Tomatoes are one of the most popular plants to grow in the vegetable garden. With the right care and a few helpful tips, your tomato plants can produce delicious, ripe fruit.
The trick to growing great-tasting tomatoes is to choose the best varieties, start the plants off right, and control problems before they happen.
Start here with these time-tested tomato growing tips to harvest a juicy, bountiful crop this year.
Choose the Right Tomato Variety
The two main categories of tomatoes are indeterminate and determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes fruit continuously throughout the season, while determinate tomatoes ripen nearly all at once.
Determinate tomatoes are great for making sauce or drying, and because they tend to reach a smaller size at maturity, they’re better for container planting. Indeterminate tomatoes, which include many heirloom varieties, are better for continuous harvests all summer long.
Another consideration is how long your tomatoes will take to ripen. Tomatoes are divided into early-season, mid-season, and late-season categories. In colder climates, look for early-season tomatoes that have been bred to grow well in cooler weather.
Provide Lots of Light
Tomato seedlings need strong, direct light. Unless you are growing them in a greenhouse, your best option is to use some type of artificial plant lighting for 14 to 18 hours every day.
To keep seedlings from getting leggy, keep the young plants only a couple of inches from fluorescent grow lights. You will need to raise the lights (or lower the plants) as the seedlings grow. When you’re ready to plant them outside, choose the sunniest part of your vegetable garden as their location.
When planting in the garden, choose a location that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun. Tomatoes need the sun to grow well and produce fruit.
Turn a Fan On
Tomato plants need to move and sway in the breeze to develop strong stems. That happens naturally outdoors, but if you start your seedlings inside, you need to provide some type of air circulation.
Create a breeze by turning a fan on them for five to 10 minutes twice a day. Another option is to ruffle the tomato plants by gently rubbing your hand back and forth across their tops for a few minutes, several times a day.
Provide Proper Soil Conditions
Make sure your soil can provide the proper conditions for tomatoes before you plant. Tomatoes prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. You can check soil pH at home or get a soil test from your local extension agency. A soil test will also find any nutrient deficiencies.
Work compost into the soil before planting tomatoes. You can also side-dress plantings with compost mid-season to add nutrients. Another option is to apply a fertilizer specifically designed for tomatoes every two weeks during the growing season, starting with planting time. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and require a steady source of nutrients.
Plant at the Right Time
Plant tomatoes outdoors once any danger of frost in your growing zone has passed and soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees. It’s best to wait until night temperatures are above 50 degrees to plant tomatoes outside. Harden-off tomato seedlings are grown indoors to help them adjust before planting.
Bury the Stems
Plant your tomato plants deeper than they’re planted in their pots. Bury them up to the top few leaves. When planted this way, tomatoes are ablcanp roots all along their stems. More roots make for a stronger plant.
You can dig a deep hole or simply dig a shallow trench and lay the plant sideways. It will quickly straighten itself up and grow toward the sun. Just be careful not to drive your tomato stake or cage into the buried stem.
Water Deeply Every Week
Water tomato plants deeply and regularly while the fruits are developing. During hot, dry spells, they may need more. If your plants start to look wilted for most of the day, give them a drink. Without rain, plan on giving your plants about an inch of supplemental water each week. Water at the base of the plant, or use a soaker hose. Avoid splashing water on the leaves, which can lead to disease.
After the fruit begins to ripen, you can ease up on watering. Cutting back on water will coax the plant into concentrating its sugars, which makes for better-tasting fruit. Don’t withhold water so much that the plants continually wilt and become stressed, or they will drop their blossoms and possibly their fruit.
Mulch Tomatoes After the Soil Has Warmed
Hold off on putting down mulch until after the ground has had a chance to warm up. Although mulching conserves water and prevents soil and soil-borne diseases from splashing up on the plants, it also shades and cools the soil.2 Once temperatures remain warm, you can add a layer of mulch to retain moisture.
Don’t Crowd Tomato Seedlings
Give tomato seedlings plenty of room to branch out by thinning the seedlings to one strong plant per cell or small pot. Snip weaker, smaller seedlings in favour of the best grower to give tomato plants enough space. Crowded conditions inhibit their growth, which stresses plants and can lead to disease later on.3
Transplant tomato seedlings into their 4 spots shortly after they get their first set of true leaves. Make sure to harden off seedlings before planting in the garden.
Give your tomato plants some support when they’re 10 to 12 inches tall. Use tomato cages, string trellises, wooden or metal stakes with ties, or other strong supports to keep plants upright. Indeterminate tomatoes typically need stronger support than determinate varieties, but stakes or cages can help determinate tomatoes stand up straight once they bear fruit.
Remove the Bottom Leaves
After your tomato plants reach 2 to 3 feet tall, remove the leaves from the bottom foot of the stem. These are the oldest leaves, and they’re usually the first to develop fungus problems.
Because these leaves sit close to the ground, they can easily come into contact with soil-borne pathogens. Removing them can prevent fungal diseases.4 Make sure to disinfect your clippers between plants to avoid spreading disease. Spraying weekly with compost tea can also help.
Remove Suckers for More Tomatoes
Remove suckers that develop in the crotch joint of two branches. Pinch or prune them off when they’re three inches long or smaller. They won’t bear fruit and can take energy away from the rest of the plant.4 You can root tomato suckers in water to grow additional plants.
How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes
When to harvest tomatoes depends on whether you planted early, mid, or late-season tomatoes. Early-season tomatoes mature in 40 to 70 days, mid-season in 60 to 70 days, and late-season tomatoes in 80 to 100 days from planting.
Tomatoes are ready to harvest when fruits are good-sized and fully coloured. The skin should be smooth and shiny, with a supple yet firm feel. They’ll come off the plant easily. If you have to pull hard, that’s a sign the fruit isn’t quite ready.
Tomatoes that are fully green when harvested will never ripen properly, but you can use them in recipes such as green tomatoes. To let partially ripe fruit ripen further, wait until the fruit is mostly coloured and twist or snip the fruit from the vine. Let ripen in a paper bag on the counter. Waiting until fruit is fully ripe can mean giving up a portion of your harvest to pests like squirrels.
Store tomatoes at room temperature. Refrigerator temperatures will keep any unripe fruits from ripening properly. However, fully ripe tomatoes can be put in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, but they’ll taste best when brought back up to room temperature before eating.
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