HOW TO GROW TOMATO
Are you learning to grow your own sweet, juicy tomatoes? Luckily for you, tomato plants can grow almost anywhere that is warm and a little damp. But as with most vegetation that produce a fruit, a little TLC goes a long way. With adequate sunlight, water, and patience, you’ll be greatly rewarded with a six foot tall tomato plant with big (or cherry size), red (or other heirloom colors), juicy tomatoes! Tomatoes take a long time to grow so you must have great patience, but you won’t need much else to get your tomato plant growing.
Part One of Three:
Planting the Tomatoes
Buy small tomato plants from a nearby nursery. Whether you’re a first-time grower or simply prefer the simplicity of working with seedlings, your easiest option will be to purchase a tomato seedling in your desired variety and transplant it into your garden.
Don’t pay extra to buy the larger plants; there is not much reason, unless you are getting a “latish” start, to catch up.
More experienced gardeners will likely find it easy enough to start their own tomatoes from seed, however, so you can still keep this option in mind.
If you do raise your own plants from seed, start them in a greenhouse or sunny window indoors about a month before you intend to set them out in the garden.
Use fluorescent lights or other lighting hanging a couple inches (5cm) above the planting flat and keep raising it as the plants grow–in a not well lighted room. Raise these plants until they are about 6 to 10 inches tall (15 to 25cm) and then transplant them when spring weather is appropriate for your zone.
Choose an easy-to-grow variety. This is especially recommended if you’re new to gardening. Options include Better Boy, Creole, Big Boy, Early Girl, Brandy Wine, Celebrity, Lemon Boy, or just about any cherry or grape tomato variety.
Consider planting several varieties rather than all of one type — this ensures a steady harvest
Grow two plants for each member of the family who eats tomatoes. If you plan on canning tomatoes or making fresh and canned salsa, use up to four plants per person.
Plants usually cost US $4 for one 8 inch (20cm) pot, or you can buy 6 small plants in 6 plant packs of 1 & 1/4 inch (3cm) compartmental trays.
Choose a sunny spot to place transplants. Place tomato plants in a site receiving full sun (7 hours or more daily). Tomatoes need lots of warm sunshine for optimum taste.
Caveat: In hot climates when the nights get to a low temperature of about 75°F (24°C), most tomatoes “quit setting new fruit.” The ones already set will grow great. But none will set when nights are very warm through the wee hours really near sunrise.
Don’t wait more than a few days late to put them out past the recommended dates for your climate zone, or it may be too late (if there are such early warm/hot weather nights).
Add lots of well rotted compost to the garden soil. You’ll need about 5 to 8 pounds per square foot/25 to 40 kilograms per square meter. Turn compost into the top 3 inches (6 to 8 cm). Tomatoes demand a growing medium rich in organic matter. If you don’t make your own compost, use store-bought compost or composted manure available in the 40-pound bags. Compost or Manure is usually less than US $5 per 40-pound bag.
Transplant the tomato deeply. Bury about 50 to 75% of the plant (especially for leggy plants, that became skinny in raising them before transplanting). It’s okay to bury some of its lower leaves. New roots will emerge along the buried stem, giving the plant a developmental boost; a new transplant needs to focus on root production.
Water within 10 minutes of transplanting. Give each plant about 1 gallon (about 4 litres) of warm water (about 80 degrees F/ 27 degrees C) within ten minutes of transplanting to avoid transplant shock.
Space tomato plants 18 to 36 inches (45 to 90 cm) apart. Space them half the suggested distance in warmer climates, especially if using tomato cages. The normal distance recommended is for plants allowed to bush out hugely on the ground, while planting closer together in cages allows the plants to shade each others fruit, helping prevent burn and allowing a sweeter flavor.
Don’t forget to leave yourself enough space to get in between the plants to water, weed, and harvest. Those cute, little seedlings may not remain that way for long.
Part Two of Three:
Water after the first 7 to 10 days. Starting after the first week, give the tomatoes about 16 ounces (about 500 ml) of warm water per plant every day.
Drip or soaker hose watering is better than overhead, which can encourage diseases that tomatoes are particularly prone to.
Space water out more after 10 days and ensure that plants are receiving 1 to 3 inches (2.5 cm to 7.6 cm) of rain weekly. If not, give each plant about 2 gallons (about 7.5 litres) per plant “per week”, beginning by about the end of the second week after transplanting.
Water deeply 2 to 3 times weekly (so, water each plant with about .75 to 1 gallon each time (about 3 to 4 litres), increase water as the plants get larger and when weather is hotter.
It’s okay in hot or dry weather to water even more frequently with larger volumes.
After one or two week, surround the plants with a mulch of straw, dried grass, or pine needles. This should control weeds and keep the soil moist during dry weather. The mulch should be about an inch (2.5 cm) thick and surround at least a circle 12 inches (about 30 cm) in diameter around the stem. Pine needles are especially good for helping raise the acidity of the soil.
Caution: Do ‘not keep the soil continuously wet or “soggy”. That will kill (smother) the roots and will cause a stem disease (fungus) especially once it is really warm/or hot weather.
Choose whether to use chemical fertilizers. Do not use lawn fertilizer. The ratio of minerals in lawn fertilizer is for growing stems and leaves. Look for a vegetable fertilizer which is for stimulating fruit. Tomatoes can grow very well organically, provided the soil is well enriched with organic matter. If you do use chemical fertilizers, try using half the recommended concentration per gallon (using package directions), but fertilize twice as often, in order to avoid the stress caused by the feast-famine of the longer fertilization gaps.
Over-fertilization can cause plants to grow too quickly, leaving them more susceptible to disease and insects.
Remember that your goal in growing tomatoes is fruit, not just leaves. Fertilizers, especially when used in excess, or the wrong kind may cause the plant to produce more leaves and foliage than fruit
Consider using a tomato cage or a tall stake to support the tomato vine. You can set these up at the time of planting, or you can wait about 14 days after transplanting.
A stake should be at least 0.5 x 2 inches (1.3 x 5cm) boards and 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) long. Pound stakes about 12 to 24 inches (30 cm to 60 cm) deep, at least 2 inches (5 cm) away from the plant. Secure the plant to the stake using “loosely knotted double-loops” that won’t strangle the plant. Stakes can be made of bamboo, scrap wood, electrical conduit, or iron bar.
While it is less common, “vining” type tomato plants can be tied onto a trellis or fence, like grapes, beans, squash, and other vining plants. This can produce especially large yields, but vining is less popular because tomato plants grow so large and bulky (some are called “indeterminate” but are not vines, and the third kind are “determinate” type are shrub-like plants).
A determinate tomato plant grows to a certain (determined), limited size and then stops or at least slows its growth greatly. An indeterminate plant keeps growing and spreading out.
A cage should be at least 48 inches (1.2 m) tall, even taller if you grow the plant well. Tying plants is unneeded. Some tomato plants can be more than six feet (1.8 m) tall in cages (you may need to stake and tie the cage to the stakes). Cages have a tendency to bend if the plants get heavy, and sometimes collapse in summer storms. Carefully pull leaves and secondary stems inside the cage as the plant grows.
Make your own tomato cages, if you like. Get a roll of 4 feet height (1.25 M) “welded-wire” garden fencing 2″ X 4″ rectangular openings (5cm X 10cm) garden fencing with — or 4″ square openings (10cm) — and soon you can make it double height, tied to more stakes, so wind will not knock them over as plants climb. Roll it into 18 inch wide (45cm) cylinders to make your own, larger cages. Cut and bend the wire ends around the uncut wires on the opposite end, making a circle. This type of cage needs strong stakes well tied for support.
Shake your plant poles or cages gently once or twice each week. Do so for about 5 seconds, and start this practice once flowering begins to promote pollination of the blossoms (from one flower to another). According to the National Gardening Association, shaking the tomato plant increases fruit production by more evenly distributing pollen.
Part Three of Three:
Watch for fruit to appear 45 to 90 days after transplanting. On average, you’ll need to wait about 60 days. Tomato plants usually have small, green fruit to start. Wait until the fruit is of good size with a bright, deep coloring: this means that the fruit is ripe and ready to pick. The texture of the fruit can also determine when it is ready to pick. Ripeness is usually determined by a slight softness. Be careful to only “palm the tomatoes”; do not squeeze with the finger tips and bruise the fruit.
Also, be careful of not allowing it to become overly ripe, which results in a very soft tomato.
Realize that birds, possums, raccoons and some dogs will take ripened tomatoes, corn and sweet green peppers, etc.
Pick fruit earlier to ripen indoors if you like. Fruit may be picked any time after it starts changing to its ripe color and set on a sunny windowsill. This will reduce the chances of it rotting on the vine or being eaten by a bird or squirrel.
Tomatoes do, however, taste sweeter when ripened on the vine, so you need to balance risk of threats versus taste.
Place a “zip-” of “snap-” seal sandwich type of bag over the nearly ripe fruit. Work very carefully, starting from the bottom up onto the stem. This should protect ripening tomatoes from predators.
Close the bag from both sides at the top, above the fruit, coming near the stem, leaving about 1/4″ (.6cm) on each side for air flow.
Cut the lower corner for drainage and air flow. In hot weather, carefully punch more air holes, 1/2 inch slits (1.2cm), or smaller, will work.
Don’t be disappointed by losing fruit to the animals; spend the time bagging it!
Another tip is to put red Christmas tree ornaments around the top of the tomato cage. The birds will peck at them, be confused and leave your tomatoes alone.