12 Top Tomato Tips
Follow these tips, and this garden great will be growing gangbusters in your backyard before you can say "ketchup."
By Crystal Rennicke, Assistant Editor
Hands down, the tomato, or "tomahto," if you prefer, is the most popular veggie grown in the United States. With so many varieties available, it's no wonder over 35 million gardeners will plant them this year. Whether you prefer a big beefsteak or a cheery cherry, your tomatoes will be the tastiest in the neighborhood with these tips.
- Start with seeds. The easiest way to kick off your tomato crop is to buy transplants. But if exploring all the unique varieties available is more important to you, your best bet is to start seeds indoors. Drop seeds into pots filled with soil, peat moss and vermiculite 6 to 8 weeks before the last spring frost. When the seedlings have sprouted two sets of leaves, they'll need to be transplanted to bigger containers.
- Taking the heat. As seedlings grow, they need lots of light and heat. Place them in a sunny window, or if using an artificial light, position it 4 to 6 inches above the seedlings to encourage stout stems. To prepare them for planting, set them outside for a few hours daily in early spring. When temperatures stay above 55°, it's time to plant.
- Show your support. Keep your tomatoes clean and disease-free by supporting them with stakes, trellises or cages. Indeterminate, or "vining," varieties, like most heirlooms, continue growing until killed by a frost. Use at least a 5- to 8-foot cage or a trellis to keep them off the ground. Bush varieties, such as Roma, work great in any garden, but are especially good choices for containers or small-space gardens because of their size. They can be kept under control with small stakes or tomato cages.
- Soil specifics. Tomatoes grow well in soils with a pH level of 5.8 to 7 but will adapt nicely to slightly alkaline soils. If your soil is sandy or clay-like, work in 2 to 3 inches of compost. Have soil tested and follow recommendations for best results. Avoid excess nitrogen fertilizers that result in lots of leaves and little to no fruit.
- Water regularly. The best thing you can do for your tomatoes is to supply them with a consistent watering schedule. It can prevent leaf-end roll, blossom-end rot, and "cat facing," which is when misshapen cracks appear on the stem end of the fruit. Make sure your tomatoes are getting at least an inch of water a week. Water early in the morning to decrease disease and leaf burn.
- Continued care. Mulching keeps plants moist, protects low-growing tomatoes from resting on the ground and helps prevent soil from back-splashing onto the foliage after a soaking (which can cause disease). It also controls weeds and keeps the soil cool. Use organic mulches like leaves, hay or herbicide-free grass clippings. As these materials break down, they add organic matter to the soil, improving its structure.
- Don't get suckered. Remove suckers when staking tomatoes. Suckers dilute the flow of energy (more fruit to grow and mature), so removing them will give you fewer but
earlier fruits. Be careful not to remove too many leaves—they are producing the energy that makes for delicious tomatoes.
- Beat disease. Blight is one of the most common fungal diseases. Prevent it by mulching, rotating plants, and staking or trellising. You can also solarize the soil—the process of raising the soil's temperature with the heat of the sun—to destroy some of the disease-causing organisms.
- Think outside the veggie bed. No room for a big vegetable garden? Try growing tomatoes in your flower beds instead. The colorful fruit can be a nice addition to the landscape.
- Season-end care. About a month before the first frost, pluck new flower clusters off tomato plants to direct energy into the fruits already set on the vine. At room temperature, fully ripe tomatoes keep their flavor for up to 2 days. To speed the ripening process, put tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple. The ethylene gas released from the fruit will help your tomatoes ripen faster.
- Too many tomatoes? Tomato growers are often rewarded with more than they (and their friends and family) can eat. Store ripe tomatoes at room temperature for a few days. To keep them longer, store in a cool (above 55°), dry location. When temperatures drop below 55°, tomatoes start to lose their flavor. The rule of thumb is that you'll need two tomato plants for every tomato eater in your household. But if you plan on canning, four per person is more accurate.
- Try heirlooms. Heirloom varieties aren't hard to grow or more susceptible to disease—they're just great-tasting tomatoes. Save the seeds of heirlooms in the refrigerator until next year. Heirloom seeds will maintain their flavor and appearance when started from seeds you collect from a mature plant in your garden. Popular heirlooms are 'Cherokee Purple,' 'Red Brandywine' and 'Black Krim.' These may be available as seed and as small plants. A good source is the Seed Savers Exchange.