How to Grow Great Tomatoes
Ahh, tomatoes … that summer garden favorite many of us love to grow — and, especially, to eat. Homegrown tomatoes not only taste better than store-bought, but they’re also much healthier. Whether you’re thinking of growing tomatoes for the first time this year, or have been growing them for quite some time, hopefully you’ll find some tips here that you can sink your teeth into.
Buying transplants at a garden center is certainly an option, but one great reason to consider growing your own seedlings is that you can try far, far more varieties. I’ve been to garden centers that only offer a couple of tomato varieties—maybe a standard slicing hybrid like “Big Boy” and a cherry tomato option. There’s a huge world of heirloom, plum, cherry, pear and slicing tomatoes out there, and you can grow whatever your tomato-loving heart desires if you order your own seeds and start them at home. For instructions on how to do so, see Seed Starting Made Simple.
On that note, how exactly should you choose which tomatoes to grow? I prefer to grow a variety of varieties, so I have tomatoes for all kinds of different uses. I have juicy, flavorful slicers such as “Brandywine” or “Mortgage Lifter” for sandwiches and fresh eating; Romas for making canned tomato sauce; sweet “Sungold” cherry tomatoes for salads and snacking, etc. It’s fun to experiment with a few varieties every year, keeping notes on what you liked and didn’t care for as much. Another consideration is to choose a kind of tomato that is known to do well in your regional growing conditions. For help with that, see Best Tomatoes to Grow Where You Live.
If you started your tomatoes from seed, before you can plant them outside they need to be “hardened off.” This just means they need to get used to living outside, otherwise the change in conditions could shock them and they could die. If you’ve started seedlings indoors, simply set them outside for a couple of hours a day – definitely not in direct sun or in high winds right at first. Increase the amount of time the seedlings spend outdoors each day, and eventually set them out in full sun for a while. After you transplant your hardened off seedlings, water them immediately.
Tomatoes are definitely a sun-loving crop, so be sure to grow them in an area that gets a very minimum of six full hours of direct sunlight per day. Don’t have such conditions at home? Consider getting involved in a community garden, or settle for growing some crops that do well in shadier conditions. See this veggie chart to learn which crops will tolerate less sunlight.
If you don’t have room for in-ground garden beds but you still want to grow tomatoes, you could try growing them in containers. The two most important tips for doing so are 1) choose large containers so the roots have room to expand considerably; and 2) make sure the plants are getting adequate water. Container-grown tomato plants definitely need to be watered more frequently than those growing in the ground. Self-watering containers (those that have an extra reservoir at the base) can help this situation. Learn more in Container Cultivation.
Tomatoes are a vining crop, and will produce more and be healthier with proper supports. The tomato cages you can typically find at garden centers aren’t usually strong enough to hold up an average tomato plant. And if it gets windy? Those cages don’t stand much of a chance. Growing your tomatoes against what’s called a “cattle panel” is a great option, as the panel is shaped like a large grid. Feed the plant vines in and out of the grid as they grow, and use twine to fasten the plant to the support as necessary. You can make tomato supports yourself out of all kinds of materials—to learn more, see Best Homemade Tomato Cages.
All of the plants in your garden will benefit from a thick layer of organic mulch material, including your tomatoes. Mulch retains water, suppresses weeds, and builds soil and feeds plants as it breaks down. You can use hay, straw, leaves, fresh grass clippings — or a combination of these.
These tips aren’t the be-all-end-all of tomato growing success (for instance, I haven’t gone into compost, which your tomatoes will love), but hopefully they’ll help you on your way to a great harvest. If you need a few more tips, including those on dealing with common tomato pests and diseases, see Growing Tomatoes. Good luck!
Check out these related Care2 posts to help you get the most out of your garden this season:
- Use Simple Trellises to Grow More Food
- In the Garden: How to Grow 5 Spring Basics
- 6 Tips for Starting Your Own Vegetable Seeds Indoors
Photo by Alli Langley