Red, ripe homegrown tomatoes are the crown jewel in many a vegetable garden. Let this be the year that you can say the same, with luscious fruit grown in your backyard garden, patio or balcony.
Follow these tips for the best tomatoes ever.
More Sun Equals More Fruit
Choose your sunniest garden spot, because tomatoes soak up sunshine just like water. Aim for seven hours of sunshine a day. Plant to give your plants room to grow, too, planting seedlings 30 to 48 inches apart, with rows set 48 inches apart. This will let light into the lower portions of the mature plants, improve air flow and help prevent disease.
Beef up the Soil
Timing Is Everything
Here’s a neat trick: Tomatoes will root along their stems. With leggy transplants, dig a trench, add a slow-release fertilizer, and lay the stem sideways, bending gently upward. Snip or pinch off the lower branches and cover with soil up to the first set of leaves. This extra root growth will produce a stronger, more robust plant.
Invite Friends to the Party
Basil, garlic and onions are a tomato’s best friends in the kitchen, and in the garden, too. Grown together, they repel pests such as nematodes.
Marigolds are said to repel nematodes, too. Whether or not they truly help, a border of marigolds will invite pollinators and bring a bright spot of color to hard-working tomato vines. Learn more about companion planting in your vegetable garden.
Water Deeply and Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Juicy jumbo tomatoes need water, about an inch a week. A blanket of mulch — anything from shredded pine bark to grass clippings and composted leaves — will keep the water from evaporating in summer’s heat. A soaker hose is an efficient solution; just position the hose in the garden and pile mulch up and over the hose. Learn more about mulch.
Offer a Cup of (Compost) Tea
Add the benefits of nutrient-rich compost to keep heavy-feeding tomato plants happy. Mix organic compost into the soil when planting, and side dress (just topping the adjacent soil with a shovelful of compost) a couple times during the season. You can also soak one part organic compost in one part water, let sit for 24 hours, filter the “tea” and use to nourish plants.
Pruning Is for Suckers
Tomato plants send out suckers — leaves that shoot out from the main stem. “Suckering” tomato plants, or removing the suckers, makes sense because it promotes air circulation, keeps down disease, and focuses the plant’s energy on growing fruit. Small leaves and tender stems can be pinched off with your fingers; pruning snips give a clean cut to thicker stems.
Stake or Cage
Keep in mind that there are two main types of tomato plants: determinate, the compact plants that fruit all at once, and indeterminate plants that produce throughout the season. Neat, self-contained determinate bushes keep to themselves, but don’t even think about not supporting indeterminate plants. They will grow uncontrolled, with fruit grazing the ground. Cage or stake plants early, before they get out of hand.
Forget the Windowsill
The lush color that signifies a ripe tomato comes from warmth, not light. If summer’s temps are too cool, go ahead and pick fruit that’s red-orange and bring it inside to ripen.
The time-honored tradition of lining up your garden’s best fruit along a sunny windowsill isn’t the speediest way to ripen it. Putting unripened tomatoes in a loosely closed paper bag is a better solution.
More tips for picking and storing tomatoes:
- Pick in the morning or evening, gathering those that appear at least halfway ripe. Large heirloom varieties often ripen from the inside out, and should be picked when they feel quite firm, even if they still have green shoulders.
- Gather all almost-ripe fruits just before heavy rain is expected, especially cherry tomatoes. Drenching rains following periods of dry weather can cause fruits to crack because they cannot handle the sudden oversupply of water.
- Handle tomatoes as gently as eggs. Pokes, cracks or bruises can invite problems with fruit rot. Place a soft cloth in the bottom of your picking basket to cushion the fruits, and pile them no more than two deep to avoid squashed tomatoes. Remove the leafy green caps from tomatoes as you pick them.
- Clean your tomatoes. Rinse and wipe to remove any dirt or garden residue.
- Sort according to ripeness. Place the least ripe in a paper bag with the top folded shut, or arrange them in a single layer on plates or trays. Cool temperatures delay final ripening, so you can choose between speeding up the process by keeping your tomatoes in a warm room, or slowing it down by ripening your tomatoes in the coolest room in your house. As long as tomatoes are kept above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, their homegrown flavor will not be compromised.
- When you have no time to preserve your ripe tomatoes, simply stash them in the freezer. Cherry tomatoes can be frozen on a baking sheet and transferred to freezer bags, ready for use in soups, salads or sauces.
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