Growing Tomatoes

Growing tomatoes brings real pleasure to a vegetable gardener. This page offers tips on soil prep, starting from seeds, building cages, pruning, watering, and dealing with tomato-loving pests.

Harvesting a bumper crop of these sweet-tart fruits is the definition of abundance for us. If you follow a few guidelines, growing tomatoes is surprisingly easy!

Types of Tomatoes

Tomatoes come in two basic types: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes have fruits that mature over a short time frame, so you have your crop “all at once”. Determinate tomatoes can be planted closer together than indeterminate ones and don’t require staking or pruning.

If you want tomatoes all season long, choose an indeterminate type. These plants must be managed more deliberately by pruning and staking or caging. The tomato cages sold at most garden centers are too small and light for our tomatoes, so we build a sturdy fence or box for each plant and tie them up to it.

Managing your tomato plants in this way will keep them from taking over the whole garden, and will keep the fruits from rotting on the ground or getting lost in the midst of the foliage.

Soil Preparation

All crops in our vegetable garden depend for their success on good soil preparation. We don’t rely on chemical fertilizers but instead use plenty of compost, which we have available thanks to the chickens, horses, and goats our neighbors raise.

Compost provides both organic matter and nutrients to the soil organisms and the plants. If you use plenty of it, don’t be surprised to find earthworms in your garden beds! Our sandy desert soil supports a healthy population of worms after several years of compost application.

It’s a delight to know we have these garden helpers with us. Their activities improve the texture of the soil and its ability to absorb water.

Growing From Seed

Tomatoes require warm temperatures to thrive and set fruits. They can’t tolerate any frost, so unless you have a long growing season you’ll want to set out tomato plants that have been started indoors, either by you or by your local garden center.

Wait until the nighttime low temperature is staying above 45 degrees, and cover your young plants with row cover if cold nights threaten. This will give you a head start on the season compared to planting seeds directly in the garden.

Another advantage to starting your own is that you can choose from dozens of different varieties and match your crop to your preferences and the local conditions. Most gardening experts we consult advise planting seeds in small containers about six weeks before your last average frost date. Our cold frame protects the young seedlings from cool temps while allowing them plenty of sunshine.

Seed catalogues will also have advice about optimal temperature and germination practices for growing tomatoes.

When the young plants are about four inches tall and conditions in the garden are warm enough, you can plant them out; give each plant at least eight square feet of growing space and provide a sturdy support if your plants are indeterminate.

Watering and Pruning

Growing tomatoes requires that you give the plants a steady supply of moisture. The best way to do this is by drip irrigation at ground level. Wetting the foliage of tomatoes is a no-no because they are vulnerable to several diseases which are spread from the soil to the leaves. Water splashing up onto the leaves increases the likelihood of spreading these diseases.

Indeterminate tomatoes need to be pruned to help manage the size of the plants and to maximize fruit production. To prune a tomato plant, remove the shoots that appear at the base of the large leaves along the main stem of the plant. They can be easily snapped off when they’re small. This pruning helps the plant devote its energy to fruit production rather than overdevelopment of foliage.

If you live in a hot sunny climate as we do, you may want to leave some of the side shoots so the fruit is protected from sunscald. Use your judgment about this. You’ll acquire lots of knowledge about your own garden just by being in it and observing your plants and soil.

Tomato Pests

The insects and diseases that threaten your efforts at growing tomatoes will be unique to your part of the world, but can include horn worms, viruses and bacterial infections, leaf hoppers, and aphids.

Most pests can be controlled by cleaning up plant refuse at the end of each season, by using row covers to exclude flying pests, and by visual inspection and hand removal. Our neighbor’s chickens love to eat tomato horn worms!

Crop rotation is another practice that helps keep your tomato crop healthy. Just plant the tomatoes in a different part of the garden each year so that tomatoes don’t get planted in the same place two years in a row.

Dealing With the Extras

When our tomato plants are happy they produce far more tomatoes than we can eat during the season, even though we eagerly eat them at nearly every meal in summer. Freezing them lets us use the extras in pasta sauce and soups year-round. See our page about freezing tomatoes for how to do this.

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