by Gary Pilarchik (The Rusted Garden)
Tomato Tip One: Two Types of Tomatoes
Determinate and Indeterminate:
There are two types of tomato plants. A tomato plant is either a determinate plant or indeterminate plant. A determinate tomato grows to a set height and stops growing. The fruits mature all at once or relatively close in time and the plant dies shortly after the final fruits mature. This determinate type of tomato is great for getting the first round of tomatoes from your garden (as they mature quickly) and they do well in containers. You might be able to plant two rounds of determinate tomatoes in your gardening zone. You can often plant them in May and again in July.
The indeterminate tomato continues to grow and grow until frost. It sets fruit throughout the season. Only frost or disease will stop an indeterminate tomato from producing. Think of it this way, a determinate tomato grows to a predetermined size. Indeterminate tomatoes often need to be staked and pruned. Determinate tomatoes need little to no pruning.
Tomato Tip Two: Plant Them Deep
It's a Vine:
A tomato is a vine. When you plant them, you want to plant them deep in the ground. When you buy a tomato transplant they should be 6 to 10 inches tall (or so). You should plant the tomato to at least a third or half of its height. If the tomato is 12 inches tall then plant 4-6 inches of the plant stem below ground. Why? Because a tomato is a vine that will set roots from any part of the stem, if the stem is below the ground or touching the soil. A strong deep root system leads to a stronger plant.
Tomato Tip Three: Planting a Container?
The determinate tomato grows to a set height. This makes them the best bet to survive in a pot or container. I recommend buying a very large container (5 gallons at least). A smaller container can work, but you really have to keep an eye on watering. If you let the plant dry out, it really messes up the fruit. The fruit will crack. If you over water and then let it dry out and repeat, you will probably see your tomatoes rot from the bottom. This is known as blossom end rot. It is a calcium deficiency and occurs when the roots aren't watered properly and therefore can't absorb nutrients properly. An indeterminate tomato may just grow too large for containers. I grow indeterminates in containers and found you have to water them daily and feed them well, every 10-14 days or problems develop.
Tomato Tip Four: Prune Your Plant
They Can't Fair Without Air:
Indeterminate (determinates too but they naturally die off) tomatoes needs to have air circulating through and around the plant. Poor air circulation leads to disease. As your tomato grows, you should pinch off the leaves nearest to the ground. I try and keep 12 inches between the ground and the the first leaves (sometimes more). Now you can't do this all at once but as the plant grows taller, you should prune the bottom leaves to about 12 inches from the ground, slowly over time. This will allow air to circulate below the plant and make it harder for disease/spores to splash up on the plant. You will also need to prune suckers/branches from the upper part of the plant. That sometimes means taking off large pieces of your plant. Painful to do but necessary. Air also needs to circulate through the plant. Air circulation helps keep humid air from sitting around the plant and it helps to dry the plant leaves after watering or a good rain. In the end it really helps prevent diseases.
Tomato Tip Five: Keep Them Off the Ground
Tomatoes are vines. If you let them sprawl on the ground you will see them root from the vine that touches the ground. You will see additional vines growing all over the place and end up with a mess. Sure you will get tomatoes (maybe a lot) but you will also increase the chances of your tomatoes getting diseases like blights. A 6-foot stake is the best way to train your tomatoes to grow upwards and stay off the ground. It helps you manage the plant's size and prevent diseases.
Tomato Tip Six: Fertilizing
Feeding Your Friends:
You know what happens if you over fertilize a tomato? You get a very happy large green plant with less fruit. I fertilize when the plant is planted and when the plant has been growing about 6-8 weeks or when it sets its first fruit with a side dress (scattering fertilizer on soil). This is late June/early July in my area for indeterminate varieties and early June for determinate varieties. I will side dress them again in August as needed. They also get a drink of liquid fertilizer in June, July and August. I might use a synthetic product like Miracle Gro or fish emulsion which is more organic. Your choice.
It isn't etched in stone but that is how I do it. A table spoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer (in the past) or an organic mix around 5-5-5 (more often now-a-days) deep in the hole and one higher in the hole when I plant. I typically give them a half of gallon to gallon sprinkle of a liquid fertilizer in June to keep them happy. In June/July I do a side dressing which is tossing some fertilizer on the ground about 6 to 8 inches from the stem. I drop a handful. I also give them a big drink of liquid fertilizer. After that, fertilizing isn't done unless the are growing really strong in August.
If you are container gardening then I recommend feeding them every 10-14 days with Miracle Gro or the organic like when they are mid size and until they are done producing.
Tomato Tip Seven: Early Doesn't Mean Sooner
Warm Weather Plants:
Tomatoes are warm weather plants. They need 50 degree nights and 70 degree days to really start growing. But more importantly the soil temperature needs to be 50 degreesish. You don't need to put plants in early before the ground temperatures are ready.
Putting a tomato out April 10th doesn't mean it will be bigger than a plant you put on May 1st come the middle of May. Sure, initially it might look bigger but once the heat hits, tomatoes grow. If it is colder in April your plant is just going to sit there in shiver mode and not really grow. The plant you plant May 1st isn't really at a disadvantage. The bottom line is they will catch up to each other and you don't get fruit any sooner. So wait for the right temperature to plant. But once the temperatures comes, the first one to get them in the ground wins.
Tomato Tip Eight: Water Evenly
Mulch Much Mulch:
Two thing can happen with poor watering habits. If your plant gets stressed from too little water and then you soak it, it will develop cracked fruit. If you continually let the ground dry and then over water the plant and let it dry and over water, you'll increase the chances of blossom end rot. Basically, you mess the root system up and the plant can get a calcium deficiency and you end up with blossom end rot.
Mulch is your best friend. I use grass clippings. I put down two inches of grass clippings and let it dry out. The next week I put down two more inches and let the clipping dry up and turn brown. I continue this throughout the summer. It is important to let grass clipping dry out before adding more. If you don't, you run the risk of developing smelly grass clippings which creates a bad smelling garden. Water regularly in the morning. I tend to water my plant from the bottom, with a hose, as to not soak the tomato plant leaves or splash mud up. I am always battling blights and mildew. If that isn't a problem in your area, a sprinkler is fine.
Tomato Tip Nine: Planting Location
Shading Other Plants:
Tomatoes get quite large. You want to make sure you plant them in the garden so they don't grow up to shade out other plants. If you reach out both arms to the side and pretend the length of your arms is your garden, you can figure out where to plant the tomatoes. If the sun is mostly where your left hand is then you need to plant the tomatoes way down by your right hand. Get it? Sun mostly to the left of the garden will cause or cast shade to the right side of the plants. Sun to the right of the garden will cause or cast shade to the left side of plants. When in doubt go stand in your garden plot around 2 pm. Pretend your a tomato plant and see which way your shadow falls. I use raised beds and plant my tomatoes, so the shade they produce mostly falls outside the box.
Tomato Tip Ten: What the Tomato is VFF or VFTA?
Don't Worry About It:
I know that isn't a great answer but they stand for disease resistances. If you don't run into tomato diseases then it doesn't really matter. Unless of course they come up with a tomato that is resistant to early and late blight. So far no luck. Many us buy tomatoes from the garden shops and they usually stock the standard varieties that have these resistances. You will see it on the label. If you are buying seeds from catalogs the catalogs will tell you what the letters stand for. Fusarium and verticillum wilts. It is important to know what tomato diseases your State has. An internet search should help.
Tomato Tip Eleven: There Is Never Enough Room
Just One More Plant: (Bonus Tip)
If you love tomatoes then you'll agree there is just never enough room to plant all the tomatoes you want. Even if you expand your garden year after year, there seems to be a need for more space. There is always that variety you haven't tried but it's right there within your reach at your local nursery or in a seed catalog. You wonder if you could squeeze it in. You think you could possibly negotiate another garden bed from your wife. You ponder what you can trade her for a little more space. If you are like me - you buy it and worry about the space later. Remember, 2 plants is plenty of tomatoes for one adult. I can say it. I can write it, but I don't think I can come to terms with it. A family of four and a garden of forty plus plants last year... I know I can get in fifty this year. Enjoy!
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