Tomatoes are one of the most popular foods grown in vegetable gardens. They can also be one of the more complex vegetables to grow, especially for new gardeners. Like all plants, tomatoes thrive when provided with the right environment, nutrients and care. Following a garden guide to growing tomatoes will help ensure a bountiful harvest at the end of the growing season.
There are many varieties of tomato plants to choose from. However, it is important to select a variety that is hardy to your particular region. Gardeners in cooler regions with short summer growing seasons should select short-season varieties or those with the shortest "days to maturity." Tomatoes grown in areas with cooler or shorter summers need extra time for ripening.
Another consideration when choosing a tomato variety is the type: hybrid or open-pollinated. Washington State University recommends open-pollinated varieties if you plan to save the seeds from the tomatoes. The reason is that this type "holds on to the parents' characteristics," while hybrids are "made to obtain a certain set of characteristics." Heirloom tomatoes, such as the Cherokee purple and the Brandywine, are popular open-pollinated types that have been consistently used for many years.
Location, location, location! Perhaps the most important aspect for growing tomatoes is the location. For a large, beautiful bounty, tomato plants need a minimum of eight hours of full sun. The right location should also have proper drainage and adequate space, since most tomato varieties tend to get large.
The soil should hold plenty of moisture while having proper drainage to avoid standing water. Weekend Gardener recommends a fertile, organically rich soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.8. Adding fertilizer and working it into the soil before planting will give your tomato plants the added nutrients they need to become healthy and mature.
Most growers plant tomatoes in the garden when the plant reaches approximately six or more inches in height. Tomato seeds can be started in containers and later transplanted to the garden. Before planting them in the ground, you should remove the lower stems, leaving behind the upper portion of the plant's leaves.
Depending on how many plants you are planting, you can dig a trench or just a few holes. Tomato plants should be planted deeply, with roughly two to three feet between each plant. Allow enough space to place tomato cages (if used) around the plants as they grow to maturity. (Cages help support the plant stems as they grow heavier with fruit.)
Weekend Gardener recommends planting tomatoes on their sides, unlike the way most garden vegetables are planted. This means placing the tomato plant at an angle, with soil placed over the root system. This planting style allows "the plant the best foundation possible," says certified organic grower Hilary Rinaldi. She adds, "Don't worry if the foliage is pointing to the side. It will right itself and grow upright in a few days."
Once your tomatoes are planted, they require regular care. This includes providing the plants with adequate water and the right mulch and pruning them. Perhaps the most important aspect of care is watering.
Gardening Know How advises to water "slow and easy." You should water the plants slowly and place water deeply into the soil so that it reaches the plant's roots. Watering from above is not recommended, as this encourages the water to evaporate quickly. This process of watering can also cause the tomatoes to "become infected with airborne spores," says Rinaldi. She recommends watering regularly but allowing the soil to dry a little between waterings.
Mulching around your plants is also another important aspect of tomato care. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study shows that when mulch is used as a ground cover, it will 'fix nitrogen, recycle nutrients, reduce soil erosion and compaction, and add organic matter to the soil." While plastic-type ground cover can be used, more natural mulches, such as compost or straw, are preferred. Weekend Gardner recommends a three- to four-inch layer of mulch for each plant.
Finally, there is the common question posed by many gardeners: Should they remove suckers or not? Suckers are those small shoots that grow in the crevice of the plant's axils (the "V" portion between the main trunk system and long stems or branches). Removing suckers is not a requirement. However, not removing the suckers can cause the tomato plant to become top-heavy and prevent it from becoming lush. Suckers will become branches and can produce fruit, so leaving the suckers might produce more fruit, though but it might not get as large.
As the plants mature, the branches become long and lanky. For this reason, many gardeners place cages around the plants so that they grow upright rather than on the ground. Using cages or staking is not a necessity, and many seasoned gardeners just allow their plants to spread across the ground. The choice to cage or leave be is a personal one.
In regions with a lot of rainfall, staking or caging off the ground is generally necessary to prevent the branches from lying in standing water. Weekend Gardener agrees that the use of "cages or not is really your choice and [a matter of] how much space you have in your garden."
That first ripe tomato shining on the vine is the crowning jewel of your hard work. Harvesting time varies according to the variety. Tomatoes are ready when they have reached their peak color but are still somewhat firm. Harvesting often encourages more development so that your plants provide you with a summer full of vine-ripe tomatoes.