What you need to know to grow better tomatoes
If you love tomatoes, you’re in good company. They’re widely considered the most popular vegetable, nutritious, low in calories and easy to grow with a little guidance. And when it comes to this superpower of our garden space, a bigger crop really is better.
So we wanted to go beyond getting by and dig into the tips and tricks that yield a bigger, bumper crop of tomatoes. The kind that keeps you in fresh salsa, delicious salads, sauces, garnishes, omelets and more well beyond the summer months (with canning and freezing). First, it’s important to cover the two types of tomatoes.
There are a few things you should know before you grow. Things that will make it easier to grow what you love to eat, harvest when you’re ready to use and avoid disease.
Determinate (or bush) tomato varieties grow to a pre-determined height and then stop. They are bush-shaped, with flowers appearing at the tips of their branches once they reach their mature height. The majority of their fruit comes within a few weeks’ time. Determinate tomatoes are good choices if you want your harvest early in the season and all at once (for canning or enjoying before a vacation, for example).
Most determinate plants do best with a cage, a wire support enclosing and supporting the plant. This also gives all your new growth support, something that means your plant will need little to no pruning.
If you decide against caging, a stake should be set in place at planting time to avoid any injury to the root system down the line. Use a sturdy pole at least 8 feet tall and 1 inch in diameter. Set the pole 1-2 feet deep and about 4 inches from the plant. Use a soft cord to secure the plant to the stake.
Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce fruit along the stems throughout the growing season. With so much growth, they do best with a very tall trellis or cage of 5 feet or more. You can prune back the shoots to strengthen the main stalk and have larger fruit or you can train them up your supports for smaller but more plentiful fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes are good choices if you are able to use and enjoy tomatoes throughout the entire growing season (on salads, sandwiches or in fresh salsa or bruschetta).
So let’s get to it. The 5 tips you need to know to grow better tomatoes:
1. Give them space and support
Tomatoes crave warmth, so give them space to have their moment in the sun. Plants that are too close together can stay damp, unable to dry off naturally before evening, one of the prime causes for disease. Directions vary on how to space your plants, but generally you’ll want to place the tinier, dwarf varieties about a foot apart, staked plants about 2 feet apart and sprawling and/or caged indeterminate tomatoes 3 to 4 feet apart. Ideally, you want to stake your determinate tomatoes when you plant them so you don’t have to disturb the roots and maturing plant. A basic wooden stake or strong pole (bamboo is good) at least 8 feet tall and one inch thick gives you the stability you’re looking for. Bury the stake 1-2 feet deep and about 4 inches from the plant, then secure with soft cord or twine. Make sure it’s thick or bulky enough not to dig into the plant. Indeterminate varieties will topple and sprawl without the support of a cage, something that can lead to a lot of disease and rot. Again, preferences vary, but we find a cage that’s approximately 4-16 inches in diameter and 4-5 feet tall will support most plants. Again, it’s best to position your cage when you first plant your tomatoes, but they can be added later with a little bit of help and care. One more thing, you can take pre-emptive action against pests like cutworms (who love tender young transplants) by wrapping the bottom of your plants with strips of cardboard (you can staple into a circle around the base or use sections of a paper towel roll) or aluminum foil.
2. Pay attention to the soil
This is really nothing new, because it goes without saying that the more hospitable, more nutrient-rich the soil, the better your chance of knocking your tomato crop out of the park. So before planting, especially in our clay soil, till up the soil to break it up, give it some air and help with drainage. Add organic material like Chickity Doo Doo, our specially blended soil amendment or other natural soil amendments for some serious oomph. The healthier your plant the more resistant it will be to pests and diseases, so these steps, while easy to skip, can really make the difference between some tomatoes and enough to share with friends and family.
3. Keep them warm
Tomatoes need full sun to thrive, so be sure they’re receiving at least 6 hours of full sun. This is one of the advantages to planting in containers, especially for beginners or people who are fine with a smaller harvest. You can always move your plants into the sunniest spots. Newspaper, grass clippings and mulch are good ways to seal in warmth and moisture and seal out weeds. Just keep the mulch away from the crown of the plant to avoid weakening the plant or encouraging disease.
4. Feed slowly
You might think that if you want more tomatoes, you should feed your plants more food. One catch: if you feed your plants too much, too early, they’ll grow lots of leaves but fewer fruits. So it’s best to use a slow-release organic fertilizer about once every month that’s high in phosphorous and low in nitrogen. Begin once fruits first start to develop until they reach maturity. There’s one exception: we love adding a little Organic Plant Magic when we first water our transplants to help them establish a strong root system.
5. Water regularly
Water deeply (tomatoes actually develop fairly deep roots), especially when your young transplants are acclimating. You’ll be safe to give your plants about 1 inch of water per week in ordinary conditions. But during hot spells and if your plants look wilted, you may need to water them a bit more. Once fruit appears, you can water less. It actually helps the plant concentrate its sugars and produce better-tasting fruit. You want to make sure your plant stays healthy though, so keep an eye out for signs of wilting or stress and water accordingly. You don’t want your plants to drop their blossoms or fruit too early. Let us know how it goes. We always love to hear…and share.