Growing Tomatoes

TomatoesIt may be hard to believe, but Americans once shunned this now classic fruit because it was thought to be poisonous.

The tomato is native to South America where they have been around since prehistoric times. Spanish explorers brought the plant from Mexico to southern Europe in the mid 1500s and from there it spread north and east.

Early Americans first grew the tomato as a curiosity, but thought that eating the fruit would be deadly because of its resemblance to nightshade. It wasn't until the early 19th century that it became widely known that they were safe to eat, and since then it has become a one of our most popular fruits in the United States.

There are two broad categories of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Now determinate just means the size of the plant grows to a determined height depending on the variety, say in the 2 to 4 foot range. Because of their compact habit they are perfect for growing in containers. Once they grow to a certain height, they flower and set all their fruit within a short period of time.

On the other hand indeterminate types of tomatoes don't grow to just a limited size, they keep growing and growing, often 8 feet or more. As you can imagine these require more room to grow and they need to be staked. The plus side of growing indeterminate type tomatoes is that they produce fruit throughout the entire season. You can also find dwarf indeterminate varieties that produce the same amount of fruit, but as the name implies, are smaller in stature.

The best time to plant tomatoes seedlings is a few weeks after the last frost date in your area, when the soil has had a chance to warm up and night temperatures stay above 50 degrees F. In my zone 7 garden, located in the upper South, I plant tomatoes in May.

If you are going to grow your tomatoes from seed, start them indoors 5 to 6 weeks before the last spring frost.

When you purchase tomato plants from a nursery select those that are about 10 to 12 inches tall with a deep green color. You should avoid any that have blooms, holey leaves or crowded root systems.

Tomatoes need full sun to really thrive. Site them in an area that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. To steer clear of problems with disease choose a new location in your garden each year.

The soil should be medium-rich, loose and well drained with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0.

How far apart you space the plants depends on the type of tomato you've selected. Dwarf varieties should be spaced about 12 inches apart in a row. If you plan on staking your plants, space them about 24 inches apart. Set sprawling, indeterminate tomatoes about 36 to 48 inches apart.

Plant your seedlings about 1 inch deeper than they are sitting in the nursery container. This will help strengthen the root system and a better root system means healthier plants. Just be sure to remove any leaves below the soil line.

To discourage cutworms from taking out your young transplants, you should wrap the base of each seedling with a piece of aluminum foil. You can also protect them with a cardboard collar placed over the seedling and pushed 1 inch into the ground. A paper towel roll cut into sections works pretty well.

Building a Twig Teepee
Twine and Twig Teepee
Building a Twig TeePee
Secure the Top
with Wire
Building a Twig TeePee
Wrap Twine
Around the Legs

It is important to support your tomatoes as they grow. A simple wooden stake or bamboo pole will work. Use twine or some other soft material to tie the vine to the support. Tomato cages are also useful, especially for determinate and dwarf varieties. For the larger indeterminate types I find that commercial cages are a bit on the flimsy side, so I make my own out of concrete reinforcing wire. A 5 foot wide piece will usually do the trick. Simply bend it into a circle and hook the tines together where the ends meet. You want it to be about 16 inches in diameter. As a final measure I clip nylon netting to the cages to keep pests at bay.

Once you have planted your tomatoes keep them well watered until the roots are established. After that, deep soak them every 4 to 7 days. If it is hot and dry you may need to water every day, especially if they are in containers.

When you water, take care to not splash soil onto the leaves and stem as this promotes disease. And don't skimp on the mulch. A good layer of mulch, 2 to 3 inches, will help keep the soil consistently moist, cutting down on blossom end rot, as well as prevent weeds from taking over. Just keep the mulch away from the crown of the plant.

Feed your tomatoes once a month with a blend that is high in phosphorous and low in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen will result in lots of leaves, but not much fruit. A ratio of 5-10-5 is good. Start fertilizing when the fruits first start to develop and stop as they reach maturity.

By following these simple guidelines you can make this the best tomato season ever.

Good To Know

Tomatoes will drop their blossoms when night time temperatures drop below 55 degrees F or exceed 75 degrees F.

If you live in an area with a short growing season choose an early maturing variety that will produce fruit in 50 to 65 days. Early Girl, Jetsetter, and Vita Gold are just a few varieties to try.

To avoid sunscald, do not remove leaves that are shading fruits.

Blossom end rot appears as a pale, brown spot that turns black and flattens the bottom of the fruit. It can be caused by lack of calcium or inconsistent moisture.

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