Growing Great Tomatoes

Growing Great Tomatoes

Nothing quite compares to biting into a fresh tomato. The ones you buy at the supermarket may look red and delicious, but often lack the full-bodied flavor and juiciness that only a homegrown tomato can deliver. That's because store bought tomatoes are picked well before their prime. In addition, numerous measures are used to ripen the tomato or make it look more appealing. The usual result--tough, flavorless, and pink.

There's no mistaking a ripe, fresh, homegrown tomato. Abundant flavors, a rich color, and the perfect juicy texture that yields to your bite with a burst of seeds and flesh are second to none. Today's garden tomatoes come in heirloom varieties reminiscent of days gone by, as well as easy-growing varieties.

Growing tomatoes is easier than you may think when you know the basics of tomato planting.

Choose Your Variety

There are thousands of different varieties of tomato, differing in color, taste, size, and plant size. Choose one depending on what you intend to use the tomatoes for, your specific growing conditions, and how much space you have. For example, Roma tomatoes or plum tomatoes are best used for soups and sauces. Hybrid tomatoes like the "Green Zebra" are bred for beauty and make excellent centerpieces or served raw in salads. Varieties such as "Early Girl" are bred to produce fruit very rapidly and work great in climates with short growing seasons. Patio variety plants are miniatures, bred for use in small gardens or containers. Tomato Growers Supply Company offers a full online seed catalog of tomatoes that describes each variety and can be very helpful for making your choice.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor Rachel Klein suggests, “When choosing a plant from a nursery, pick one that is 6-10 inches tall, and stocky. Avoid plants with flowers or fruit. The plants sold in pots are usually more expensive than those in cell packs, but will grow faster when planted.”

No matter where you live, chances are you can find one out of over 25,000 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes that will meet your climate's specific growing conditions.

Choose Your Spot

First, tomatoes love heat. With the right tools, even cooler areas can make use of heat to grow these hearty plants. If you live in USDA zone 3 or warmer, growing tomatoes during the warmer months is possible. Buy your tomato plants at a good quality nursery after the frost danger has passed, or start seedlings in your home or greenhouse about 6 to 8 weeks before you expect the last frost.

TIP: Rachel adds, “Cooler climates can take advantage of special products designed to reflect warmth and insulate the plants such as ‘walls of water.’"

Take heat into account when choosing the area where you will plant your seedlings or young tomato plants. Find a sunny location (at least 8 hours of sun a day) that is sheltered from cooling breezes and wind. You can create your own wind break with a vine-covered trellis or plant alongside a sheltering garden wall.

Soil plays a role in tomato growth. Tomatoes prefer soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0, and rich in organic matter. Use plenty of compost including crushed eggshells.

TIP: Rachel says, “If a home pH test shows your soil has less than a 6.0, add lime. Eggshells add calcium to the soil, which aids in fruit development.”

Plant Your Tomatoes

If you are starting your plants indoors or in a greenhouse, harden the plants or seedlings before you plan on planting them outdoors. Do this by placing the pots outside in the garden area when nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Starting with 5 hours a day, leave the pots outside for a few hours more each day, and eventually overnight. This process strengthens the plants because transplants from indoor climates to the outdoors can shock tomato plants, translating into setbacks later in the season. Plant your tomatoes outside after danger of frost, when ground temperatures have reached 60 degrees F.

Dig a large hole (about the size of a basketball) for each plant and plant the young tomato plants deeply--as deep as up to the fourth set of leaves from the top. This encourages new root development which will serve your tomato plants well as they grow. Plant each plant about 1 1/2 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety. Wide spacing ensures good air circulation which will prevent disease and fungal infection.

TIP: Rachel suggests, “Plant tomatoes in the evening, so that they have time to acclimate to your garden before they experience a hot sunny day. Don't forget to water newly planted seedlings!”

Care for Your Vines

Specialists recommend fertilizing your plants during planting. But, be careful not to overdo it. Fertilizers with too much nitrogen will breed beautiful healthy vines that, unfortunately, will produce little to no fruit. Use a 10-10-10 or 10-10-5 preparation when planting. Mix 2 tablespoons of fertilizer per gallon of water, and water the freshly planted tomatoes. Organic mulch can be added as needed all season. Fertilize again with a 5-10-5 or a 5-10-10 preparation when the fruit has grown to the size of a golf ball. Once the tomato plants are around 3 feet tall, begin pinching off the bottom leaves on the lower 1 inch of the main stem. These leaves receive the least sunlight and are very prone to disease.

TIP: Rachel adds, “Your plants need support to keep the vines and fruit off the ground and easy to care for and harvest. Tomato cages are the most common form of support, but there are many different systems available. Tomatoes can be staked by tying the vines to a 6 to 8 foot stake driven into the ground 4 inches from the plant.”

When shopping for tomato cages, avoid the small sizes and go right to extra-large. Even if your plant is not a large variety, the larger cage will offer more room to grow and more support. Water your tomato plants regularly and deeply, between 1 and 2 inches of water per week.

TIP: Rachel says, “Tomatoes can have problems with diseases or pests. Good spacing, and regular fertilization and watering keep your plants healthy enough to resist these problems on their own. Immediately prune off any vines that show signs of disease or infection. Water your plants only at the base and in the morning, to avoid getting the foliage wet. Pests can usually be treated with applications of neem oil, or by spraying with the nontoxic bacterial control Bacillus thuringiensis (sold as BT and Dipel, among others).”

As the plant develops, you will notice small vines and suckers growing in the corners where the branches meet the main stem. Pinch these suckers off to encourage development of the fruit bearing vines.

Pick your tomatoes once the color has ripened to an even, glossy color and when the fruit feels somewhere between soft and firm. You'll love the true, tomato flavors and the luscious texture of a homegrown tomato.