In terms of popularity, it’s no contest: Tomatoes are the rock stars of veggies. More than 35 million gardeners plant tomatoes each year! Even if you’re new to gardening, it’s easy to make your backyard the neighborhood Tomatoville with our top tomato growing tips!
1. Start with seeds.
Buying and setting out transplants is the easiest way to grow tomatoes. But to explore the many distinctive varieties available, start seeds indoors. Six to eight weeks before the last frost, sow seeds in pots filled with seed-starting or potting mix. When the seedlings sprout two sets of leaves, transplant them into bigger containers.
2. Seek the heat.
Seedlings need lots of light and heat. Put them in a sunny window, or 4 to 6 inches under an artifical light, to encourage stout stems. To prepare for transplanting, set them outside for a few hours daily in early spring. When temperatures stay above 55, it’s time to plant.
3. Show your support.
To help keep your tomatoes clean and disease-free, provide plenty of support with stakes, trellises or cages. Vining (also known as “indeterminate”) tomatoes will grow until killed by frost. Keep them off the ground with at least a 5- to 8-foot-tall cage or a trellis. Bush varieties (known as “determinate” tomatoes) are especially good choices for containers or small spaces. Use small stakes or cages.
4. Know your dirt.
Tomatoes grow well in soils with a slightly acidic pH level of 5.8 to 7, but they adapt nicely to slightly alkaline soils, too. If your soil is sandy or claylike, work in 2 to 3 inches of compost. Have your soil tested and follow the recommendations for best results.
5. Quench their thirst.
The best thing for tomatoes is consistent watering. This helps prevent leaf-end roll, blossom-end rot and “cat facing”—those misshapen cracks you sometimes see on the stem end of the fruit. Give tomatoes at least an inch of water a week. Water in the morning to help prevent disease and leaf burn. And don’t water the leaves.
6. Mulch ’em.
Mulch keeps soil moist, protects low-growing tomatoes from resting on the ground and helps prevent potentially disease-spreading soil from splashing onto the foliage during a good rain. It also controls weeds and keeps the soil cool. Use organic mulches, such as leaves, straw or marsh hay, or herbicide-free grass clippings. As these materials break down, they enrich the soil and improve its structure.
7. Don’t get suckered.
If you train tomatoes on a single stake for support, keep removing the suckers, those little shoots that appear in the crotch between the stem and branches. Suckers turn into fruiting stems, which lead to an even larger plant that’s hard to contain to a single stake. Removing them will give you fewer but earlier fruits. If you use tomato cages or let plants sprawl on the ground, leave the suckers on for a more fruitful harvest. And always keep the leaves, which produce the nutrients that make tomatoes delicious.
8. Focus your energy.
About a month before the first frost, pluck new flower clusters off tomato plants to direct energy into already-set fruits.
9. Cool it.
You can store ripe tomatoes at room temperature for a few days. To keep them longer, store in a dry, fairly cool location. But taste-lovers beware: If kept in temperatures below 55 degrees, tomatoes lose their flavor.
10. Plant plenty.
A rule of thumb says you’ll need two tomato plants for every tomato eater in your household. But if you plan on canning, four per person is a better bet. In either case, there’s plenty of good taste in store!