growing a better tomato, seed to harvest

tomato-collageIT’S TAX TIME THIS WEEK, THE DATE IN MY AREA to start tomatoes indoors from seed for their toasty-warm six-week headstart. As my friend Andrew says, might as well do something fun on April 15, something that pays you a return. For those just sowing now, a detailed refresher course on how…for those transplanting or doing it soon, all the other tips you’ll need to grow great tomatoes this year:

Start with dark green, stout transplants equally high and wide, preferably about 4 inches in each direction.  (My step-by-step for growing your own includes many tricks; you can also shop locally for seedlings or by mail.)

Plan to grow a mix of heirlooms and hybrids for a little insurance: Heirlooms are beautiful, delicious and a critical part of our genetic heritage, but sometimes they lack the disease-resistance (often labeled VFN) of hybrids. I like to mix it up.

Remember that even with hybrids rated as having VFN resistance, the word “resistance” is the operative phrase. It means less-susceptible, not immune. There is no substitute for good cultural practices, whatever variety you begin with.

Identify a full-sun spot outdoors where your tomatoes will grow. Now pick another such spot, and preferably a third. You will need more than one area for tomatoes, since crop rotation is one of the key lines of defense against tomato various diseases that can overwinter in the soil. (No other Solanaceous cousins, no potatoes, eggplants, peppers or tomatillos, can go there in the off years, either.)

While your transplants shape up, prepare the soil: Start with a soil test, or at least a simple pH test. Tomatoes like a pH of about 6.5 (6.0-6.5 or so is fine). In acidic soils like mine, the addition of lime is recommended, at the rate of 5-10 pounds per 100 square feet worked into the top 6 or so inches.

High-quality finished compost is the best amendment you can add to support great tomatoes. Work in a 2-to-3-inch layer each year.

An all-natural organic fertilizer that’s balanced or has a slightly higher middle number (not one high in Nitrogen) can also be incorporated according to package directions.

Decide how you will support the plants, to keep them up off the ground, for best health.

Staked plants will ripen faster crops of generally larger fruit. Stakes must be at least 1 inch thick and 6 feet high, inserted a foot into the ground.  Remember: Staked plants require a commitment to ongoing pruning, keeping the plant to one or two main stems of vine-like, not bush, habit. All small suckers that develop in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem must be removed. I do not have the energy for this, so I cage my plants, but here’s the encyclopedia of tomato-pruning if you wish to stake (or trellis) and prune.

Caged plants are easier to care for, and in the longterm may produce heavier yields (because they have more branches and stems). I bought myself a set of lifetime cages that also fold; you can make excellent cages from concrete reinforcing wire (6 feet of it makes a 22-inch cage). Stabilize each cage with a stake and twist-ties, unless the cage has inground legs.

Another advantage of cages: You can use them as mini-greenhouses should late or early frosts come, by having clamps and reusable pieces of clear, heavy plastic cut to wrap each cage. Some expert growers always put the plastic on in the first weeks to reduce negative effects of wind on young plants.

Harden off your transplants over the last week in your indoor care with daily trips outside to enjoy a taste of what’s to come, returning them to a protected place at night.

After all danger of frost is past, it’s planting time. Hurrying doesn’t help, and it can hurt.

Plant deep, at least to the level of the original seed leaves, or even to the topmost couple of pairs of leaves. (More on how, and how deep, here.) Water in well, applying first of two doses of liquid feed; see below under “Douse each plant’s root zone,” for details.

Space plants at least 2 feet apart in each direction; 3 or more would be much better, as air circulation is another disease-preventive tactic. Caged plants need wider spacing than staked, and indeterminate varieties more than some determinate; plan accordingly.

High-quality woven polypropylene landscape fabric, such as is used on greenhouse floors, is an excellent, porous, weed-preventive measure. It can be reused for many years. Staple it to the ground with earth staples.

On top of that, a layer of clean straw or some other organic mulch will further reduce splashing of spores and other woes up from the soil onto the plants.

Snip off any flowerbuds that set until the plant is settled in and growing strong, after it reaches perhaps a foot tall or so.

Tomatoes will rely on you to team up with the heavens and provide consistent moisture, consistent being key here. Ideal is the equivalent of an inch of water throughout the entire growing area; half again as much in the heat of summer. Remember: an inch of rain (which is what you are simulating) is a lot of rain, and takes a long time to apply. Use soaker hoses or a drip system, not the end of a hose. If you must use a sprinkler, use it in the morning, so that foliage can dry by day, and don’t work in the garden while the foliage is damp.

Douse each plant’s root zone with a liquid feed twice during the growing season. Some growers swear by doing this at transplant time and again when the first flowers appear; others say transplant and first fruit. Just remember to do it while they are in their run-up to adulthood and you will be fine. Powdered seaweed fertilizer or fish emulsion diluted in water according to label directions are two non-chemical possibilities.

Be vigilant about watching for tomato hornworms and their telltale droppings or first signs of their chewing damage. The droppings are easier to see than the green caterpillars, who normally start their eating at the tops of plants. Pick them off and destroy them.

Sometimes, despite all this love, tomatoes fail to set fruit. Assuming you did not give the plant too much Nitrogen, it may be weather-related: Nighttime temperatures that remain above 70 or temperatures below 50ish interfere with pollination. Fruit set can also be hampered by over-feeding with Nitrogen or by irregular watering.

And then there are the other tomato mysteries: cracked fruit, green shoulders on fruit, black spots on one end or the other. Here’s the scoop on what might ail you later this growing season (though the chances are greatly reduced if you followed all the tips above).

And one more thing: Please, don’t grow your tomatoes upside-down, as is the fashion started by at least one recent gimmick product. Yes, they’ll grow if you follow the instructions, but why would you bother, why spend the money? The tomato experts at Rutgers agree with me on this one, by the way. I think there’s enough upside-down in the world without us adding to the dizzying picture, no?

  1. chigal says:

    I tried upside-down tomatoes. It was pathetic. Hard to water, as the top was up high. Hard to keep healthy, as the water would dribble down through the dirt and onto the plant. Hard to prune, as the growth was irregular and tangled (upward). Lastly, most of the tomatoes developed blossom end rot, probably because of the stress on the plant.

  2. Sylvia (England) says:

    Margaret, I like the cages – hopefully they will prove popular and some one with import them to us! I keep trying to grow tomatoes, they either get blight or the summer is too dull. Hopefully this year!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  3. Rachel says:

    I love the comment about upside down tomato plants. I think its rather silly. I looked at the Rutgers link and found that extreme heat can damage roots in the early stages. This makes me think that I need to plant my potted tomato plants now since its already 70 in Dallas. Last year I got 3 small tomatoes from my plant. So hopefully I’ll have better luck this year. I am using pots, but will definitely read some of your suggestions.

  4. mss @ Zanthan Gardens (Texas) says:

    Thanks for the tomato tips. My tomatoes are already ping-pong sized but don’t feel envious. We have a very short tomato season as soon nighttime temperatures will be too hot for fruit to set.

    One tip on mulch from our county extension agent. Don’t mulch until after the soil warms up. If you put down a heavy mulch when the soil is cold and damp the tomatoes will get off to a slow start–even if air temperatures are above freezing.

    I’m glad you pointed out *consistent* watering. That’s been a problem I’ve had because we are often in drought interrupted with 3 or 4 inches of rain in a day. This year I’ve buried 1.25 liter plastic drink bottles with holes punched in the bottom. This enables me to water deep and consistently. Seems to be working so far.

  5. Jaden says:

    Great tips – I’m off to store to get some fertilizer. Have you tried Earthboxes? Their HQ is near me in Florida and I swear by them. We’ve built a cage around the boxes.

    Unfortunately, I’m the only tomato lover in my home…

  6. margaret says:

    Welcome, Rachel. You and Jean have a similar question…about growing in pots…and I thought about including that and then just petered out.

    Key tips: bigger is definitely better on the pots, not small ones that will cause more heat stress for roots and dry out all the time. Also, lighter-colored pots are better than ones that will soak up the sunlight, especially in hot zones like yours, Rachel.

    Tomatoes won’t put up with uneven watering, whether in the ground or otherwise, and that will really affect productivity. It’s harder to be consistent on that score in pots, I think, which on the hottest days will dry out seemingly instantly. Also remember that all the watering leaches nutrients from the potting mix, so be sure to supplement (not high Nitrogen, of course).

    Just some first thoughts…

  7. chigal says:

    I find it helps to shade my tomato containers, while the vines themselves are out in the sun. Mulch, too (usually pine needles from xmas). They still need attention when it’s hot and dry out, but they don’t wilt before I can get to them, this way. A handful of bone meal in the soil dissolves slowly, so I credit that with helping avoid calcium deficiency problems.

  8. jen says:

    I’m using a moisture meter for the first time this year, should the tomatoes be consistently “moist” or do I let them dry out between waterings?

  9. margaret says:

    @Jaden: I have not tried Earthboxes, but now I have read up on them, thank you. :)

    Welcome, Jen. I don’t think we are wanting moist as much as not dry, if that makes sense. So not daily, but also not letting them go till they wilt or stress out. Consistently moist may invite too many tomato issues of the fungal type; these are not bog plants. :)

  10. daniel (food dryer home) says:

    I enjoyed this list of growing tips as I did your earlier list of sprouting tips. Thanks, and keep ’em coming!

    1. margaret says:

      Hello, Daniel, and thanks for the encouragement. Will try to keep the production line going (it would help if the weather turned warmer and gave me more subjects outside to work with). :)

      @Linda: With the cages, the side branches of the plants stick out every which way between the rungs once the plant fills in and sort of lean on the cage. At first it looks ridiculous…this tiny plant in this big gaping hole of a cage. But large plants (especially indeterminate ones) quickly fill it up. You may have to direct a branch or two in between the right openings, but I don’t tie it to the cage or anything.

  11. Linda P says:

    I have been collecting all my egg shells seperatly to put in at the bottom of the tomatoes. I saw that some place or read that the plants would like it so I’m trying it this year. I had a great crop last year with only one type. I will try more types and use a better system of staking. My stakes were high but not in deep enough and they toppled a few times Trial and error.

    I don’t understand caging. I went on line to see the ones you buy and they look good and store well, but since the plant grows up the middle what keeps it from flopping? do you tie plant to sides of cage? or stake in the middle? or does it work like a huge peony hoop and you just use the segments to keep it from falling? Some how my plants got huge and tall so I don’t know how that would work? Let me know if you can..thanks!

  12. Jayne says:

    Thanks for all the great tips and reminders. The one thing I remind myself each year is – BIG POTS! BIG TOMATOES! Once the seeds have sprouted and have a couple leaves and you are ready to transplant to a bigger pot before they are set out in the garden – GO FOR A BIG POT! The bigger the better. I use old milk cartons (recycle!) Yes, they use a lot of soil, but the size of your tomato and your yield will be worth it!

  13. Roxana says:

    After a couple years of hiding my tomato plants between tall perennials (I have limited ‘full sun’ area to work with), I was really looking forward to trying the upside down container technique. It appears from the comments that this idea may not be as…shall we say…*fruitful* as I’d hoped. I’d also like to second your comment about the versatility of tomato cages. Upside down and dressed up in plastic, they make wonderful ‘cold frame teepees’ for early spring vegetables. I open and close mine with clothespins as temperatures allow. What’s more, they make pretty good ladders for runner beans/peas!

  14. suzanne says:

    Margaret I’ve been growing cherries and grapes in pots for a number of years. Sungold, Juliette and so on, no problem. If you put your finger down an inch if dry, then water. It does require a lot more work but boy do they produce. Enough for the whole neighborhood. Also use eggshells and powdered milk when planting. Yes, I love the old ones always have lots of Brandywines. Our favorite.

  15. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jayne. And yes, yes, yes! Big pots. How would you like to be confined to a tiny space? Not me. :)

    Welcome, Roxana. “If you put your finger down an inch if dry then water” is EXACTLY the way to tell. Thank you. See you both soon again, I hope.

  16. mick says:

    Hello everyone,

    Greetings from Canada. Last year was my first time planting veggies in the garden, and what a bounty I had, considering I have never planted veggies before.

    I created beds along the backyard fence, purchased 4 yards of good top soil, and planted tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, broccoli and herbs.

    Thanks for the tips Maggie



  17. Teresa O'Connor says:

    Enjoyed this post very much. I’m trying Earth Boxes for the first time too, because I’m running out of room for crop rotation. If the tomatoes grow like the advertising pictures, I’ll be happy. Happy gardening. Teresa

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Teresa. I will be eager to hear your followup on how it all goes (but don’t wait till tomato harvest time to come back and say hello again).

      Welcome, Mick. Happy to provide tips anytime. Sounds like you don’t need them however…perhaps you have some to share after all that first-time success. :) See you soon.

  18. Peggy says:

    Great tips. My garden is on the small size and I am not sure I can rotate tomatoes and not plant the green peppers and eggplants in the tomatoes former address. Wish me luck on that. I’m actually off to the nursery after this post. Picking up mulch, tomato plants and the wonderful large folding tomato cages.

    P.S. I lived in Dallas before moving to California. Growing tomatoes there was something I was not able to accomplish–too hot!
    P.S.S. Here is a funny little youtube video I made of the infamous tomato/tabacco hornworm I found munching all the leaves from my tomato plant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTo8qLTP4TY&feature=channel_page

  19. Megan says:

    Thanks for all the information! Our tomatoes did fairly well last year, but I’m hoping to give them a bit more attention this season. I need all the advice I can get.

  20. margaret says:

    Welcome, Peggy, and thank you for the link. I do wish you luck, and hope your shopping spree was successful.

    Welcome, Megan, and glad to be of assistance. See you soon again.

  21. Maria says:

    This is the first time I ever tried growing tomatoes and I am enjoying wonderful orange size red tomatoes. What a blessing to see them become red. And they are so deliscious!
    Thanks for all the tips. I want to try the cages.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Maria. Just set my young plants into the garden this week, so no orange-sized tomatoes here yet by a longshot! Jealous of your success. See you soon again, I hope.

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