How to Grow Tomatoes
Tomatoes are true berries - a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced from a single ovary. They are available in huge number of varieties that vary in size, color, vegetation period etc.
They are commonly grown in small and home gardens and consumed mostly fresh (salads) and in various dishes.
Since tomatoes are not the easiest plants to grow, if you decide to grow them, be sure to know:
- how to select and prepare the soil for planting,
- how to select tomato varieties that suit your soil, position and needs,
- how to maintain tomato plants in order to achieve higher yields and good quality of the tomatoes.
Soil Preparation and Fertilization
It is very important where tomatoes are planted in the garden. To grow and produce well, tomatoes need at least six to eight hours of sun a day. Positions with full sun are the best, especially in northern, more colder climates. Tomatoes doesn't like cold and late spring frost can kill the plants - regardless if you grow them directly from the seeds, by transplanting small plants, or in the containers and pots, be sure that tomatoes are always protected from frost - wait till at least two weeks after your local last frost day and only then move them permanently outside.
If you grow tomato plants for transplanting and/or in the pots, it is good practice to gradually expose young tomato plants to the full sun and little bit colder air - this will strengthen the plants and prepare them for outside conditions.
Tomato roots do well in well-drained, nutrient rich, slightly acidic (pH 6 - 6.7) and moist soil. They don't like soggy soils, while too sandy soils don't retain moisture and nutrients well.
Soil preparation can start in autumn, before soil is frozen, but early in the spring is not to late to make good tomato soil.
If you have heavy clay soil, add some sand and plenty of organic matter in the form of aged manure (or manure in pellets) and some compost/humus or similar. Also, add some balanced NPK fertilizer 10:10:10 or 15:15:15 and till the soil at least 25-30 cm (10-12 inches) deep. Personally, I prefer manure in the form of fully dried pellets, but if you do have really heavy soil, aged manure is somewhat better. Organic matter and sand help with water drainage, while NPK fertilizer and organic matter feed the plants.
If you have light, sandy soil, add aged manure or manure in pellets (or both) and compost/humus. They will help the soil to retain moisture and nutrients and will feed the plants. Also, adding balanced NPK fertilizers is highly recommended to improve the plants' growth.
When transplanting the plants on the permanent position, the easiest method for small gardens is planting the tomato plants in the individual holes - make 15cm (6 inches) hole, add some more (10-15g - one third to one half of an ounce) of NPK fertilizer and a handful of compost/humus, mix little bit everything and plant the tomato.
If you live in colder regions - make a deep furrow (30cm, one foot), fill it halfway (15cm, 6 inches) with aged animal manure, compost/humus and some balanced NPK fertilizer. Cover it with 7-8cm (3 inches) of soil and in the remaining 7-8cm plant the tomatoes. Decomposing manure/humus/compost will produce some heat and warm the roots, but also feed the plants for longer period of time. This is very important if you prefer to transplant tomatoes early and to grow indeterminate varieties.
If support is required (stakes, cages etc), position them right away, to avoid any later damage to the roots.
Since determinate varieties have relatively short vegetation period, if the soil is prepared well, subsequent fertilization is not required. However, indeterminate varieties can grow for a long time and can become huge - some up to 10 feet. When first flowers and tomatoes appear, feel free to add 10-15g of NPK fertilizer with lower nitrogen level (for example 5-10-10 or 10-15-15), per plant, every month (depending on the plants' density, variety, soil type etc). Tomatoes like nitrogen and with too much nitrogen, they will grow tall, but also weak and prone to various diseases. Having more potassium and phosphorous ensures plenty of healthy tomato fruits.
Watering Tomato Plants
Constant watering of tomato plants is very important - tomato plants require 2-5cm (1-2 inches) of water per week. To avoid any damage to the fruits, especially during summer heat, watering should be done on a daily basis or one should use dripping system. Without moisture, calcium and other nutrients often become unavailable to the plants, leading to reduced growth and in the end, reduced crops.
Mulching can prevent or decrease moisture loss and can help in keeping the soil warm during colder days. Moisture fluctuations can lead to damaged plants and especially damaged fruits, while having 'warm feet' promotes higher yield and strong plants (phosphorous intake is highly decreased if roots are cold). Also, good mulch decreases amount of weeds and prevents fruit from touching the soil - fruit rot.
The best mulch is organic one. It includes materials like compost, straw, newspaper, shredded leaves, grass clippings, sawdust, wood chips etc. As this materials decompose, they add organic material to the top of the soil. This is also very important for both heavy and sandy soils - few years of mulching and crop rotation and such soils will improve their quality significantly.
Tomato Types and Varieties
There are numerous types and varieties of tomato plants. Choose tomato plants according to your needs and preferences, but also feel free to experiment a little bit. Common tomato types that can be found in home and small gardens are: beefsteak tomatoes beef tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, plum tomatoes, coctail tomatoes, campari tomatoes, plum tomatoes, patio tomatoes, black tomatoes etc.
Most popular tomato varieties are: San Marzano, Roma, Brandywine, Better Boy, Black Cherry, Sun Gold, Early Girl, Homestead etc.
Planting the Tomato Plants
Tomatoes can be planted into the pots and containers, grow bags, raised beds, or directly into the garden soil. One of the most underestimated, but very important factor, is distance between the tomato plants in the rows and distance between the rows.
Tomato spacing depends on tomato plant type and variety (determinate/indeterminate, large/small/dwarf plant etc), local climate, growing soil, watering, available nutrients and sunlight and the list continues.
If you are not sure about the proper plant spacing, it is better to leave somewhat larger room between plants, than to 'over-plant' your garden. With enough room around the plants, tomatoes will have more sunlight, more room for root ball, there will be less competition for water and nutrients, disease outbreaks will be easier to control etc.
For more information about required space for tomato plants, check Tomato Plant Spacing 101: How to Calculate the Optimal Spaces article on 'Everything Backyard' site - link opens in the new window, recommended not only for beginners.
Tomatoes should be planted into prepared soil, early in the morning or late in the evening, if possible. After planting, add support (tomato cages or poles) right away, and water the plants with the stale water.
Caring for Tomato Plants
Tomato plants are not the easiest plants to grow and care for, but in most cases, with little effort they will reward you with great tasting tomatoes.
Beside regular watering and fertilization, most of the tomato plants require some sort of support in order to grow vertically - tomato stakes/poles, tomato cages, vertical wires/lines, wooden or metal fence etc. Tying tomato plants to support keeps plants away from the soil, prevents fruit rot, prevents damage to the plants due to bad weather (wind, for example) etc.
Removing side shoots from tomato plants is not required in some varieties, but in most cases it is something that must be done. Leaving one or two lower side shoots and growing them on separate poles, can sometimes increase crop harvest, but it requires skill and good timing - it is perhaps easier to grow two plants, relatively close to each other, than to grow one plant with main stem and some side shoots.
Pest and diseases can be great problems when growing tomatoes.
Aphids, flea beetles, leafminers, stink bugs, spider mites, fruitworms etc. threaten tomatoes in may ways. They damage the foliage, but real damage may result either from their feeding on the fruit (fruit is in most cases inedible) or by spreading various diseases. In home garden, it is normal to have 'some' bugs and strong and healthy tomato plants can cope with few pests - most of them (at least larger ones) can be removed by hand. In the case of stronger attack, one has to use insecticides - try to use organic insecticides according to the instructions and be sure to mark the date when you used them (just to be sure).
Tomato diseases are spread through the soil, infected tools, animals, water supply, gardeners etc. Most of the diseases are not fatal, especially if discovered early and treated accordingly. It is very important to monitor plants almost on a daily basis and reacts quickly. If you live in the area where tomato diseases are common problem, act preemptively and treat your plants. Personally, I mix copper based with sulfur based fungicides (both soluble in water) and treat plants with mild solution several times before first tomatoes start to ripen. This, choosing more resilient varieties and crop rotation is usually more than enough to keep the tomatoes healthy - some might disagree with this practice, but in wet and humid seasons, this helps a lot ...
Note: if tomato plant is lost, remove it from the garden and burn it.
In order to prolong harvesting season, grow indeterminate tomato varieties, but also grow several different varieties. Personally, I like to vary my salads from yellow/red/black cherry tomatoes to large beefsteak tomatoes.
Also, since most of our neighbors prefer heirloom varieties, we often exchange seeds. In the end, we grow 2-5 plants of each variety - cherries are mostly in hanging baskets, while big indeterminate varieties are in the garden, on permanent locations, well protected from wind, pets and kids. Other varieties are somewhere in between :)