Growing tomatoes is probably the most popular activity in vegetable gardening. Information on how to grow tomatoes is searched more than any other plant.
It’s actually pretty easy to grow tomatoes, and the tomatoes you get from the garden are much better than anything you will find at the grocery store. They don’t take up much room, and can be grown in a wide range of places. So here are some of our best growing tomatoes for beginners tips.
Prepare the Soil
Tomatoes do well in a well drained soil with lots of organic matter. Work in some compost, but make sure it’s fairly mature. Organic matter that is still decomposing will rob nitrogen from soil, and tomatoes are heavy feeders. The soil pH should be around 6 to 7. If you have poor drainage in your soil, you might want to think about a raised garden bed or even to use the square foot gardening approach to building a tomato bed.
Plant at the Right Time
Tomatoes are very easily damaged by frost, so plant them after the danger of frost has passed. Since they are so susceptible to frost, they are usually planted as seedlings. If there is a late frost, be sure to cover them well, if they are still not too tall, you can use plastic milk jugs that have been cut off. Some years we’ve used Wall o Waters with great success, as the thermal mass of the water can actually keep the tomatoes safe during a deep freeze for a day or so. If you decide to start your own tomato plants indoors, you should start them about 6 weeks ahead of when you expect to be planting them. My experience is to start some more about 1-2 weeks later. You may find you end up discarding them or giving them away, but if you get that late freeze that kills of the first round of seedlings, without the backup you are locked into the remnants at the nursery.
Plant Tomatoes in the Right Place
The outside garden is the usual place that people want to grow tomatoes. But tomatoes do well in a variety of places. There are a number of ways to grow tomatoes in containers. Also very popular are hanging tomato planters, and the Topsy Turvy Upside Down tomato planter is inexpensive and very effective. Using a hanging planter lets you create the ideal soil, can eliminate staking, controls soil borne pests, and you don’t have to bend or stoop to tend to your plants. Plus, you can put them anywhere you want (including the garage during a freeze.)
Pick the Right Varieties
This is more important than most imagine. Many folks just wander down to Home Depot or Lowes and think that they must be carrying the best varieties for your area. More often than not this is not the case. A local nursery will do a better job, or start your own seedlings at home. Climate is a big factor, for example, tomatoes often won’t set fruit above 90 F, although smaller varieties will do so at hotter temperatures.
You also need to understand if the variety you chose is a determinant or indeterminate. Determinant will tend to grow to a specific size, and then stop, and often yield most of their fruit over a short period of time. Conversely, indeterminate plants will continue to grow over the season, and will bear fruit over a longer period of time.
An example, for Texas where the spring cool season is short, a great choice is actually an indeterminate cherry tomato. It will yield fruit longer in the spring, since the smaller fruit will handle the heat better. And if the plant is watered and pruned over the hot summer months, in the cooler months you will see a tremendous harvest of the cherry tomatoes because the vines have been growing all summer, just not setting fruit in the heat. But trying to grow the larger varieties like Better Girl can just be an exercise in frustration. So, get to know the varieties for your area, and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.
When planting your transplant seedlings, unlike most vegetables, set the seedling into the ground so the stem is covered all the way to the first set of true leaves. Tomatoes will send out roots from the stems, so setting them deeper will encourage a stronger root system, which is key to strong, healthy tomato plants. Tomatoes to be staked can be planted about 24 inches apart with 3 to 4 between rows. If you plan to use cages space them 30 to 36 inches apart.
While tomatoes can be grown without stakes or cages, they are much easier to care for and will reward you with higher yields if you give them some type of support. Of course, one way to avoid this is with a hanging tomato planter or upside down tomato planter, as the vines will simply hang in these and need no further support.
Cages made of concrete mesh are common, or a similar support can be made of chicken wire, but often the mesh size is too small for chicken wire to allow you to put your hand through. There are other commercially available tomato cages. For many of the smaller determinant varieties it is adequate to simply stake the tomatoes, with a simple wooden stake and some soft twine to secure the plant in place. Another popular choice is to use a trellis for support. It’s best to put the cages in place when the tomatoes are planted to avoid damaging the roots and branches when placing them.
Pruning Your Tomatoes
The common approach is to prune back to a single or double main stem coming out of the ground, this is commonly done to staked plants, where cages plants are often not pruned.
Fertilizing Your Tomatoes
For best results, you can look at using a dedicated tomato fertilizer. Fertilizer with too much nitrogen will cause a lot of leafy growth, but no tomatoes. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and do well with fertilizer applications, especially with a fertilizer with more phosphorus. Apply 2-1/2 to 3 pounds of a tomato fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, 5-20-20, or 8-16-16 per 100 square feet of garden area. Ideally you should add the fertilizer into the soil before planting your tomatoes by 2 weeks or so. After the first fruit has set you may want to add an additional sidedressing. Another alternative is to use tomato spikes, which have a slow release fertilizer.
A consistent soil moisture is critical to the development of tomatoes, and if allowed to dry too much it can help bring on blossom end rot, which is primarily caused by a low level of calcium in the fruit. Generally speaking one to two inches of water per week will be needed.
Mulch Your Tomatoes
Mulch is a great way to help manage your tomatoes. It helps suppress weed growth, moderates the soil temperatures, and with organic mulches will eventually break down and enrich the soil. In addition it keeps the fruit off the ground, especially for unstacked plants. There are commercially available black plastic mulches, and lately there have been some claims that red mulch variations can accelerate ripening of tomatoes.