Ripe, homegrown tomatoes are some of summer’s most savory and nutritious treats. And they’re the most popular crop for backyard gardens, according to this article from This Old House.
Plus, they’re pretty easy to grow—if you give it good care from Day 1, that is. To get top tomato-growing tips, I called Barb Pierson, production manager for White Flower Farm, and Chelsey Wasem, horticulture agent for the Kansas State Research and Extension in Johnson County. Here’s what they had to say:
Start with a transplant. If you’re just now starting to grow tomatoes, buy a transplant at your local garden center rather than growing tomatoes from seeds, Wasem recommends. You’ll reap the tasty rewards faster.
Mix and match. Even if you’re planning on growing tried-and-true tomato varieties, don’t be afraid to experiment a few heirloom varieties too, says Pierson, who firmly believes heirloom tomatoes are much more flavorful than commercially grown varieties. And don’t be thrown off by heirlooms’ unusual colors and appearances: “Some of the ugliest are the tastiest,” she says. Her favorites? Green Zebras, bright green tomatoes with darker green zebra-like streaks, and Striped Germans, defined by rich reds and yellows.
Size up the plant. At the garden center, look for the healthiest-looking tomato plant you can get your hands on. And remember: “Bigger isn’t always better,” Wasem says. Shorter, stockier plants with dark green foliage may be your best bet this time of year because they’re more likely to have large root systems.
If you purchase a plant with fruit or flowers growing on it, carefully pick off those items (as weird as that may seem). “That way, when you plant, the tomato plant will put energy into the root system,” Wasem says. “But if you leave the flowers or fruit, the plant will put all its energy into those, so the roots get deprived.”
Grow in containers. If you’re new to gardening or are short on space, Pierson advocates growing tomatoes in containers. For container-growing success, its generally a good idea to stick with smaller, determinate varieties (meaning they produce all their fruit all at once rather than throughout the season) such as Sun Leaper tomatoes or Roma tomatoes. Put your containers in spots that receive at least 6 hours of sunlight daily.
Amend your soil with organic matter. Enrich your soil with compost or dry, aged manure, which deliver beneficial bacteria that “help your plant breathe better and provide nutrients to the plant in a slow-release approach,” Pierson says. Plus, these nutrients help retain water and fertilizer.
Fertilize. Tomato plants are hungry and need sufficient food to grow—but overdoing it can lessen your harvest. Fertilize while preparing the soil, and again before the tomatoes ripen, Wasem says. Once the plant produces fruit, though, “you’ll want to back off on fertilizer—otherwise you’ll get cracks in the fruit,” Pierson says.
Get structural support. Prevent large tomato plants from toppling over with stakes or a sturdy cage. To make your own cage, visit a hardware store and purchase wire concrete reinforcement. Bend the wire reinforcement and wrap into a circular tube at least 4-5 inches tall so the plant doesn’t outgrow it, Wasem says.
If you’d rather stake your tomatoes, insert the stake at least 1-2 feet in the ground shortly after transplanting to minimize root damage. Tie the plant to the stake every 3–4 inches with twine or strips of soft cloth. Then, to maintain a more orderly plant, pinch off or prune side shoots and suckers (found between the leaf and the main stem). “It’ll keep your plant from getting bushy,” Wasem says.
Water well. On average, tomato plants require an inch of water per week during the summer, Wasem says, and deeper, infrequent waterings are best. Rather than hydrating with an overhead sprinkler, use a soaker hose or have your garden hose emit a slow, steady trickle and let the water seep in deeply. You’ll know it’s time to water if your plant looks wilted, or if it’s especially windy outdoors—wind parches plants. Here’s another hydration test: Stick a probe, such as a screwdriver, 6–8 inches into the ground. If it goes in without any struggle, there’s plenty of moisture in the soil. If you have to force it in, the soil is dried out.
Fight blight with mulch. As your tomato plant grows, it becomes more susceptible to soil-borne diseases caused by water splashing onto the plant. An even layer of mulch—teamed with smart watering techniques such as watering only the base of the plant early in the day—prevents harmful splash up. “Mulching makes a huge difference,” Wasem says. Read about mulching’s other benefits here.
Prune with care. Before breaking out the garden shears, see if your tomato plants are determinate or indeterminate—this affects how you should prune, Pierson says. Because they grow (and yield fruit) all season long, indeterminate plants need more pruning. She recommends watching this Fine Gardening video for the best tomato-pruning advice.
Pick at prime time. Your tomatoes are ready to pick when their color changes and they feel slightly soft to the touch. “You should feel a little give to the tomato,” Wasem says.
Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All