If you garden at home, chances are you are growing your own tomatoes. I absolutely love the season’s first sliced tomato sandwich and the bounty of canning tomatoes late in the summer. As market farmers, we see a huge portion of our summer sales due to our several varieties of heirloom and cherry tomatoes. People flock to the tables displaying the rainbow of red, orange, burgundy, gold, and even pink beauties that will turn into many different delicious meals. For many people, the tomato is the taste of summer.
When choosing the tomato you want to grow, there are several items to consider. How are you going to use the fruit? Slicing? Salads? Eating fresh or cooking? There are literally thousands of varieties of tomatoes from which to choose. And each one has a distinct flavor and purpose. For example, if you are planning to eat them on sandwiches, you really want a big tomato like a Brandywine or Beefsteak. If you are planning to do a lot of cooking and canning with your fruit, a paste tomato like Roma is an excellent choice. You must also choose between Heirloom and hybrid. Many home growers are attracted to heirloom varieties because of their distinct characteristics and flavors, while hybrid tomatoes offer more disease- and pest-resistance. One last consideration is whether you want a determinate or an indeterminate plant. The basic difference between the two is a determinate plant will be more compact and will give its fruit at once, while an indeterminate plant will continue to grow (sometimes very tall) and will continue to bear fruit the length of the season.
Once you have chosen your varieties, if it is still early in the year, you can decide whether you would like to start your own plants or wait until closer to planting time and purchase plants from a local nursery. If you do decide to start your own, you will need to do so at least six weeks before your planting date, which should be well after your area’s last frost date. Here at Harp & Shamrock Croft, LLC we don’t put tomatoes in the ground until May 1, the reason being that not only do we feel confident that we have passed the frost at that point, but also tomatoes really prefer good, warm soil. We start our tomatoes near the end of February, giving them ample time to grow strong before transplanting.
Because this article deals with the care and maintenance of tomatoes, I’m not going to delve into starting your own plants. We can deal with that next winter. For now, let’s talk about choosing your plants and what it takes to get them planted. First of all, if you are buying plants early in the season (March or April) you will need to care for them in their pots until planting time. This means you want to buy a plant that is not too big just yet because it will grow quite a bit before you can get it into the ground. Also, be sure you are buying one that has a big enough pot to support the root system for quite a while. I often see people buying tomato seedlings at very low prices, but I wonder if they are aware that those seedlings need to be repotted into larger pots in order to thrive before being transplanted. Once you have your plants, water them every day, be sure to give them several hours of sunlight in a sunny southern window, unless, of course, it is warm enough where you are to leave them outside.
Hardening Off If you have started your own tomatoes, you will need to help them become acclimated to the outdoors in a process called “hardening off,” which involves slowly exposing them to the elements. It’s best to start on a cloudy day if possible, setting them outside for a few hours the first day. Gradually increase that time every day for a few days. At the end of your hardening off, leave them out overnight. If you neglect to properly harden them off, you run the risk of sunscald and transplant shock.
Location Now you are ready to get your tomato babies into the ground! When you are deciding where to put them, be sure you are choosing a sunny spot. Tomatoes need at the very least, 6-8 hours of sunlight to produce fruit, and even more sun will ensure a bigger bounty. You also need to consider spacing, as many tomatoes will need a good 24 inches between them. Lastly, consider that you will need access to your tomato plants in order to care for them and water them daily. Many types can be grown in large pots on a porch, which one might argue increases your access and enjoyment.
Transplanting If you are putting your plant into the ground (as opposed to pots), we recommend using the trench method. Dig a trench about a foot long and deep (and wide) enough to cover the root ball. If your soil is dry or it is a particularly hot day, add some water to the trench before adding the plant. We also add kelp meal as a de-stresser and growth enhancer for our tomatoes; use about 2 tablespoons for each plant. Now, gently lay the plant down in the trench so it’s lying on the ground. Then cover the root ball up to the first set of leaves. The reason for this is simple: tomatoes are one of the rare plants that will grow roots wherever soil touches the plant. More roots mean more nutrients to help the plant thrive.
After the plant is covered, stake the plant (we use 7-foot bamboo stakes) and gently tie it but not too tight. We are not fans of tomato cages unless you have a particularly compact plant (such as a Roma), but if planting slicing tomatoes consider using multiple states on each side of the plant in order to support the weight of the plant once it begins to fruit. Cherry tomatoes can get by with one sturdy stake, but even in some cases having a couple stakes as supports keeps the plant from stressing.
After transplanting, we recommend side dressing your plants. Once the plant is in the ground and covered, use 1/8 cup of blood meal per plant and sprinkle it around the base four inches from the stem. Avoid having the blood meal touch the stem directly as it can burn the plant. Too much blood will encourage foliage growth but hinder fruit production. Later in the season you can go back and side dress again to give your plant a good pep. Whereas the kelp meal that we added to the hole is the stress reducer, the blood meal is fuel for growth. Given our hot and sometimes very dry summers, the plants need all the help they can get.
Water We always recommend after planting to do two deep waterings. The reason for this is you want the tomato roots to reach down for the water. Too light a watering does not go deep enough below the root ball and the root system can stay shallow. Also very important is a consistent watering cycle. An inconsistent watering cycle can bring physiological effects on the plant and can also cause deformities in your fruit. Our recommended watering schedule is 30 minutes every two to three days. You may not have to go as heavy with the water in May, but beginning in mid-June the soil dries out fast. If you aren’t sure if you need to water, do what is called the “finger test.” If you stick your finger into the soil near the plant stem you should feel it somewhat wet up to your first knuckle. It will always be wetter the deeper that you push, but if you do not feel wetness when you first push your finger down then your tomatoes need water. Be sure that you are watering your plants at the root in order to avoid scorching your leaves and also evaporation of precious water before it has a chance to soak into the soil.
Mulch Your tomatoes will greatly benefit from a good mulching, as well. We typically use a mixture of crushed leaves and straw (caution on leaves, though, as they will increase soil acidity, which lowers your soil pH). There are other options, too, such as black plastic and wood chips. Mulch will keep the soil moist a lot longer.
Maintenance For a top-performing plant, remove the suckers. The suckers are simply the plant growth between the main stem and a branch. Suckers can become a strain on the plant and will decrease fruit production. You may also remove the branch, if for some reason it is damaged, and let the sucker become the new growth. We have had entire plant tops get cut off or damaged and permitted a sucker to become the main growth. You can even remove the suckers and put in soil and shoots will appear (only with suckers though).
Fertilizer Your tomatoes will need a little boost of nutrients now and again. We use fish emulsion for a little nitrogen boost every few weeks throughout the summer. It’s natural, organic approved, effective, and inexpensive. You can find it at garden centers. In addition to the kelp and blood meal that you added at transplanting, you may also want to add crushed egg shell to the soil (or some other form of calcium), as calcium greatly reduces Blossom End Rot (that black spot that sometimes occurs on the bottom of tomato fruit).
Pests It is very important to remove rotting or split fruit once it appears, in order to decrease pests that will harm other fruit. However, despite your best efforts, you will likely still encounter pests. Here at Harp & Shamrock Croft, LLC we use only OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute) approved pesticides. B.t. is a biological insecticide containing the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. We use B.t. for tomato hornworms. Mix three tablespoons of B.t. to two gallons of water, shake well, and spray each tomato plant about every 7 days. We try to be proactive and start spraying about June 1, but sometimes sooner if you see evidence of fruit with holes. Dipple Dust is a powder form of B.t. and works well too. We have only used it once though as we prefer liquid. B.t. can be found at most garden centers.
Last year we also began adding a product called Pyganic to our pesticide rotation. It is harder to purchase than B.t., as we have not found it locally and have ordered it online. It is also a broad spectrum product, meaning it can kill pollinators and should be used sparingly and only before or after the bees are out for the day.
Eventually your tomato plant will be finished for the season, as all good things must come to an end. At this point you can pull the plant and replace it with a younger one if there is still time in the growing season. In our area one can plant tomatoes as late as July 1 and still see a good harvest. Most tomato plants, if well cared for, will produce about 3-5 pounds of delicious, juicy fruit. I hope that these tips help you to have a happy growing season this year!