Practical Organic Gardening – Growing Tomatoes!

fox cherry tomatoes

Fox Cherry tomatoes are a staple in my garden.

As promised, it’s time to start thinking about what to plant. Most gardeners, me included, rely on one summertime favorite, the tomato, to grace their gardens every year!

Why tomatoes?

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. Why?

Tomatoes from seeds

Tomato seedlings growing indoors.

Most warm weather crops  like tomatoes, should be started 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost.

In my zone, Zone 6a, that means I am in the basement, filling peat pots and dropping in seeds in the second 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.

Tomato Basics
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 all season and grow longer vines.

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

These vines 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 – plum tomatoes, slicers and cherry or grape tomatoes.

 

  1. Plums – these are the kind you can use to make great tomato paste or pasta sauce with.
  2. Slicers – these are great for burgers or sliced and served with just a salt shaker.
  3. Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – these are 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 more than 9 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 pincer movement punches small holes in the bottom that roots can slide through quickly.
  3. Strip off all but the top set of leaves.
  4. 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.
  5. Fill the hole with the dirt you removed and tamp it down to make sure there are no pockets of air around the roots.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

staking tomatoes

Staking with found items

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 soaker hoses.  Soaker hoses save water and prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn

Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm – a big green caterpillar that likes to eat tomato plants.  If you see one munching through your garden 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.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

The wasp lays eggs on the hornworm. When the larvae hatch, they dine on their host. It’s not pretty but the wasps are an effective and natural control for these destructive pests.

If you planted indeterminate tomatoes, take a few minutes a week to check for and remove the axillary or side shoots that come off the plant.  But don’t go crazy and strip off a whole lot of leaves.  Tomatoes can get sunburned – really – and burned fruit just doesn’t taste all that good.

So trim lightly. Keep the plants from getting too bushy. Use their energy for  production.

Fertilize your tomato plants when the fruit are an inch or more long. I use fish emulsion mixed with water and poured around the roots of every plant.  This is sometimes called “side-dressing” a plant.  Another free fertilizer is crushed eggshells. Just put about 1/2 cup of crushed shells around the base of each plant.

You can side dress the second time right after picking the first ripe fruit and make a 3rd and final application a month later.

When it comes to harvesting your tomatoes, you can do it by look and feel or you can do it by temperature.  If the average daily temperature is around 75 degrees and the fruits are red, they are ready to be picked.  And don’t refrigerate tomatoes.  The flavor and quality of the tomato will be much better if it is kept at room temperature.

One of my favorite resources for learning about tomatoes is online.  Although it is a Missouri extension office, the basic information works for any gardener, almost anywhere.

And that is how to grow tomatoes.

 

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