Tomatoes – Eleven Great Tips ( Videos and Audio)
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetables grown in the United States. Their fresh taste is so much better than anything you can get in the grocery store that they’re almost always in every garden in the country. The problem is that while tomatoes are easy to find and easy to grow, sometimes your results are disappointing. They are susceptible to a host of insects, diseases and wilts. I’ve seen books that are entirely about problems with tomatoes.
The rise in interest in heirloom varieties makes the problem even greater since few are disease resistant. But with a little bit of knowledge and planning, tomatoes can be a winner in your garden every year.
I’ve been growing tomatoes for over twenty years and have experimented with every possible arrangement of cages, hoops, wires and stakes imaginable. I’ve learned that there are several elements to consider when growing tomatoes and my results have gotten better each year.
When dealing with any garden, the soil is the first step. Healthy soil means healthy plants, and healthy plants naturally resist diseases and insects. They can sustain damage with little or no loss of productivity, meaning that fertilizers or pesticides are less likely to be needed. Using our system of raised beds, weedless soil and well-balanced, organic fertilizers means you’ll eliminate a lot of tomato problems from the start.
2. Raised Beds
They’re great for about a dozen reasons – most important is that they allow for better drainage, warmer soil, no compaction of the soil and they are easier to work with.
Choosing the right varieties is important. I suggest you avoid all the complexities and hassles of trying to start your own plants from seed and stick with transplants. With all the farmers markets and locally run garden centers, it’s easy to find the plants you want. There are three main styles – beefsteak/slicing tomatoes for a delicious sandwich, roma/paste tomatoes for stews and sauces, and cherry/grape tomatoes to pop into your salad. What you grow is based on your family’s preferences. One plant per person is all you’ll usually need and a single cherry tomato can produce enough for a whole family!
There are two other considerations – bush/determinant vs. indeterminate and heirloom vs. modern plants. Bush plants grow only so tall and then stop growing. They are best for small gardens with limited space. Indeterminate plants will just keep growing and growing and have a continuous harvest once they mature.
If you’re going to grow tomatoes where you’ve had disease problems before then you should use some of the many newer varieties that have disease resistance built in. Their labels will be clearly marked. Don’t worry, they’ll still taste great. If you’re starting with a new garden or brand new potting mix you can try your hand with the heirlooms – there is a wonderful variety of sizes, shapes, tastes and colors. Experiment with as many as you can fit in your garden and you’re guaranteed to have a lot of fun. Next year you can drop the varieties you didn’t like and try some others.
Always clean up any dropped leaves, dropped or rotted fruit and put your old plants in the trash, not in your compost pile.
4. Planting times.
Resist the temptation to plant the first day the garden centers get their transplants. Usually that’s about a month before the last frost and you’re likely to lose your plants to cold weather. Even if they survive they won’t thrive. Instead they’ll be unhappy and won’t produce like the same plants put in at the proper time. Those will take off running and never look back. If you have a spot with good sunlight and you have a raised bed, you can start a week sooner than your neighbors.
5. Plant spacing, air circulation, pruning – stakes vs. cages.
You’re well on your way to becoming a tomato master. You have the right soil in a raised bed, you’ve chosen the right varieties and you’re waiting until the perfect time to plant. Next comes the biggest issue, since all tomato plants need support. The question is “which to use, stakes or cages?”
The key is air circulation. The more you have the fewer problems you’ll find with diseases that curl your leaves and kill your plants from the bottom up, just as your fruit is starting to ripen. Wire cages and circles are fine, but the issue is how a tomato naturally grows. It has a main stem and puts out branches, but in the elbows of those branches it also puts out what we call “suckers.” These become their own main stems with their own branches and suckers and you quickly end up with a tomato jungle.
I recommend that you use tall stakes and prune your plants to a single main stem. Check every two or three days and pinch off the suckers that appear. It doesn’t take that much extra effort and the result is a happier, healthier plant with bigger fruit and fewer problems. I also suggest that as the plant grows, you remove the lower branches to expose the bottom 12″ of the main stem. This really improves the air circulation throughout the plant but the main benefit is in resisting wilts and other fungal diseases. The theory is that rainwater hits the ground where the wilt lives and splashes onto the lower leaves of the plant. The leaves get infected and when water hits them, it splashes up to the next level. That’s why you should throw away pruned leaves and branches and any dropped or rotted fruit.
In the past I’ve used eight foot pressure-treated wood stakes that I sink one and a half to two feet into the ground. If you’re a purist you could seal them with polyurethane or go with an untreated stake. Recently I’ve discovered some great stakes that are metal tubes covered with plastic that you can find almost everywhere.
6. Planting transplants.
It’s easy. Pinch or clip off the bottom few branches, pop the plants out of their pots and plant a little more deeply than they were originally growing. With a good drink of water they’ll be off to a fine start.
7. Tie them up.
As your plants grow up their stakes you’ll need to tie them. Look for soft jute twine and cut off 9″ lengths in advance. You can loosely tie a bunch to the top of your stakes so you’ll have them handy. Wrap around your stake twice and then go under a branch and tie loosely. Resist the urge to tie up your plant too quickly. Let it grow up and strengthen in the breeze first. This will result in a stockier plant with a nice thick stem.
8. Companion plants and interplanting.
Certain plants when put together allow each to grow better, either from encouraging beneficial insects or confusing or repelling the bad bugs. Marigolds and nasturtiums are the best examples for tomatoes. Look for varieties that have a strong smell. Carrots and onions also do well with tomatoes. My experience has taught me that it’s better to mix things up in the garden rather than to have everything together. So I plant a tomato, a pepper and an eggplant and then another tomato instead of having all my tomatoes in a row.
9. Mulch, mulch, mulch!
Mulching is great for tomatoes. It keeps the moisture in the soil at an even level, keeps the weeds down, and stops water from splashing up to your plants. Pine needles and pine bark are good choices. A light layer of dried grass clippings is good, but don’t let it get too thick. I prefer to use compost as mulch. Weeds don’t grow in it and it has the same effects as other mulches, but it also fertilizes the soil.
You want to water evenly and thoroughly. Uneven watering causes the fruits to crack and too much water affects the taste. So keep an eye on things and if it hasn’t rained and your plants look thirsty, give them a good soaking. It’s much better to water deeply every three days than lightly every day.
I don’t recommend fertilizer while your plants are growing. What’s already in the soil should be fine. But spraying the leaves (foliar feeding) is great. You can use various solutions like fish emulsion, or you can make compost tea, which is also great for improving insect and disease resistance.