Tips for Growing Tomatoes

How to Grow Tomatoes Naturally

Finding the best variety for your region and garden microclimate requires some experimenting. A tomato that astounds one gardener may disappoint another, because growth, flavor and yield are dependent on weather, soil and the garden microclimate. It makes a world of difference whether you grow tomatoes in gardens subject to cooling summer ocean breezes or in protected inland gardens.

Extent your season of harvest by growing a diversity of tomatoes, ranging in size and days ‘til ripening. Chose a range of early to late season cultivars, and select those that perform best in your garden, and those you find most flavorful.

By growing open-pollinated rather than hybrid tomatoes, you can save the seeds of those that perform well in your garden, and those with the best flavor and the highest yields. Heritage varieties have not been hybridized between two parent strains, so you can save seeds from ‘tried and true’ heritage favorites such as Brandywine, Amish Paste or Stupice.

“Which is the best tomato to grow?” I get asked this question hundreds of times by customers. There’s no ‘best’ tomato in such a world of diversity, so I suggest making a decision based on what tomatoes do best. Tomatoes are grown for a variety of uses: salads, snacking, slicing, soups, canning, sauces and paste. Choose a variety that meets your needs. A uniformly round tomato such as Moneymaker is perfect for salads. A beefsteak variety such as Costoluto Fiorentino is a juicy slicer, whereas a jump cherry like Gardener’s Delight makes a great fresh eating and snacking tomato.

Seventy-five per cent of all tomato cultivars are indeterminate. Indeterminate, or vining, tomatoes continue to grow and produce throughout the season, so give a longer season of harvest. Indeterminate need the support of sturdy stakes or trellises. Determinate tomatoes are compact bushy plants, which make better choices for container growing, but have a shorter period of harvest. That’s because growth is stopped by the development of terminal flower buds; this means they only set fruit once and then stop producing. They may still need the support of a stake or a tomato cage. If you are growing mostly determinate varieties, I recommend growing some indeteriminates too. Then you can pick tomatoes all season long.

Tomato seeds need 75-85 F (25-30 C) for germination; seedlings need daytime temperatures of 60 F (15 C) and nighttime temperatures of 45-50 F (8-10 C). Six-week-old seedlings are ready to be hardened off to go outside.

Tip: Make sure the round has warmed up before transplanting outdoors. Black landscape fabric over beds warms the soil by day and holds in warmth at night. You can also use clothes or bell jars to cover newly transplanted plants.

A neutral soil pH of 6 to 6.5 is ideal. Prepare the planting hold with compost and a handful of slow release organic fertilizer that contains lime, with a balanced NPK around 6-8-6. Calcium prevents blossom end rot. Tomatoes love fish heads planted underneath them, if you can get your hands on some.

Tip: New roots develop on all parts of the stem planted underground. These will provide the tomato with more nutrients. Strip all the leaves off the stem except for the top truss of three or four leaves when transplanting. Either dig a deep hole or lay the tomato plant diagonally in a shallow trench, but bury most of the stem except for the upper truss of leaves to encourage the formation of these roots.

Provide supports for tomato plants when first transplanting, with cages for determinate varieties or sturdy five-foot tall cedar stakes for indeterminate vining varieties. Proper staking and trying as the tomato grows exposes leaves to sunlight and results in increased fruit production.

Fertilizing plants weekly with liquid seaweed, with high phosphorus content, boosts fruit production. Don’t over water; a deep soaking once a week is better than several light waterings. Fruit splitting and blossom end rot are caused by erratic watering.

Suckers are sprouts that grow between the main stem and the leaf axils. Removing suckers directs the plant’s energy from vine production to fruit production. Remove suckers from indeterminate, vining plants diligently, and train them to one or two main stems. Beware of suckering on determinate, bushy plants, which cuts back on tomato production.

Tomato light is the most serious disease of tomatoes, especially after long periods of wet weather in August and September. Blight can wipe out a whole crop in a matter of days if left unchecked. It is caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestants, and first appears as brown blotches on the leaves and then blackened stems on the plants. To control blight, remove all infected plant debris from the garden and do not compost it. Once blight shows up in your garden, practice crop rotation diligently in future years to prevent reoccurrence.

Leaf curl early in summer is caused by viral diseases spread to plants by aphids, and by sap on fingers and tools. Practice good hygiene and aphid control. Yellowing between veins of older leaves, which then turn brown, is due to magnesium deficiency. Digging one teaspoon of Epson salts (magnesium sulphate) into the planting hole at the time of transplanting will help prevent this problem. 


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