No tomato tastes better than a tomato ripened on the vine. You can have your own vine ripened tomatoes beginning this summer. Tomatoes are the number one garden vegetable that people plant and they are fairly easy to grow, even for beginners. You can even plant tomatoes in large pots if you don’t have a garden space, as long as you have a place that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day. While you can grow tomatoes indoors under lights this article is going to give instructions and tips for planting tomatoes outside.
Most people start with tomato plants, which are available in almost every garden shop in the nation. You can start tomatoes from seed, but you’ll need to start about 6-8 weeks before the date you want to plant them outside. If you are new to gardening it’s probably better to begin your tomato growing experience with a young plant, called a transplant. Do consider growing several kinds of tomatoes, because each variety has a distinctive taste and different varieties begin ripening sooner than others. There are traditional red tomatoes but there are also yellow, orange, pink, white, green, purple and striped tomatoes.
How many tomato plants should you buy?
That depends on the space you have to grow them, you’ll need about 3 square feet per plant. If space isn’t a problem consider whether you want fresh tomatoes for eating or if you want tomatoes for canning. A family of four will probably get all the fresh tomatoes they want from 3-4 plants. If you want to can or freeze tomatoes, or make sauces and salsa you’ll want at least a dozen plants.
If you can, choose some early and some later ripening varieties of tomatoes so that you will have a constant supply. Read the plant label to see how many days the tomato variety takes to maturity, which means the number of days from when you set the plants into the ground, or a large container, to when the tomatoes produce ripe fruit. Early tomatoes have fruit that is generally smaller than later ripening varieties but the flavor is usually great.
healthy tomato transplant
Choosing healthy plants
Tomato plants are available in a variety of sizes and prices. Cell packs contain 4-6 small tomato plants, usually all of one variety. They are generally the least expensive way to buy tomatoes. Healthy tomato plants in cell packs will quickly catch up to larger potted plants in growth. The disadvantage of cell packs is the plants are generally all the same variety and if you want several varieties, you’ll have a lot of plants. When you are choosing healthy tomato plants in cell packs look for stocky, dark green plants without flowers or fruits. Lanky, yellowish plants with flowers or fruit are stressed and won’t do well in the garden. Don’t choose them.
Tomatoes that are potted individually in larger pots can be taller and even support flowers and fruit, depending on the size of the pot, without being stressed. The larger the pot, the more advanced the plant can be, a plant with small green tomatoes should be in a pot at least 6 inches across. These plants are more expensive but it’s often fun to get at least one tomato plant that already has flowers or fruit so that you get early ripe fruit. Choosing individual tomato plants in pots allows the person who doesn’t have a lot of garden space to have several varieties of tomatoes.
Potted tomato plants that are flowering or that have fruit take a little extra care when they are planted. Look for potted plants that are compact and dark green. A few yellow leaves on the bottom of the plant are normal, but avoid plants that have a lot of yellowed leaves or spotted and curled leaves. Look for plants without signs of insect damage or insects on the leaves.
tomato ready to plant
When to plant
Tomatoes are tropical plants and need warm soil and frost free conditions to grow. The best time to plant tomatoes is when the lilac plants in your area are in full bloom or the leaves on the oak trees are the size of your thumb. Even then keep an eye on the weather and be prepared to cover the plants if the weather forecast calls for a frost or freeze.
Don’t be in a rush to get your tomatoes into the ground. If the weather and soil are cool the plants will just sit there, barely surviving. Tomatoes planted after the weather is warm and settled will take off quickly and be strong and productive. They often catch up to and surpass plants that sat through cold periods or suffered frost damage.
Choosing a good location for planting
Tomatoes need at least 6 hours of sunlight to produce good fruit. They thrive in a variety of soils but loose, fertile soil where tomatoes haven’t been planted in at least a year is best. If your soil is very sandy or is heavy clay, you can work in a generous amount of compost before planting. You can also add some fertilizer formulated for tomatoes before planting and work it into the soil.
Make sure that tomato plants are at least 50 feet from a black walnut tree, even if the tree doesn’t shade them. Tomatoes are very sensitive to a chemical that black walnut trees produce in their roots. About the time they start producing fruit they will suddenly wilt and die if their roots are close to black walnut roots. If you can’t get the tomatoes far enough from black walnut trees plant them in containers.
cover tomato transplants
The actual planting
Dig a hole several inches deeper than the root ball of the tomato plant. Unlike most plants tomatoes have the ability to grow roots from little “bumps” along their stems and planting them slightly deeper than they were in the nursery helps them form a good, extensive root system. Remove any leaves below the soil line before you fill in the hole around the plant. If you have tall, lanky tomatoes, maybe bargain ones left at the end of the season, you can remove all but one or two sets of leaves and bury the stem deeply.
Space your tomato plants at least 3 feet apart. That looks like a lot when they are small but when they are large the plants need good air flow around them to help prevent disease. Don’t plant tomatoes against a building or solid fence. The reflected heat and poor airflow will cause many problems.
Place your tomato cages, stakes or other supports when you plant the tomato. All tomatoes should be kept off the ground to avoid problems with fungal disease. If you are going to use plastic mulch that should be placed on the ground before you dig the holes. You will cut holes in it where the tomatoes are placed. If you are going to use a mulch such as straw or shredded bark wait a week or so after planting to put it down and make sure the soil is moist first. Mulch is good to suppress weeds but don’t make it more than 3” deep as it will prevent water from reaching the plant roots.
Make sure to water the tomato generously after you plant it. The best day to plant tomatoes is a cloudy one. If the weather is hot, sunny and windy cover the plant with something such as a sheet of newspaper or some light fabric to lightly shade it. This keeps it from wilting as it grows new roots. Remove the shade after 2-3 days.
tomatoes with late blight, a fungal disease
Caring for the tomato plant
Tomatoes produce the best quality fruit if they are watered regularly. How often that is will depend on the weather and your soil. Don’t allow them to wilt, but don’t keep the soil soggy wet. If tomatoes are in containers they must have good drainage. Generally a deep watering once a week will be fine, but when the weather is very hot and dry or your soil sandy you may need to water more often. Try to keep the water off the leaves when you water, direct water to the base of the plants. If you do water from overhead do it several hours before sundown so the plants are dry before dark. This helps prevent fungal disease.
Too much fertilizer will produce tall plants with lots of leaves but little fruit. Use a slow release granular fertilizer when you plant the tomatoes or use several applications of water soluble fertilizer during the growing season, following the label directions carefully. A fertilizer made for tomatoes is best, but a fertilizer labeled for vegetables will work.
Keep the tomato plant off the ground by regularly tying it to a stake or other support or use heavy duty tomato cages. Remove any yellowed or spotted leaves regularly and dispose of them away from the plants. Tomato fungal diseases are the bane of all tomato growers and by summers end almost all tomato plants will be suffering from some degree of fungal disease if they are not being sprayed regularly with a fungicide. You must prevent fungal disease, you cannot cure it. Some fungal diseases cause minor loss of fruit and plant quality, and decreased yield, others, such as late blight, can kill the plant.
Whether to use a fungicide on your tomato plants is a personal decision. Fungicides are pretty safe if you choose one labeled for tomatoes and follow the directions on it carefully. You must apply it consistently. Healthy plants will produce nutritionally better fruit than ones struggling with disease, and careful washing will remove pesticide residue, but you must decide if that route is for you. There are so called organic fungicides but they are either as toxic as non-organic ones or just not very effective.
Other than tomato hornworms, a big fat green worm that strips tomato leaves and also munches fruit, tomatoes have few insect problems. Hornworms are best controlled by hand picking and squashing.
If you like eating tomatoes you’ll enjoy them even more if you grow them yourself. Pick one warm from the sun, bite into it and let the juice run down your chin. Think bacon and tomato sandwiches with really luscious, flavorful tomatoes. Picture jars of cheerful red canned tomatoes lining your cupboard selves. Get out there and plant some tomatoes.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
Choosing the right tomato for cooking or canning
Controlling tomato hornworms
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