Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of Tomato Gardening

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Who should grow tomato plants?

People who have the drive and dedication to tend to their plants throughout the spring, summer and early fall are good candidates for growing tomatoes.  Tomato growing is a commitment of time, energy and money with tremendous rewards for those who pay their dues.

Tossing a plant into the soil and then coming back in a few months expecting to have bushels of fresh fruit is an exercise in futility.  Plan to dedicate a few minutes each day per plant to check on their growth and well being and you’ll have much better results.  Think of a tomato plant as a treasured pet…they need daily care and maintenance to live healthy and productive lives.

If you can’t attend to your plants daily or at least a few times per week due to job, family, vacation commitments, consider getting a “plant sitter” to take care of your plants when you’re away.  Share the harvest with them and they should be happy to help with the chores of growing tomatoes.

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What kind of tomato plant should I buy?

Look for a plant that is 4-10 inches tall and stocky.  Avoid buying those giant, leggy plants and especially avoid buying plants that are flowering or have already set fruit.  Plants that are too tall or have flowers already have likely been grown in hot house conditions and are not suited to do well in our harsh climate.

Buy a plant that has been exposed to our weather extremes of cold, heat, wind, and rain and you have a tough plant that will thrive in your garden.   Buy a plant that is grown locally, not shipped in from an out of state nursery.  Buy a plant from someone who knows how to grow tomatoes and can be there to help you along the journey throughout the summer.

Avoid growing the traditional hybrid tomatoes if you’re looking for the best flavor.  Those fruits can easily and cheaply be purchased in farmer’s markets all summer long.  Grow unique and extremely flavorful and beautiful tomatoes that are all but impossible to buy.  Heirloom tomatoes and unique hybrid varieties are a feast for your eyes and your palette that is worth all of the time, effort and cost it takes to raise them.

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 Where should I plant my tomato plant?

Tomato plants need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight to grow well.  They benefit from early morning sun and afternoon shade if those conditions can be met.  Planting a tomato in a shady area will yield a very small harvest if any at all.

Tomato plants need a rich, well drained soil which supplies enough nutrients, but not too much nitrogen.  Soil rich in organic matter through the addition of compost is your best bet.  Soil that retains too much water will cause your plants to suffer.  If your soil does not drain well, consider making a raised bed of at least 10 inches.  Tomato plants can be grown in LARGE containers, but you will need to water them frequently and add supplemental fertilizer throughout the year.  Container grown plants tend to have smaller yield than ones grown in the ground or in a raised bed.

 

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Tomatoes do not need to be round and red!

When should I plant my tomato plant?

Avoid the temptation of planting early unless you are prepared for heartbreak.  Warm days in March and April will tempt you to get a jump on the season, but it is best to wait until the first full week of May to avoid most chances of frosts or freezes.  Last year it snowed on May 3rd and the year before that we had a frost on May 5th.  Mother’s Day weekend or the week following the holiday is the optimal time to plant.  If you plant earlier, the soil tends to be too cool for the plant to grow rapidly and the length of day isn’t enough to spur rapid growth.  Planting too late in May can be bad as well.  If your plant hasn’t grown to size and set fruit before the super hot days of July and August arrive, it may not set fruit at all.  Try to get all plants in the ground during the first three weeks of May.

If you absolutely must plant your tomato plants early, make sure you have some method to warm the soil and protect your plants from cool night time temperatures.  Building a cold frame or hoop house over the plant is your best bet.  Keep the frame or house open during hot days or you’ll cook your plant.  Keep it closed each night to retain heat.  There are other devices out there to help you get tomato plants started early, but I can’t recommend them.

 

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Ananas noire and KBX make for the best BLT’s!

Why grow your own tomatoes?

Is this a rhetorical question!?!?  Seriously though…growing your own tomatoes is one of the most fantastic things you can do with your summers.  Everyone loves the taste of freshly picked fruit and will be impressed with your gardening skills when you gift them with your bounty.  Grow tomatoes to feed your family throughout the year with fresh, frozen, and canned fruits.

Fresh heirloom tomatoes tend to have a very short shelf life, so eat them fast!  If you have more ripe tomatoes than you can eat, they are very easy to freeze.  Just core them and toss them in a ziplock bag and stick them into the freezer.  The skins will slip right off when you thaw them and they will lose their texture, but retain their fresh flavor.  Frozen tomatoes are excellent for making soups, stews, sauces, and other dishes where tomato texture isn’t important.  You can also can your own tomatoes, tomato sauces, and tomato juices.  Make sure you follow a tested recipe for canning to keep your food safe.  Canned tomatoes retain their texture better, but their flavor changes somewhat.  If you don’t have a lot of freezer space, canning may be your best method of preserving.

Also, you can bring your fresh tomatoes and tomato dishes for everyone to share at the 6th annual TOMATO TASTING on August 2nd!

 

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Photo of my plants courtesy of the fine folks at Tomatotown.org

How do I plant a tomato seedling?

I have an excellent video here of the basic steps to plant a tomato seedling.  Make sure you plant deeply leaving only the growing tip above the soil.  You should also use some form of a collar around the stem to prevent cutworms from damaging your plants.  Water your seedlings in well, then do not water them more than once every 5-7 days throughout the year.  Over-watering tomato plants causes so many problems for gardeners who are too judicious with the garden hose!  Tomatoes that are allowed to stay dry will send down deep roots to tap sub-soil moisture and will thrive under these conditions.  Tomatoes grown like this will also have a more intense flavor than ones that are waterlogged.  If your plant looks wilty on a hot summer day, do not water it.  If it re-bounds in the evening and looks fine the next morning, it does not need water.  The leaf wilt is just the plants response to the heat and does not usually mean the plant needs water.  If you are growing in containers, however, you will need to water much more frequently to keep the soil consistently moist.

Mulch your tomato plants well.  Adding a mulch of some kind retains soil moisture, reduces weed growth, and keeps the soil cool on hot summer days.  I like to use silver reflective plastic film as mulch.  The plastic does an excellent job of retaining moisture and preventing weeds and the silver film bounces light under the leaves and repels all sorts of insects that might seek the shade of your plants.  You can also use grass clippings or straw to much your plants, just make sure that the mulch does not actually touch the stems of your plants.

Water your plants deeply once a week at the most.  I prefer to use a drip irrigation system, but you can use soaker hoses in a pinch.  Do not water the foliage of the plants..only water base of the plant to get the roots wet.  Watering the foliage is a recipe for disease disaster!

Fertilize your plants when you plant them and then again after they set fruit.  Use a balanced fertilizer that is not too high in nitrogen.  Organically you can use Tomato Tone or a 10-10-10 for non-organic fertilizers.

Support your growing tomato plant with stakes or cages.  I prefer to use Texas Tomato Cages or concrete wire cages as these are much easier to train the plant as it grows.  Keeping your plant off of the ground is the best way to avoid many diseases and damage from animals.  Prune any foliage off of the bottom of your plant that may touch the ground. Also prune any leaves or branches that show signs of yellowing or spots.  Doing this will keep diseases from creeping up your plant and allows for better air circulation.  A well pruned, caged plant is very easy to manage and will produce a heavy harvest!

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