If you’re like the rest of us, you get downright excited about growing tomatoes. The basic steps sound easy: plant your tomatoes, water them religiously and leave plenty of room for big growth (because those tomato plants won’t stay little for long). But what are the real secrets to growing a patch that’s the envy of the neighborhood? We’ve got a few tips and tricks to help!
Soil Temperature Matters
Tomato plants LOVE warm soil! (If you put down plastic mulch for a few days (or up to two weeks) before you transplant your tomatoes or peppers, they will love the extra warmth. And you can transplant right through the plastic if you want to!). Mulch will shade the soil during mid-summer and keep it cool. Plus it deters weed growth, conserves water and makes it look pretty. Mulch also helps to keep soil-borne diseases from splashing onto the plants when they are being watered. It is well worth the little bit of extra effort, and the rewards more than pay for the cost.
If you are planting a fall crop, the soil is already warm enough, so you can mulch as you plant. Another option is to use the a tomato tray. It also prevents weeds right around the plant but with the added bonus of being able to add a fertilizer like Tomato-tone® directly to the roots where your plants can more efficiently use it. Just use the recommended amount and add water to the reservoir to gently feed. Tomato-tone® will not force rapid growth, but will provide the essential nutrients necessary to optimize the production and quality of your tomatoes.
Practice Smart Pruning
Once your tomato plants are 2.5 to 3 feet tall, remove the bottom set of leaves using a sharp pair of scissors. Don’t tear them off. This leaves a ‘wound’ for diseases or pests to enter. The bottom leaves get the least amount of sun and will eventually yellow and die anyway. And they are almost always the first to develop fungus.
You may also start to see tiny stems and leaves (called suckers) starting to grow at the joints of the main branches and/or from the bottom of the main stem. Pinch these off. They will take energy away from the rest of the plant and prevent your tomatoes from growing to their full potential. If, after fruit starts to develop, you notice that your plants are exceptionally bushy, it is also okay to prune a few leaves in order for the sun to reach the fruit. But go easy. The leaves, through the process of photosynthesis, are providing valuable sugars to your tomatoes. This is what gives them that wonderful flavor.
Watering Tips: For Gardens and Containers
Water regularly. Both when your plants are becoming established and once they mature. This is one of the tricks to having beautiful, blemish-free tomatoes. Irregular watering is a contributing factor to blossom end rot, dropped blossoms and cracked fruit.
Keep tomatoes moist, but not wet, during the first 2 to 3 weeks, then start a regular deep-watering regimen. Watering deeply allows the roots to take better hold. It all depends upon your soil conditions, whether or not you mulch, and of course, the moisture you are receiving from Mother Nature, but a good rule of thumb in an average year is to thoroughly soak sandy soils every four to five days. Soak heavier soils and clay every seven to ten days. You want the soil to be moist at a depth of 6 to 8 inches.
If you are growing your tomatoes in containers, the watering requirements will be very different. Your containers should have good drainage. You can still water them deeply, but the time-span will be shorter between waterings. The absolute easiest way to determine the moisture content of your soil at any given time is with a moisture tester. They are really inexpensive and you can get one that tests for pH, moisture, fertility and sunlight, or one that tests just for moisture. Many people new to gardening have found these to be an invaluable tool.
It is perfectly normal for the leaves on your tomato plants to wilt a little in the hottest part of the day. They will normally perk up overnight. If they are wilted first thing in the morning, water them quickly. And always water early in the day. Tomato plants should not be wet overnight and watering during the hottest part of the afternoon results in evaporation. Which is a real waste of our natural resources.
Protect Your Crop: Pests and Disease
If you make it a practice to check your garden regularly, you will get a quick jump on eliminating tomato horn worms or discovering a fungal infection.
Blight, the most common fungal disease for tomatoes, is actually preventable with the application of Serenade Garden Disease Control. Approved and recommended by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), it safely controls many fungal, foliar and bacterial diseases on your tomatoes and in your garden with absolutely no harm being done to you, your family, your pets or livestock, or the environment.
You might benefit from reading The 10 Most Common Tomato Plant Problems. This article covers the 10 most common problems, how to recognize them, how to treat them and most importantly, how to prevent them.
Once your tomatoes start to turn from green to yellow, some fruits will ripen very quickly, especially the cherry or grape varieties. If air temperatures are over 100, you may want to pick the fruit before it is completely ripe. Sometimes extreme heat can cause cracking, and although that doesn’t mean the fruit is no good, it will look much better if you let it ripen on the kitchen counter. Don’t refrigerate tomatoes, if you want them to retain that just-picked sweetness!