GardenSMART :: Easy Steps to Grow Your Own Tomatoes
Easy Steps to Grow Your Own Tomatoes
By Julie Bawden-Davis for GardenTech
Photographs courtesy of GardenTech
Sun-ripened, juicy tomatoes harvested from your home garden offer taste sensations that you just can't get from store-bought fruit. Growing an abundant crop of your own delicious tomatoes is easy if you keep the following planting, cultivation and harvesting tips in mind.
Time Your Planting
Plant tomatoes in spring or early summer; exact timing will depend on the temperatures in your geographic region. Plant once the soil has warmed — when daytime temperatures reach above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures below 50 degrees will result in stunted plants and reduced or no fruit.
In regions with short growing seasons, such the North, East and Midwest, plant no later than June 20 to ensure that plants produce mature fruit prior to the first frost. In regions with longer growing seasons, such as the South and Southwest, plant tomatoes no later than the second week in July. In year-round growing regions, such as the West and parts of the Southeast, plant in the spring through the fall.
Choose a Growing Area
Tomatoes require full-sun — a minimum of eight hours of direct sunlight a day. So choose an exposed area, away from buildings, trees and tall shrubs. Exposure also ensures that the plants receive adequate ventilation, which helps prevent diseases.
Prepare the Planting Site
Tomatoes grow best in soil that drains well, is high in organic matter, and that's on the acidic side, with a pH between 6.5 to 7.0. Prior to planting, increase the organic matter by applying a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost to the soil surface and tilling it into the soil. Also add Pennington® Fast Acting Gypsum. This product helps loosen compacted soil and adds calcium, which helps prevent blossom end rot, a condition that causes brown circular rot marks on the bottom of the fruit.
To verify that your soil is within the correct pH range for growing healthy tomatoes, take a soil sample to your local University Cooperative Extension for testing. If the test results show that your soil is highly acidic (6.4 or less), apply Pennington® Fast Acting Lime, which will raise the pH. Soils that are alkaline (7.1 or higher) require the addition of soil sulfur to lower the pH.
If you don't have room for an in-ground garden, it's still possible to grow healthy tomatoes in containers. Choose pots that are at least 3 to 5 gallons in size so that the tomato roots have sufficient room for healthy growth. For best results, grow dwarf and small-fruit varieties, such as cherry, grape and plum tomatoes. When growing in containers, always plant in packaged potting soil, not soil from the ground. Encourage vigorous growth by mixing Pennington® Tomato & Vegetable plant food into the potting soil.
Plant and Provide Support
Just before planting, remove the lower leaves from the plant by pinching them off the stem. When you do this, small bumps, which are root nodes, will remain on the tomato stem. Dig a hole and set the tomato plant inside so that it is buried up to just above the last root node — deeper than it was in its original nursery container. Roots will form along the stem at the root nodes, creating a strong root system and plant. Space tomato plants 24 to 30 inches apart. After planting, pat the soil around the plant until firm. For best results when container growing, plant just one plant per pot.
To preserve the health of tomato plants and make harvesting easy, cage them when planting. Wire cages support plants during growth and keep leaves and fruit off the ground, resulting in higher yields, fewer pests and less chance of disease. Cage sizes vary, but cages 20 to 24 inches in diameter and 4 to 6 feet tall are optimum.
Water and Weed Regularly
Water your plants well after planting, and then water again when the soil surface dries. Once the plant has become established and new growth is seen, keep it healthy by watering so the soil remains moist, but not soggy. Overly wet soil can lead to fungus root rot and result in watery fruit; soil that's too dry can result in fruit cracking and blossom end rot. Also avoid overhead watering, as moist foliage can lead to various fungal diseases.
Weed often, as weeds will steal water from the tomato plants. Prevent weed growth and maintain an even soil temperature by mulching the soil surrounding the tomato plant with a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded bark.
Watch for Pests and Diseases
Tomato plants fall victim to several pests and diseases, some of which can cause serious damage and reduce fruit production. Your best line of defense is to check your plants for signs of trouble every time you water, and then react quickly.
Pests that commonly affect tomato plants include tomato hornworms — large, green worms with white and black markings. Tomato hornworms can reach 4 inches in length at maturity. They eat tomato leaves and can quickly defoliate a plant. Other troublemakers include the tomato fruitworm, which is the larva of a moth that eats the insides of the tomato. Flea beetles are also a problem, as they jump from plant to plant feeding on foliage. All of these pests can be controlled by applying Sevin®-5 Ready-To-Use 5% Dust. Hornworms can also be removed by hand and destroyed.
Common — and sometimes fatal — diseases that strike tomato plants include early and late blight, gray mold, fusarium wilt, gray leaf spot, powdery mildew and anthracnose. All of these conditions are caused by fungal infections that wilt plant leaves; some also result in spots and other markings on foliage. To control these diseases, apply Daconil® Fungicide Concentrate.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor as soon as tomatoes ripen, and harvest regularly to promote fruit production. Harvest using garden pruners or by twisting the fruit until it comes free from the vine. Avoid pulling on fruit when picking, as this can break the tender tomato branches.
Growing your own tomatoes is a rewarding and ultimately tasty adventure. Armed with these tips, you can keep your tomato crop healthy throughout the growing season and enjoy the delicious fruits of your labor all summer long.
Always read the product label and follow the instructions carefully.
Alaska is a registered trademark of Central Garden & Pet Company. Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc. Daconil is a registered trademark of GB Biosciences Corp. Sevin is a registered trademark of Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc.
All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.