Now the fun begins. This is the first in a series of posts on how to raise various vegetables, how to feed them, defend them, harvest and use them. We start with one of my favorites and a vegetable that is very easy (and forgiving) to raise.
Tomatoes are pretty hardy plants. And they’re happy growing in containers. They’ll even grow hanging from a hook, upside down. So, even if you don’t have any space for a garden plot, even if you can’t grow anything else, you can grow tomatoes.
If you’re new to gardening, you might want to start with a few tomato plants instead of starting seed.
If you are starting seeds, indoors, you’d have to get the seeds in the peat pots for most warm weather crops, like tomatoes, 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost. In Zone 6a, that means I am in the basement, filling peat pots and dropping in seeds in the last week of February. From the moment the seeds go into the pots until I get them ready for transplant, I have to pay attention – keep them warm, water them, feed them and ensure they are healthy and happy.
So, if you’re just starting out, buying plants may be a lot easier and a lot less risky.
Before we talk about the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available today, let’s talk about a couple of categories that you should know about when you pick seeds or buy plants, namely determinate and indeterminate.
Tomatoes come in both these varieties. What’s the difference?
- Determinate varieties bear their crop all at once and tend to be more compact. Don’t have much space? Try these.
- Indeterminate tomatoes bear fruit over the course of a season and grow longer vines that require support (staking or caging) over the growing season. Got room and a couple of fence sections? Try these.
I usually plant both so I can make tomato sauce, paste and barbecue sauce with the determinate varieties and eat the indeterminate tomatoes all summer long.
Now let’s talk about types of tomatoes? From this organic gardener’s chair, I think of tomatoes as coming in three types:
- Plums – the kind you can use to make great tomato paste or pasta sauce with.
- Slicers – great for burgers or sliced and served with just a salt shaker.
- Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – tiny bundles of tomato flavor that taste great right off the vine.
Again, I plant a few of all three types because I love them. You can pick and choose the ones you like the best and plant those.
Tips on Planting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are warm weather plants; they really don’t like cold soil or cold air. You can plant them out on the ragged fringe of your last frost date but putting them in the ground too early may just stunt their growth.
So tomatoes should not go into your ground until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees.
Tomatoes should be given some room to breathe. Plants should be 2 to 3 feet apart and rows should be 3 feet apart. This gives the tomato plants room to spread out, especially the indeterminate ones that can grow vines that are 6 feet long.
NOTE: Overcrowding is a mistake I make over and over again and by August, I can’t reach my plants and bugs are having a field day dining on ripe tomatoes. Space them better and get better crops and fewer pests. (Now to get me to follow my own advice….)
When planting tomatoes in the ground:
- Pick a nice sunny spot that drains well. The slight slope in my garden ensures that the roots of the tomato plants are wet but don’t drown.
- Remove all containers (plastic or clay) from the plants except peat pots. If using peat pots, just grasp the bottom and start to close your fist. That punches small holes in the bottom that roots can slide through quickly.
- Strip off all but the top set of leaves.
- Make sure you dig a hole that is deep enough to bury the stem up to the very last set of leaves at the top. Yes, I really do mean bury them deep. The stem that you put underground will send out roots and very quickly anchor the plant and give it a lot of opportunities to take up nutrients and water.
- Fill the hole with the dirt you removed and tamp it down to make sure there are no pockets of air around the roots.
- Water the transplants in by pouring 1 or 2 cups of water on the ground at the base of the stem of each plant immediately after transplanting. NOTE: You can use a very weak liquid fertilizer (2 tablespoons to a gallon of water) if you want but I don’t fertilize until about 2 weeks after I have transplanted.
- Mulch with straw around each transplant. Mulching also makes for a weed free garden – the only state I want to be in when it comes to gardening. It also ensures that moisture is retained and to make sure rain water doesn’t splash up on the leaves of the tomato plants.
Water that splashes up off the soil can cause verticulum wilt or mosaic tobacco virus, the two most common diseases in the tomato family. By the way, never smoke in your garden – you can make your plants sick, literally.
- Stake your tomato babies when you plant them. Tomatoes grow fast so if you wait, it may be too late to get a tomato cage or a stake in place. Staking prevents some diseases and improves your yield. It also makes it much easier to pick once the plants start producing fruit.
What should you use for stakes? Visit any gardening or hardware store and pick up wooden stakes or, my favorite, metal stakes. I also use old fence section and have been known to use an old box spring on occasion.
If it doesn’t rain and/or if it is very hot during the first week after transplanting, make sure to check the plants to see if they are drooping or wilting and pour another cup or two of water on them if they are.
Once your tomato babies are in the ground and have weathered the first week, there are only a couple of things you need to do to ensure a good crop:
- Always pinch off the first flowers on all your tomato plants. The plants are still trying to get established in the ground. They don’t need babies to distract them from growing into strong, healthy plants.
- When the second set of flowers appear on the plants, mix 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts into one gallon of water and use one cup for every foot of height the plant has – 2 feet = 2 cups. Epsom salts provide magnesium and sulfur – both needed to produce chlorophyll and allow for proper absorption of phosphorous and nitrogen. NOTE: Don’t use too much Epsom salts. If you do, you will get lots of beautiful, green leaves and bushy plants but not many tomatoes.
- Tomatoes should get 1 to 2 inches of rain a week. If it doesn’t rain, make sure you water them. I use the Gilmour Flat Weeper hose – the best soaker hose on the market today and it comes with a lifetime guarantee! Soaker hoses save water and prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.
- Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm – a big green caterpillar that likes to eat tomato plants. If you see one and you don’t have trichogamma wasps, use pliers if you have to but pull it off and kill it.
If you have trichogamma wasps, sit back and watch the show. The wasps lay eggs on the hornworm and the larva hatch and dine on their host. It’s not pretty but the wasps are an effective and natural control for these very destructive pests.