How to Grow Tomatoes
Time Required: Under 2 hours
When it comes to backyard gardening, nothing beats tomatoes. They’re one of the most popular homegrown vegetables (actually, they’re fruits), and it’s easy to see why. They’re nutritious and delicious, whether you slice them, cook them or store them in freezer bags and canning jars.
Use these tips to learn how to grow tomatoes.
- Plant your tomatoes in a spot that gets at least six hours of sun a day. For best results, aim for six to eight hours a day, even if the sun is over them for part of the morning and over them again in the afternoon. Early morning sun is best, because it provides the light they need without intense heat.
- In hot climates, tomatoes can get sunscald, or discolored spots, from too much sun. If this is a problem in your area, buy heat-resistant varieties or use clean straw, a shade cloth or other lightweight cover over the developing fruits from about noon to 2 p.m. each day, or when the sun at its hottest. Some gardeners grow sunflowers or other tall annuals nearby, so they’ll cast shade over the tomatoes when the sun is directly overhead.
- Tomatoes thrive in rich, well-draining, neutral to slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. To determine your pH, use a test kit or ask your local Cooperative Extension Service to test your soil for you. Tell them what you want to grow, so they can recommend any amendments you may need.
- Dolomite lime will help lower the soil’s acidity. Garden sulfur or composted organic matter will lower alkalinity. Follow the directions on your product and your test results to know how much to use. Retest your pH every couple of years, since it can change.
- If your soil is hard or poor, you can plant tomatoes in raised beds instead of in the ground.
You can choose from many varieties of tomatoes. They're classified as determinate or indeterminate.
- Determinate tomatoes are plants that grow to a certain height and then stop. Bush varieties are an example of determinate tomatoes. The tomatoes on these plants usually ripen in a month or two. That can be helpful if you want all your tomatoes to ripen around the same time, so you can freeze or can them. Determinate tomatoes can be caged or staked to keep them from sprawling, but they don’t need as much support as indeterminate types.
- Indeterminate tomatoes are plants that keep growing and producing fruit until a killing frost. They’ll give you an on-going harvest, so you can pick fresh tomatoes throughout the season. For best results, use tall stakes, cages or trellises to support them, or prune their sprawling stems as desired.
- If you want, plant both kinds of tomatoes in your garden, so you’ll have some for eating fresh for a long time, and some for preserving.
Don’t rush the season. Planting at the right time helps your plants thrive and produce lots of fruits.
- Tomatoes don't do well in cool weather, so avoid planting them until the soil temperatures stay consistently above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Planting too early can stunt their growth.
- If an unexpected frost or cold snap comes along, don’t let it harm your plants. Protect them with frost protection bags or garden covers.
- Tomatoes need room to grow, so don't crowd them. Dwarf varieties can be spaced about 12 inches apart, but if you’re going to stake them for support, double the spacing to 24 inches. If you plan to use cages, space dwarf varieties 36 inches apart.
- Most other tomato varieties can be spaced 30 to 48 inches apart, with rows about 48 inches apart. Check the tag or label on your plants for more specific information. If you’re sowing tomato seeds directly in the garden, check the seed packet for spacing instructions. Proper spacing does more than give tomato roots room to take up water and nutrients. It also lets light reach the lower leaves and improves air flow. Good air circulation can help deter some pests and diseases.
- Before you plant, remove most of the lower leaves from the stem of each tomato plant. Dig a deep hole and put the plant in. Cover the stem with soil up to the first set of leaves. New roots will start growing from the buried stem, and a strong root system will develop.
- If you’re starting your plants indoors, sow your tomato seeds in a seed-starting kit or mix about six weeks before your last expected frost. The seeds need temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate. Be sure to look for the seeds of disease-resistant varieties.
- After they sprout, put the seedlings in a south-facing window or under grow lights. Adjustable grow lights are great to use, because you can keep them close to the plants so they won’t become leggy.
- After the second set of true leaves appears on the seedlings, start fertilizing them with a water-soluble fertilizer, following the product’s instructions. Wait until the weather is reliably warm to transplant them into the garden or large, outdoor containers.
Suckers are shoots that grow in the joint between a stem and a branch. They don’t bear fruit, so why let your plant waste energy on them?
- Suckers can interfere with good air circulation. Pinch or break them off with your fingers.
- Some gardeners disagree about removing all the suckers on a plant and leave a few of them on the lower stems. This is thought to increase the yield. You may want to experiment with a few plants and decide for yourself.
Tomatoes need about an inch of water a week.
- If there’s not enough rain, water your plants with a soaker hose or kit. As the hose slowly releases water, it will better penetrate the ground and reach the plants' roots.
- A layer of mulch, which can be anything from shredded pine bark or fall leaves, to grass clippings or compost, will help keep the water from evaporating in the summer heat. Mulch can also help discourage weeds from sprouting and keep the tomato plant's roots cooler.
When branches flop over or sprawl along the ground, the sun can’t reach all of a plant’s foliage.
- Less sun means fewer fruits, so stake your tomatoes to keep them upright, or use trellises, cages, or other supports.
- Start early, because tall, lanky plants can get out of control fast. Their branches may break if you try to move them around too much.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so they'll need some fertilizer unless your soil is already rich.
- Look back at your soil test results to see what fertilizers it recommends. If you didn't test, a rule of thumb is to use a balanced fertilizer like 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. Don't use too much nitrogen, which can produce lots of foliage and few fruits.
- Follow the directions on your product, but as a rule of thumb, start fertilizing when you plant your tomatoes and reapply throughout the growing season.
- Don’t let the fertilizer touch the roots, so it won’t burn them, and water it in.
Cherry and heirloom tomatoes are just two types of tomatoes that are fun to grow.
- Cherry tomatoes are bite-sized fruits, and they can be determinate or indeterminate. Look for dwarf or patio varieties if you’re growing them in containers, and stake or cage indeterminate types if you plant them in the garden.
- Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been around for 50 years or more. Many cooks grow them for their rich flavors and unusual colors, such as purplish-black, yellow and orange. Some people enjoy growing heirlooms because their ancestors grew them, and they're a link to the past.
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