If you have never grown tomatoes before, trust me there is nothing quite like eating a juicy ripe tomato picked straight from the vine on a hot summer day. Growing tomatoes is actually fairly easy. To make it even easier, I've got 10 tips to help you grow an abundance of tomatoes this year.
Tip 1: Know Thy Tomato
There are over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes today, so I am not going to try to list them all. One of the key things to know when selecting a tomato plant is if it is determinate (produces fruit once and then is done) or indeterminate (continues producing fruit until the frost comes). Both are wonderful! But knowing what you have can help you care for it.
Determinate tomatoes usually are small bushes and produce fruit sooner than indeterminate. Indeterminate plants can get rather large and generally need to be supported with a stake or cage.
Tip 2: Know Your Frost Dates
Knowing when your last and first frost dates of the year usually are can save you heartache if you put your transplants out only to have them freeze a week later. We can only estimate when the frost will come, though. Mother Nature is still the boss. You can use this handy tool from the Old Farmer's Almanac to determine your estimated frost dates based on past weather.
Tip 3: Seed or Transplant, Container or Ground?
I have some tips for starting seeds indoors here, but if you want to let someone else start them for you and buy a transplant this is a judgement free zone. Your tomatoes will taste as sweet.
Tomatoes do wonderfully in containers, especially cherry tomatoes and determinate varieties. Indeterminate varieties may be dwarfed if your container is too small. Here are some tips for gardening in containers along with some suggestions of my favorites. Or plant them directly in the ground... judgement free zone.
Tip 4: Change the Soil
Tomatoes can delete many of the nutrients from the soil and can leave some diseases at the end of the season. If planting in containers, use fresh potting soil every year. If planting in the ground rotate your crops and only plant tomatoes in an area that has not had tomatoes or potatoes planted in it for at least 2-3 years.
Tip 5: Preheat the Soil
Because tomatoes love heat, you can preheat the soil in your garden before you plant your tomato plants. Just cover the area with black or red plastic for a couple of weeks before you intend to plant. With the extra degrees of warmth that the plastic creates, you will receive earlier tomatoes.
Tip 6: Go Deep!
Another tip to growing a healthier tomato plant is to plant the tomato plant deeply into the soil. Seedlings are typically planted after they have developed about six leaves. Plant the seedlings into the soil deep enough so that only the top four leaves are showing. Tomatoes are able to develop roots all along the stems of the plant.
This will create a stronger root system for the plant. You can also plant the tomato plant sideways in the ground within a shallow trench. The plant will straighten up and grow towards the sun, but extra care needs to be taken when you are inserting the cage or pole so that it does not pierce the root system.
Tip 7: Prune with Care
Pinching the suckers that develop in the joint of two branches of the plant is a much debated practice. Some swear by it, others will insist it lowers your harvest. The general rule of thumb is to pinch indeterminate varieties but leave determinate plants alone. Bonnie Plants has a good tutorial on pruning tomato plants.
You can also prune some of the leaves to allow the sun to reach the ripening fruit. But, a lot of care must be taken to ensure that you are not removing too many leaves. It is the leaves that are photosynthesizing and creating the sugars that give flavor to the tomatoes.
Tip 8: Water Deeply and Regularly
You should also ensure that you keep up on the watering of the tomato plants. They should be watered deeply and regularly while the plants are developing; missing a few days of watering and trying to make up for it later on leads to blossom end rot and cracking.
Tip 9: Reduce Watering During Ripening
Another tip on watering tomato plants is to lessen the watering once the fruit begins to ripen. With the less amount of water, the plant will be coaxed into concentrating its sugars. But, be careful not to withhold too much water because the plant will wilt and become stressed. This will lead to the plant dropping its blossoms and possibly its fruit.
Tip 10: Beware of Beasts!
While you are regularly watering your tomatoes, be sure to inspect the plant for signs of the evil doers who will try to steal your harvest. The chief culprits are aphids and tomato hornworms.
Aphids are little white bugs, usually with ants around as well. Aphids are sometimes called ant cows because ants will milk them for the honeydew they produce after they munch on the leaves of your tomato plants. The solution? Lady bugs!
The Hungry Little Caterpillar is a wonderful children's story, but when the caterpillars in question have a menacing horn on one end and are devouring your tomato plants instead of one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, five oranges and all of those other goodies you might get irritated. Get a chuckle reading about my battle with them here.
What did I forget?
Hopefully these tips yield a bumper crop of tomatoes for you this year. If any of you experienced gardeners out there see something I missed, please add it to the comments below. I love to learn.