Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tomatoes 101, everything you need to know to grow great tomatoes



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tomatoes are Americans favorite vegetable to grow.  There really is no comparison between a home grown tomato and a store bought tomato.  There are just a few tricks to know about growing great tasting tomatoes. 

The first is knowing what type of tomato to purchase
There are two types of tomatoes-indeterminate and determinate.  Determinate grow to a set height and the fruit sets all at once.  These can be a great candidate for canning if you would like to get your tomato canning done all at once.  Indeterminate continue to grow and yield fruits (yes, the tomato is actually a fruit) until frost.  These are the best for fresh tomatoes all season long.
Choosing which tomatoes to grow

I grow only indeterminates.  For what we don’t eat, I freeze whole in quart freezer bags for chili and salsa until fall.  Come fall, I start canning the surplus.  Right before the first frost, I pick all the tomatoes left on the vine and put in a dark place for them to ripen.  We have fresh tomatoes into December.  They are definitely not the same as summer tomatoes, but better than anything you can buy in the store!  For more tips on preserving the tomato harvest:  Preserving the tomato harvest

There are "storage" tomato varieties.  You can pick these at frost and they will keep for up to 4 weeks longer than typical tomatoes.  One option is Red October.  The downside is they are a hybrid so will not come back true to the parent with seeds from this year's crop.
Tomatoes kept in pantry at Christmas

All tomatoes are chock full of antioxidants and lycopene.  They contain vitamins A, C, E, K, and B-complex as well as potassium, manganese, and copper.  For a full listing of nutrition, SELF magazine has an informative nutritional database:  tomato nutrition

Tomato supports/cages
With indeterminate tomatoes, they definitely need something to help them grow upwards (although not required, it does make harvesting much easier).  A very sturdy pole can be used and the plant tied onto it as it grows.  The more popular option is a “tomato cage” that the tomato grows up in to.  This is what we use.  It is important to get the cage on while the plants are small or severe damage may ensue when you try to force the gangly plant into it’s cage.  Be sure to get a strong cage for large tomato plants.

If you grow dwarf or patio tomatoes, they may not need any support at all.  I did end up using a stake for each plant as they put on large tomatoes which caused the plant to lean.
Staked dwarf tomato

Tips when planting
Tomatoes are susceptible to blossom-end rot and fungal diseases.  End rot is typically caused by not having enough calcium in the soil.  Fungal diseases remain the soil.  It is important to rotate vegetable plants and not plant them in the same spot every year.  

Another preventative of disease is to provide the right fertilizer and nutrients when planting.  In each planting hole, I add a handful of worm castings, balanced fertilizer, and dusted the roots with mycorrhizal life support which contains mycorrhizal, vitamins and minerals.  This blend improves soil fertility and the plants ability to take in the nutrition it needs.  It is not all about just the big 3-nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.  They are important but vitamins, minerals, and particularly living soil makes a huge difference in how healthy and lush the plants become.  I use fertilizer made specifically for tomatoes so that they get the calcium they need.

When you plant your tomato, make sure to plant it deeply.  I take off all the limbs except the top couple and bury the plant up to these stems.  Roots will grow from where the removed and buried limbs were.  This gives the plants a much stronger root system to support growth.

Pruning tips
Now that your plants have the right start, pruning is the next step.  To get the highest yields, some say it is important to prune your tomatoes.  You want no branches below 12” (some recommend 18”).  You also want to prune the plant to only 2 branches, the center stalk and one side stalk.  You want to keep the “suckers” cut or pinched off as well as the tomato grows.


The amount of pruning is controversial among tomato growing connoisseurs.  Some swear by pruning, others say it makes no difference.  If you live further south, keeping the greenery helps protect the fruits from sun scald.  If your plants seem to get fungal diseases, doing some pruning to open up the plant for air circulation can be beneficial.  For plants up north, increased greenery helps the plant have more energy going to its fruits.  I have tried both and for my garden, very limited pruning has worked the best.

Watering and fertilizing
Now, to on-going watering and fertilizing.  Many think more is better when it comes to watering and fertilizing.  Not so for tomatoes!  What you end up with are tons of greenery, mushy tomatoes, and very few of them.  Some tomato afficiados recommend a deep watering and fertilizer at planting, then again at flowering, and that is it.  I do water when there is a long dry spell.  Overwatering or erratic watering can also cause the fruits to crack.  

For the tomatoes in the garden, I fertilize when planting, again when the first flowers appear, and monthly thereafter.  If growing in containers, I fertilize every other week with a liquid fertilizer when flowering.

If your plant will not flower and fruit with lush green foliage, quit fertilizing and watering.  A little stress should jump start it into producing flowers and fruits.

Although tomatoes love hot weather (they will not flower until night time temps get above 55), they also don’t like it too hot.  If daytime temps get above 90 and nighttime temps above 76, the plant will drop its flowers.  Not to worry, as soon as temps come back down, your plants will begin flowering again.

Growing in containers
If you want to grow tomatoes in a container, you need to either have a really big container for full size tomatoes (5 gallon) or plant varieties that are adapted for containers. Tomatoes for containers would be labelled as dwarf, patio, container.  Some varieties that fit this bill:  BushSteak, Patio Princess, Bush Early Girl, Tumbler, Bush Big Boy, Baxter’s Bush Cherry, Lizzano, Sweetheart of the Patio, Tumbling Tom Yellow or Red, Bush Better Bush, Balcony (look for bush/patio/container types), Husky Bush.

If you grow in containers, you will need to water weekly or maybe even more depending on the container and plant size combo used.  For more on container gardening and types to purchase for pots, Decorative container gardening for edibles

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