Tomatoes are undoubtedly the most widely-grown vegetable, but there is some confusion as to types of tomatoes, hybrid vs heirlooms, to prune or not, how much space they need, the best staking method, the list goes on. In this blog, we’ll dig deeper into tomatoes, and see how you can grow your tomatoes better.
No matter what type of tomato you grow, there are some basics that apply to all tomatoes:
1. BASIC ELEMENTS OF TOMATO CULTIVATION:
Tomatoes are sun lovers
The most important thing to remember is that tomatoes are warm-season plants that grow in the summer. Not surprisingly, they need at least 6 – 8 hours of full sun. Don’t attempt to grow them in filtered shade under trees – this will encourage long, lanky growth with minimal fruit.
Tomatoes are greedy feeders
You’ve only got to look at an 8-foot tomato to appreciate that all that top-growth needs a nutritionally rich soil to sustain it. So, what constitutes a rich soil? Lots of compost and humus mixed into the soil. Vermicompost – the compost created by worms – is on the pricey side, but it is black gold!
Tomatoes are not bog plants
Not only will compost enrich the soil, but it also aerates it and helps ensure good drainage. Tomatoes need good free-draining soil. This is vital, as tomatoes hate having ‘wet feet’.
Tomatoes are adaptable
Tomatoes are very adaptable and can be grown in-ground in traditional garden beds, or above-ground in raised beds and containers.
If you are growing your tomatoes in raised beds in accordance with Square Foot Gardening, then plant one tomato per square foot, and prune it to one or two stems (more on pruning later). If you are using containers, then choose at least a 10-gallon container – the bigger the better!
Tomatoes need their personal space
How ever you choose to grow your tomatoes, always allow space between the tomato plant and other plants. They hate being crowded! When the air does not circulate freely, it can lead to fungal issues and even poor pollination. To increase air circulation, remove the lower 6 – 10 inches of leaves from the base of the plant. Cleaning up the base of the plant will reduce the risk of fungal disease and that’s always a good thing!
Tomatoes like to be submerged
How deep do you plant tomatoes – In two words, plant deep! Unlike other seedlings, tomatoes should be planted deeper in the ground than they were in the pot. This means that if the tomato seedling is 9 inches tall, you would submerge the plant so that only the top 3 to 4 inches are above ground. But make sure that you remove the leaves from the stem which has been buried.
Why do this? Interestingly, tomatoes develop adventitious roots from the hairs on the submerged stem. These additional roots not only help anchor the plant, but the increased root system ensures an even better crop of tomatoes. Isn’t nature splendid?
There is another school of thought that advocates trench-planting the tomato horizontally, especially with very tall tomato plants. If you are growing tomatoes in containers, then don’t use this method: Containers trap heat more than raised or traditional beds. The container-grown tomato will benefit from a cooler root run achieved by traditional vertical planting.
Whichever planting method you use, always firm the tomato plant into the soil, and water in gently.
Tomatoes are thirsty
Not only do you plant tomatoes deep, but you need to water them deeply too – don’t just water the top few inches. A deep watering encourages the roots to penetrate deeper, giving you better tomatoes. But, resist the temptation to keep the soil constantly damp. Give the root system a chance to dry out in-between watering; tomatoes are not bog plants! When watering your tomatoes, try to avoid wetting the foliage; this can cause disease. A much better way is to water the soil around the tomato. However, if you are growing your tomatoes in containers, you will need to water more frequently.
Tomatoes need to be fertilized
When you plant your tomatoes, incorporate a soil starter; this will give the plant a head start. Follow up with a granular balanced fertilizer such as 4.4.4. when the plant is about a month old. Three to four weeks later, follow up with a soluble liquid tomato fertilizer. At monthly intervals, alternate granular feedings with soluble feedings for the duration of the growing season. Whenever you fertilizer, always follow the directions and resist the temptation to use more. Overfertilizing will lead to excessive growth at the expense of fruit. Always, follow up with a good watering.
Tomatoes enjoy a good mulch
Mulch your tomatoes with a 2” – 4” layer of your favorite mulch – dried leaves, pine bark/chips, straw, etc.
The mulch will conserve moisture and keep the roots cool. It will also prevent splash-back from the soil to the leaves and keep your plants healthy.
Tomatoes need your support
The bottom line is you need to provide adequate support for the type of tomato you are growing. Smaller tomatoes will do well in average size cages; large heirloom tomatoes can easily reach 8ft or more, and need substantial support, or extra tall tomato cages.
Whichever method you choose to support your tomato plants, follow the two golden rules of staking:
- Stake the plant while it is small to avoid damaging the root system
- Check the plant at least once a week. Tomatoes will grow very quickly and if you are using cages, they will attempt to ‘escape’ the cage. If you have an ‘escapee’, then just thread the stem into the cage higher up. Tomato stems are quite brittle; handle with care.
When do tomatoes mature?
Just how long does it take a tomato plant to mature and provide fruit? Known as Days to Maturity (DTM), this varies considerably: There are varieties that mature early – less than 72 days; mid-season varieties that mature between 72 and 85 days, and late-maturing varieties that may take 85 – 100 days to set fruit.
So, you may ask why is it important to know this? If you have a long growing season, then try to plant a variety from each group – this will give you months of tomatoes. However, if your growing season is short, then you will want to avoid these late maturers – you don’t want to lose your fruit to an early frost. Of course, you can always extend your growing season by using season extenders like row cover and a hoop house.
Early maturing varieties include the well-known ‘Early Girl’, ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and ‘Manitoba’. Mid-season varieties include ‘Ace-High’, ’Costoluto Genovese’, and ‘Roma’, and late-maturing varieties include ‘Brandywine’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Ponderosa Pink’.
’Costoluto Genovese’ is a marvelous Italian heirloom available from Renee’s Garden seed company. Vigorous, vining and indeterminate, it will reward with large, juicy red tomatoes. Truly a winner!
Seed or Transplants?
One of the joys of starting your tomatoes from seed is that it will give you a greater selection than your local garden center. In colder areas, you should start your tomatoes indoors, typically about 6 weeks before your average last frost date. Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow from seed. Restrict your seedling to one plant per pot/cell and don’t forget to harden them off before planting out. (For more details on planting seeds, see Chapter 4 of our book – Container and Raised Bed Gardening for Beginners and Beyond.)
When should you harvest your tomatoes?
For the best possible flavor, pick tomatoes when ripe. If you are competing for your tomatoes with other critters in the garden, then do pick early, but try to wait for the first show of color at the stem-end of the tomato. Picking tomatoes green and ripening them inside does not give you the same flavor as waiting for the color to break. Also, don’t store tomatoes in the fridge.
Watch out for those pesky pests
Get into the habit of checking your garden daily – the best time to do this is in the early morning. As you give your plants the ‘once-over’, don’t forget to check the undersides of the leaves of the tomato. If you see a tomato hookworm or stinkbug, handpick them and put them out of their misery – or yours! Smaller tomato varieties, like ‘Inca Jewels’*, can easily be protected with floating row cover.
Prevent Blossom-End-Rot before it starts
No blog on tomatoes would be complete without mentioning Blossom-End Rot. BER is a problem that tomatoes, especially the Roma varieties, are prone to. It comes from a lack of available calcium in the soil.
The word ‘available’ is key; your soil may have sufficient levels of calcium, but it may not be accessible to the plant.
This is where you come in and the solution is at hand right in your kitchen. Every time you use an egg, save the eggshells. When you have sufficient, bake them at 175° for about 30 minutes. This will dry them out and kill any bacteria. Break them down by crushing them finely – it’s easier when they become brittle after baking. If you have a blender, then pulverize the shells.
Take 1 Tablespoon of the crushed eggshells and mix it with 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar. Let it sit for about 8 hours, or even overnight. Fill a 2-gallon watering can and mix the solution into the water. Water the soil – about ½ gallon per tomato plant. Apply this treatment proactively when the plant is about 3 weeks old. Repeat at monthly intervals. (This works well for peppers too!)
2. WHICH TYPE OF TOMATO IS BEST FOR YOU?
Tomatoes are classified in terms of how they grow. Determinate or Indeterminate
Determinate tomatoes are bushy and compact – about 4 – 5’ tall, require less staking, and the fruit ripens in a very short space of time. If you like to can tomatoes, this is the ideal type. Once the plant starts fruiting – there’s a glut of tomatoes, and then the plant is done! ‘Ace’ and ‘Early Annie’ are examples. Determinate tomatoes require a smaller support system and are ideally suited to the beginner gardener who wants a no-fuss tomato!
Indeterminate tomatoes are the taller vining cousins of the tomato family. They can reach lofty heights and the fruit ripens over a much longer season. They tend to be a little slower to set fruit and can even linger until the first frost takes them out. There’s a very big range of indeterminate tomatoes which include most of the cherry varieties, heirlooms and the big beefsteaks. ‘Early Girl’ is a great favorite, is readily available at garden centers and lives up to its name! (For a list of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, sign up to receive our e-book on Tomatoes.)
Because indeterminate tomatoes are inclined to ‘outgrow’ themselves, some gardeners choose to prune them. This may sound a little daunting; actually, it is quite simple, but it is time-consuming.
To prune or not to prune - that is the question!
If you are pushed for space, or don’t have an extra-tall support system, then pruning the indeterminate tomato is the perfect solution.
You will end up with larger, but fewer tomatoes, because you are focusing the plant’s energy into producing fruit rather than leaves.
An added benefit is that the fruit should set a little earlier than if the variety had not been pruned.
Removing the leaves also opens up the plant, increasing air circulation. If you are in a foggy area like San Francisco, then this is a good way to maximize what little sun you get! Of course, if you live in super-hot area, then pruning is contra-indicated, as the leaves create natural shade for the rest of the plant.
Pruning is definitely high maintenance. What’s involved? You will need to remove the sucker that develops in the axil – where the leaf stem attaches to the main growing stem. This should be done when the sucker is young – preferably not more than an inch tall.
Pinch out the sucker with your fingertips or snip it with shears. Start doing this when the plant is about 12” to 15” tall. Repeat with all suckers.
Some growers restrict the indeterminate tomato to one stem, but you can allow two stems if you prefer.
If you live in a cold area, then about four weeks before the first expected fall frost, remove the growing tip of your indeterminate tomato. This practice, known as ‘topping’ will trigger the tomato to stop flowering and concentrate all its energy into the remaining fruit on the vine.
Retro or Modern?
In the 1950’s there was a push to standardize and improve the consistency of tomatoes, as well as increase disease resistance. This led to the development of hybrid tomatoes. Examples include ‘Goliath’, ‘Juliet’ and ‘Sweetheart 100’.
Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest in heirloom tomatoes. These pre-WWII varieties are often more flavorful, and their irregularity in appearance and general quirkiness have become a positive. Unlike their hybrid counterparts, heirloom tomatoes generally come true to seed. The list of examples is long and includes ‘Black Russian’, ‘Brandywine’, ‘Mr. Stripey’ and ‘Oxheart Pink’.
The nation’s favorite heirloom tomato, ‘Brandywine’ produces big, globe-shaped, rosy-red, tender fruits. Perfect to eat right off the vine, or slice for sandwiches or burgers.
3. SO MANY CHOICES!
If you find the choice of tomatoes somewhat overwhelming, I suggest growing a combination of hybrids and heirlooms from both determinate and indeterminate varieties. That way you get the best of both worlds, and extend your tomato season – enabling you to grow your tomatoes better.
*Seed packets courtesy of Renee’s Garden