We’ve all heard the old adage, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.”
Ahh tomatoes. Their bright flesh and sun-kissed flavor are irresistible. Unfortunately, for us in the Northwest, our rainy weather and clay soil can make tomato farming challenging to say the least. Never fear! Our staff has put together their top ten tips to get your tomatoes off to a great start.
Tomato vines originated in South America. Think sun, sun, sun when siting your tomatoes. A south facing wall is a great location. Tomatoes need at least six-eight hours of sun per day to thrive. Hot afternoon sun is fantastic. Morning sun too, if you can get it.
Tomatoes don’t like to sit in water, so avoid low spots in the garden. Raised beds are also a good way to go. If you’re using containers, make sure they are big enough for your tomatoes; at least 5 gallons per tomato plant. This gives your tomatoes more space for their roots, and you won’t have to water quite as often.
Finally, practice crop rotation, don’t plant tomatoes in the same area year after year. This will decrease the likelihood of disease. Try to wait for three years before re-planting them in the same spot.
#2: Soil Prep
Think of tomatoes as the roses of the edible world. You want two things from the soil. You want it to be rich and you want it to be well draining. If you have heavy clay, dig some Harvest Supreme Compost in there and don’t be shy. You want the water to run right through. Dig deep and really fluff up the soil.
Harvest Supreme is a fantastic product for tomato growers because it’s full of nutrient rich ingredients such as bat guano and kelp meal and even a little lime. Lime does two really great things for our garden soil.
First of all, it balances the PH in our local soil, which tends to be acidic. (If you’re not sure what sort of PH your soil has, consider doing a soil test.) Tomatoes prefer a PH of 6.0-6.8.
Secondly, it adds calcium to the soil, a nutrient that will help prevent issues with blossom end rot. This disease causes dark, leathery lesions on your beautiful fruit among other problems.
Always put down a good organic fertilizer such as Gardner and Bloome’s ‘Tomato, Vegetable and Herb’ Fertilizer. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and this will ensure your tomatoes are getting plenty of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well as trace elements necessary to their growth which are not present in inorganic fertilizers.
A word of caution: when applying fertilizer, read the package carefully and use the correct proportions. Too much fertilizer can be harmful to your plants.
When selecting your tomatoes, consider your space and your intentions. Will you choose a determinate or indeterminate tomato? Determinate tomatoes are shorter and bushier. Their fruits tend to ripen all at the same time, definitely an advantage if you plan to do any canning. Indeterminate tomatoes grow tall and vigorously and will ripen over a long season. Perfect for impromptu garden snacking.
Northwest gardeners we recommend you choose a variety that ripens early or has smaller fruits. Consider varieties bred for cold regions like the Russian heirloom ‘Black Prince’. Or try some cultivated specifically for our area such as ‘Early Girl’.
Grape and cherry tomatoes are fantastic because they almost always ripen even in the grayest of summers. Our current favorite is the luscious ‘Sungold’ cherry tomato, bright orangey-yellow with fantastic flavor, Marcy calls it “garden candy”.
There are a lot of options out there, even for container gardeners such as ‘Patio’ or ‘Tumbling Tom’. Although the larger tomatoes can be tempting, the fact is that without a greenhouse, you are going to have a heck of a time ripening varieties like ‘Beefsteak’. With the array of hybrids and heirlooms out there to choose from, such as the luscious ‘Lemon Boy’…you won’t feel like you’re missing out one bit!
Give your tomatoes room to grow when you plant them. A determinate tomato will need about two square feet of space, and an indeterminate tomato about two and half feet. Good air circulation around your tomato will also help prevent blight.
When you plant your tomatoes make sure to get your staking apparatus in place first. You’ll want to be able to train it up as it grows. Even the determinate tomatoes will thrive better given some support. For those wild and woolly indeterminate tomatoes, try putting in six – eight foot tall stakes. Given the right conditions, they will use every inch of that vertical space!
Some of you may be using some of the red plastic tomato greenhouses that we carry at our store. Good idea! A word of caution though- our plant buyer Kim says not close it off during the day. This will make it too hot for your tomato and cook it. You need that ventilation on a sunny day. It is perfectly fine to close it up in the evening, just make sure to open them again in the morning.
Here’s an old farmer’s trick. When planting your tomatoes be sure to plant them deep. Take off the side shoots up to at least halfway on the plant, if not ¾ of the way. Lay it sideways, and plant all the way up to the first few sets of leaves. This method allows more horizontal roots to grow out sideways. The better the root system, the better your tomato can take up water and food.
If your tomato plant comes with a few blossoms on it, pinch those off before you plant the tomato. The energy that goes to fruiting and flowering is the same energy that goes to rooting. It’s very important that your tomato have a strong root system, so that it can make the most of our limited sunlight. Prune the blossoms right away. This gives your tomato time to get established and later it will set more blossoms.
Thirsty, thirsty, thirsty tomatoes. Young tomatoes need plenty of water to drink. Be generous, but water at the base of the tomato. Water on the leaves can lead to blight. Additionally, keep your watering consistent. This again, will help to prevent blossom end rot.
Tomatoes in the ground will need to be soaked at least once a week in the summer. (Keep in mind whether you have heavy soil or sandy soil will determine the frequency with which you water.) Remember, tomatoes don’t like to sit in water, so be sure the water is draining through. Container growers, you will likely need to water once a day during the warm season.
Stop watering your tomatoes in mid-August. This will kick in the plant’s survival instincts and the fruit on the vine will ripen more quickly.
Keep those leaves off the ground! This is your best defense against the dreaded tomato blight. You want approximately ten to twelve clear inches of space between the leaves and the ground.
This next technique is less important for the determinate tomatoes, though can be used in moderation. On your indeterminate tomatoes you’ll notice suckers growing where a mature leaf and the stem join together. These are your tomato plant trying to grow new plants. Pinch those right off, starting below the first set of blossoms. You want to focus the energy in the main stalk.
Don’t be afraid of pruning your tomato. A healthy, vigorous plant can handle it and you’ll get better results. When your tomato plant starts to bear fruit, you can prune back some of the blossoming branches, thus assuring that those tomatoes which are left will ripen.
#10: Have Fun
Fun is the most important ingredient to home gardening…it’s not the soil or the sunshine or even the fertilizer. It’s the care we give to our plants and what we reap in return that makes all the hard work worthwhile. We’d love to know, how do you grow your tomatoes? What are your top tomato tips?
As they say in this old country song, “There’s only one thing money can’t buy, that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Happy Harvesting!