Growing Tomato Plants
While technically a fruit, growing tomato plants is a vegetable gardeners delight! Nothing beats the taste of fresh, vine ripened heirloom tomatoes from the home garden. Originating in Central and South America, tomato plants are grown in an ever increasing range of colors, sizes and shapes with the recent interest in heirloom cultivars fueling further interest (see History of Tomatoes).
Tomatoes are very deep rooted and don’t need nearly as much water as most people believe. They will do much better in the garden soil than in pots and require plenty of sun. Plant after the soil has warmed in the spring in rich, fast draining soil which has been amended with ample amounts of organic compost and calcium to prevent blossom end rot.
How to Plant:
Allow enough space (1-1/2 – 2 feet) between tomato plants to permit good sun penetration and air circulation. Plant the tomatoes deep in the soil, up to the first set of leaves or deeper. Roots will form all along the stem. Water deeply (long periods of time, once or twice a week) to encourage roots to grow down into the soil. Once the plants are established, start them on a biweekly fertilizer program.
Tip: In northern climates use Wall O’ Waters to protect transplants from frost and speed production.
Tomatoes are vines. They need support to keep the fruit off the ground. Tomato cages will support the plant without additional ties. Until the plants grow that is… Tomatoes don’t know when they have a good thing going and often out grow their cages. At that time, use bamboo poles or tree stakes and tie the plants with twine or covered wire (see Plant Supports & Twine). Place the twine around a main stem and pull it gently toward the stake. Secure the twine to the stake.
Tip: Snapping off young suckers between the main stem and leaf axils encourages higher yields and earlier fruiting on staked plants. When the vines reach the tops of the stakes, pinch back the tip.
No Bloom – What Happened?
Tomato plants that receive fertilizer too high in nitrogen will do a couple of things, none of which are good. They may not bloom at all, or they may drop the blossoms before the fruit has set. In order to prevent this from happening, use an organic fertilizer low in nitrogen or one specifically formulated for tomato plants.
Once the plants begin blooming, you may need to hand pollinate, especially if your tomatoes are growing inside a greenhouse where there are no natural pollinators. To hand pollinate, you will need a small brush to pick up pollen from one flower and gently transfer it to another. Just tip your brush from flower to flower and pretend you are a bee.
Once tomatoes start ripening, check vines daily. Cut or gently twist off fruits, supporting the vine at the same time. For best flavor, leave the fruits on the plants for as long as possible. At first sign of heavy frost, harvest all fruits. Green ones will eventually ripen while stored in a warm place out of direct sunlight. Tomatoes require 90-140 days to mature from seed; 60-90 days from transplanting, depending on the variety.
Insects and Diseases:
There are numerous insect and disease problems associated with growing tomatoes (too many to mention here). We have listed two of the more common problems:
Tomato Hornworms are impressive caterpillars that are very easy to control. They are identified by their impressive size (3-6 inches), their green color that makes them difficult to spot among the foliage and the spiked horn at the tail.
To find tomato hornworms, simply follow your eyes to the chewed foliage. Then, look for their scat on the leaves. To control them, use garden quality diatomaceous earth as a dusting powder, hand pick them, or use bacillus thuringiensis as a spray for control. Although these are all organic remedies, please use safety gear when applying any pesticide.
Blossom End Rot:
Blossom end rot is a tomato disease usually caused by a calcium deficiency in the soil, although it is sometimes brought on by drought, high salt levels, excess nitrogen or uneven soil moisture. It is identified by a brown mushy spot on the butt end of the tomato. Prevent blossom end rot by keeping soil evenly moist and by spraying plants with kelp as a foliar treatment. Adding calcium to the soil at planting time usually prevents the problem from occurring.
Note: Containing 15% phosphate and up to 24% calcium, organic bone meal promotes healthy fruit development in tomatoes.
Seed Saving Instructions:
Cross-pollination between modern tomato varieties seldom occurs, except in potato leaf varieties which should be separated by the length of the garden. Do not save seeds from double fruits or from the first fruits of large varieties. Pick at least one ripe fruit from each of several plants. Squeeze seeds and juice into a strainer and wash, spread on a paper plate and dry.