Growing tomatoes doesn't have to be difficult, but it can be challenging for beginning gardeners. Here are step-by-step tips to help you plant, grow, prune, water, and fertilize your tomato plants to ultimately produce juicy tomatoes that everyone will want on their plate.
Along with the Fourth of July and the arrival of fireflies, slicing into summer’s first tomato is one of the season’s most anticipated events. And though grocery stores and farmers markets sell lots of new varieties, it's just hard to beat a vine-ripened tomato from your own yard. Thanks to flavor-forward heirlooms and hybrids in new shapes and colors, our passion for homegrown tomatoes keeps growing.
Successfully Plant Tomatoes
To have the best chance at successfully planting and growing tomatoes, place tomato transplants in the garden after the last average frost date in your area. Although seeds can be directly sown in the garden and plants can be grown to maturity in warm areas, most successful tomato gardeners buy transplants or start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before their average last frost date. Plant small bush tomato varieties 24 inches apart and larger varieties, especially sprawling indeterminate plants, 36-48 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart.
To give tomato transplants the most chance of success, plant them deep so that half the plant is underground. This planting depth is unique to tomato plants because unlike other vegetable plants, tomato plants can form roots along their stems. The extra roots help anchor the plant and provide more opportunity for water and nutrient uptake, which is especially helpful when starting with tall, leggy transplants.
To give tomato transplants a better chance for more successful growing, cut off the transplant's bottom leaves and set the root ball in a planting hole deep enough so that only the top cluster of leaves is showing above ground. If the transplant is exceptionally tall and leggy, take a trowel and dig a 4- to 6-inch deep trench in the soil. Lay the plant sideways in the trench and turn the uppermost portion of the stem vertically so the top cluster of leaves pokes out of the soil. This helps to straighten the plant.
Successfully Grow Tomato Plants
After planting, stake or cage all tomatoes with the exception of small bush or patio varieties, which can often support themselves. Waiting a few weeks after planting to install stakes or cages can injure the plant's roots. Cages and stakes keep tomatoes off the ground, helping to encourage successful tomato growing and prevent fruit rot and numerous diseases.
Tomato cages are typically made of heavy-gauge wire and stand 5-6 feet tall. Firmly anchor the cages to the ground with stakes to keep the plants from blowing over and uprooting themselves during storms. They should have openings wide enough for your hand to reach inside to harvest.
Stakes are another way to help plants stand tall and help tomatoes successfully grow. They need to be at least 8 feet high and 1 inch wide. Pound the stake at least 12 inches into the ground and 4 inches from the plant. Attach the stem to the stake with garden twine, self-adhesive fabric, or strips of cloth.
How do you make heirlooms easier to grow? Graft them onto disease-resistant rootstock. Grafting is a propagating technique that involves slicing a piece from one plant and splicing that plant piece onto another plant. Grafted plants are pricier (about $8 per plant), but you’ll get increased yield. Use silicon grafting clips or grafting ties to make sure you get a successful graft.
Successfully Care for Tomato Plants
After the soil has warmed, mulch plants with a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of organic mulch, such as straw or finely shredded wood chips, to prevent weeds and to maintain soil moisture. Mulch is also necessary to help successfully grow tomatoes as it prevents soil and soilborne diseases from splashing onto leaves when it rains. At the end of the season, enrich the soil by tilling in the mulch. It will decompose and add valuable nutrients for next season.
Tomatoes grow most successfully when they have consistent moisture. If it rains less than 1 inch per week, supplement by watering. In sprinkler terms, that's 20 minutes three times a week. To prevent diseases, avoid getting the foliage wet. Use a watering can or wand to deliver water directly to the root zones, or use a drip irrigation system.
Learning when to fertilize tomatoes is as simple as watching for the fruit: When they are about the size of golf balls, fertilize tomato plants with a balanced plant food such as 5-5-5 or organic fertilizers.
While these plant's don't need to be pruned, it's a good idea to remove any shoots growing between the main stem and a branch. Those shoots take away energy from the plant that could be going toward the branches growing fruit.
Successfully Harvest Tomatoes
Pick fruits when they are firm, full size, and fully colored. Tomatoes mature and ripen best at temperatures close to 75 degrees F. When the temperature rises about 90 degrees, the fruits soften and develop poor color. Tomatoes will ripen when picked at their green mature size.
Before a hard frost, harvest all but the greenest fruits and bring them indoors to a 60- to 65-degree F room, and wrap them individually in a sheet of newspaper. Check the fruits once a week for ripeness and remove any tomatoes that are decayed or not showing signs of ripening. Also, whole plants can be uprooted and hung in a warm, sheltered location, where the fruits can continue to ripen.
Once picked, ripe fruits can be stored for up to two weeks at 55 degrees F. They can also be stored in the refrigerator but will not taste as good as those stored at cool room temperature.
Knowing the best time to plant tomatoes as well as how to care for tomato plants will get you well on your way to harvesting firm and fully colored tomatoes that you'll be proud to call your own.