Tomatoes are a staple for home gardens. They’re a relatively easy plant, but a few pieces of knowledge can multiply your yield several fold. I’m writing this article because my first year growing tomatoes was a huge disappointment. I had maybe 10 tomatoes total among my dozen plants. Just a few changes could have turned all of that around.
Determinate Versus Indeterminate
First things first: you need to know your tomato type. I’m not talking roma versus beefsteak. No, I’m talking about whether your plant is determinate or indeterminate. Your plant label or seed packet should have this information. Most, if not all, heirloom varieties are indeterminate.
This is basically asking whether your plant is engineered to grow to a specific size or not. A determinate plant is one that will grow for only a short while and then stop growing to focus entirely on producing fruit. Sounds good right? Determinate plants are certainly more hands off.
You’ll need this information when we talk about pruning and suckers below.
If you’re starting from seed, you want to start your seed starters indoors about 4 weeks prior to the last frost date. We’ve got a cheat sheet to make all this simpler for your garden veggies.
You will want to start hardening your tomato plants (slowly exposing to real sun) about the time the last frost occurs.
Finally, your starter plants, whether store bought or home grown, get planted about two weeks after first frost. Tomatoes don’t like the cold, so they shouldn’t stay outdoors until overnight temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees.
Best Lifestyle for your Plant
When you plant your tomatoes, you need to consider your variety’s spatial requirements. Some tomatoes are little bushes. Some are vines. Seriously though, most are vines.
I’m sure you’ll quickly discover that tomatoes are kind of a wimpy plant. The leaves don’t like to be wet. They don’t want too much sun or not enough sun. Tomatoes have a tight range between two little water and too much. And, they require almost constant upkeep. If you’re still excited to grow tomatoes after that ringing endorsement, you’re definitely my audience.
For most tomato plants, you’re going to want something to tie them to or otherwise support them. You can get those circular cages because they work fine for smaller tomato varieties. What you want to avoid is tomato leaves touching the ground. When the leaves stay wet for too long, they rot and spread disease into the whole plant. For that reason, you support the plant itself and cut off any leaves you can’t get off the ground.
Now, some determinate varieties are cute little bushes. Don’t follow my above instructions for those because you should follow the instructions they come with. They’re unique because they’re engineered for specific purposes.
Because tomato plants vary pretty significantly between types, this is a generalization to get you started.
|Soil Depth||12 Inches or more|
|Climbing Height||5-10 Feet|
|Horizonal Space||1 Foot radius or more|
Can they be grown in planters? Absolutely. Many of my tomatoes each year are in well-drained planters.
As a general rule of green thumb, you don’t prune determinate tomatoes unless the instructions they come with tell you to. They’re engineered to grow exactly how much they’re supposed to and then stop. If you prune them, you’re limiting their potential.
With indeterminate tomato plants, you absolutely need to prune them. This was my main problem my first year growing tomatoes. I had a German Johnson variety that loves to grow. At one point it was 8 feet tall and had over a dozen of vines coming out of the one plant. In that sense, it was very successful. However, it didn’t give me any fruit. Once I pruned it heavily, it gave me a couple of tomatoes, but it was too late at that point.
If a plant is growing more branches and more leaves, it is not putting all its energy towards producing fruit. Therefore, you have two main types of pruning you should do:
- Suckers. In a tomato plant, you have the main vine, leaf branches, and suckers. Whereas the leaf branches grow at a 90 degree angle out of the vine, the suckers grow between the vine and the leaf branch at around a 45 degree angle. Suckers are your plant’s attempt at starting another vine. An entirely additional vine will suck a lot of energy out of your plant, so you want to remove those. You should never have more than a couple of vines out of the same plant. Otherwise, you’ll never have fruit.
- Crowding. The other pruning is to limit crowding. If you have too many leaves in a tight space, not all your leaves can get dry after a rainfall or a dew. Therefore, you want to thin out the leaves regularly to give space to the other ones. The worst thing to happen to your plant is disease, so cut these down for the sake of your plant.
For best results, every 2-6 weeks, you should be fertilizing your tomatoes. What this means depends on you. There are liquid, solid, and compost fertilizers out there. It all depends on your garden plan.
No matter what type you use, follow the instructions that comes with it. Each type is concentrated in different ways, so if done wrong you can over or under-fertilize your plants.
You should also be sure you’re using the right fertilizer at the right time. Certain ones encourage leaf growth and others encourage fruit. Nitrogen is great for producing leaves whereas you’re going to need a lot of potassium and phosphorus once it is time to produce fruit.
Also, keep in mind what your plant is growing next to. I plant a lot of my tomatoes near beans which produce excess nitrogen and feed that to my tomatoes. Therefore, I don’t need to fertilize those particular plants with any extra nitrogen.
Calcium is another supplemental fertilizer you may (probably will) need. In the most non-scientific way possible, calcium helps prevent blossom end rot and flowers falling off before producing fruit. You get stronger fruit with calcium. You can add calcium through liquid or powder fertilizer, egg shells crushed up really finely, or tums. Hilariously, we used the tums method last year and it worked great. I’ve heard if you have dogs, the egg shelf and tums methods don’t work too well because the dogs steal them.
Suckers aren’t always bad. In fact, if you’re buying from a store, look for plants with suckers on them. That way you’ll get multiple plants for the price of one.
The thing about tomatoes is that if any part of the vine touches dirt, it tries to form roots. You can use this fact to your advantage by taking off a sucker that is 4-12 inches long, plucking off the bottom leaves, and sticking it in dirt. If you water it pretty regularly for the first week or so, you’ll get a second tomato plant out of that sucker. It is a clone of the first plant and will produce the same type of fruit as the original.
For this reason, I started a few cherry tomato plants in my garage in November. They’ve produced about 10 new cherry tomato plants that are ready to be planted now that the weather outside is warmer. Theoretically you can keep this going as long as you can keep tomato plants alive. Endless tomato plants without the hassle of seeds!
Obviously this method is only useful early in the season. By late summer you won’t have enough time to grow a full plant and have it produce fruit.
This method also only works on indeterminate plants.
Tomatoes are weirdly sensitive plants, so they can either reap the benefits of neighboring plants or suffer the consequences. The first thing you think about is space above and below the ground that each plant requires. Most tomatoes are vines, so you shouldn’t plant them with other vines. If you did, they’d end up strangling each other.
There’s nothing special about tomato roots, so just don’t plant them next to something that will try to strangle their roots.
On the surface, vining tomatoes don’t have anything touching the dirt besides its main vine. Therefore, you can easily plant lower plants that don’t suck up all the nutrients.
There are actually many different beneficial companion plants. Here’s a quick list.
|Asparagus||Basil (repels pests)*|
|Beans (Adds Nitrogen)*||Carrots*|
|Celery*||Chives & Onions|
|Collards & Lettuces||Garlic|
The ones with stars next to them are the ones I have planted. I’ve also seen people say cucumbers are a companion plant, but in my setup, the two would compete for vertical space. They also have mint listed, but because mint spreads so quickly, I don’t like planting mint with anything.
Blooms Falling Off
Another problem I faced during my first year of trying to grow tomatoes was that the blooms would bend 90 degrees and fall off. This was obviously not my favorite.
I found out this was due to a calcium deficiency. I added tums to the soil and the problem went away. Now, I use a liquid calcium additive instead of tums. I start adding the liquid calcium to the soil from the start so I can avoid the flowers falling off altogether.
Leaves are Withered
If your leaves are withered, there’s something wrong. Most commonly, the plant is thirsty or too hot. If you’ve recently watered it, try putting up a sunshade. I know they say tomatoes want 6-10 hours of full sun each day, but I’ve found that doesn’t mean our full sun. Having a 30% sunshade fabric protecting your plants in mid to late afternoon during the hottest days helps keep them happy.
If it is neither of those things, look to see if any part of the plant is pinched off or looks diseased. If diseased, you want to take care of that immediately before it spreads to more of the plant or other plants.
Your leaves will also curl some once your plant produces fruit. This is normal because fruit production uses a ton of water and energy.
When to Water Tomatoes
They say to water your tomatoes once every two days or so and give the soil a good soaking. If you can, just pay attention to your plants and water them when they look thirsty. When the leaves start to curl after a dry day, that’s your cue. In the hot parts of North Carolina’s summer, I’ve found myself watering daily, especially for my tomatoes in planters.
It is best to water your plants in the morning so their leaves can dry out throughout the day instead of sitting wet all night long.
Finally, you should water them at their base. Try to avoid getting their leaves wet as much as possible. This will help prevent disease.
Preventing Water Loss
Your planter beds should have some form of mulch on them to keep moisture in. I prefer pine straw mulch because woodchip mulch can take some nitrogen out of the soil as it decomposes. It also takes pine straw a very long time to decompose. Fortunately, I also have an endless supply of it since my backyard is mostly pine trees.
Tomatoes are wonderful feeding grounds for some nasty buggers. Aphids, tomato horn worms, caterpillars, slugs, snails, whiteflies, cutworms, and flea beetles are all attracted to tomato plants. They eat them and they lay eggs in them.
Any discoloration or dead sections of your plants are a sign that you have a pest infestation.
If you have ants, you likely have aphids. Ants eat aphid waste, so they’re the indicator for you.
For most pests that you can easily see, you should use an insecticidal soap and/or neem oil to kill off the pests, eggs, and larvae. For caterpillars and some of the larger pests, the soap won’t work well. You have to actually examine your plants and pull the bugs off with tweezers. Dispose of the bugs in your preferred method and move on. It is best to catch them early, so early in the planting season, you should make it a regular chore to check over your plants for pests before they lay eggs.
A preventative treatment of neem oil goes a long way as well.
Interestingly enough, I learned at Disney World that ladybugs are a natural predator for aphids. If you can encourage them to hang around your tomatoes, you’ll have fewer problems with aphids.