If you’re growing an indeterminate variety of tomatoes like the ‘Brandywine’, you’re going to have to go vertical. Use tall stakes or trellises to support your plants. You can make your own trellis, or buy one that suits your needs. Be sure to put in the stakes when transplanting to avoid damaging the roots later on. Tie the stems to the trellis loosely with recycled twist ties, old clothing cut-up into ribbons, or twine. Anything will do, just don’t tie it too tightly – remember it’s still growing!
Compost and Trim
When the plant is full of green tomatoes, and some are beginning to turn red, this is the time to add some new compost. Scratch the soil loos around the stem and work some compost in. Don’t dig too deeply, or you could damage the upper roots. Trim off some of the smaller upper leaves to promote new growth and set new fruit. Also, trim the lower leaves that may be yellowing, wilting, or dying off altogether. Don’t worry too much, this is pretty normal for a mature plant.
Plant More Tomatoes!
About three weeks after you’ve got your first plants in the ground, plant another set. You’ll get a good harvest off your first set of plants, and when their production begins to slow down, the new plants will be in full harvest. You’ll have tomatoes coming out of your ears! Just be sure you know how to can those things so you don’t waste any of your harvest.
Don’t Pick Overripe
Tomatoes (especially heirloom varieties) that are too ripe can be soft and mealy (grainy). You’ll want to harvest them when they’re full size, firm and fully colored. These will be sweet and juicy. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with picking a nice, large green tomato to slice and fry up with your dinner!
These 10 tips will yield you the biggest and best harvest of the most delicious tomatoes you can possibly grow. Your neighbors will be jealous to the point of asking you to teach them your tricks. Tell them! Share the info so they can have delicious tomatoes, too – otherwise, they may be asking you for yours every year! Just watch out for blossom end rot!