Getting the Most from Each Tomato Plant

Tomatoes are America's favorite home garden vegetable. And no wonder! Nothing beats the taste of a ripe homegrown tomato picked fresh from the garden. Follow these tips and you'll harvest more and better tomatoes from each of your plants.

1. Select the best spot for planting. Plant your tomatoes where they will get the most sun and good air circulation. They'll do best with at least 10 hours of direct sun in the summer. You can plant them in the ground or in containers.

2. Plant in the best soil possible. If you're planting in the ground, work in a good amount of compost to give the plants rich, healthy soil with good drainage. If planting in containers, use the highest quality potting mix you can obtain, preferably one formulated for vegetables. While some people believe they can get by planting tomatoes in the same soil every year, it is much safer to rotate your crops, in both garden beds and container gardens. I always start with fresh soil for my container grown tomatoes. I use last year's soil for flower containers or mix it into the ground where I won't be growing tomatoes for a couple of years. If planting in the ground I prefer to plant tomatoes and their relatives (peppers, eggplant, and potatoes) in an area that has not had any of these plants for at least three years. It cuts down the chance that a soil-borne pest or disease is going to take over my crop.

3. Plant deep. Plant each tomato transplant deep. Smaller plants should be planted with only two or three groups of leaves showing. Carefully break or snip off all lower leaves; then set the rest of the stem and the roots into the ground. On larger plants break off at least the bottom one or two sets of leaves and set the plant into the soil up to the base of the remaining leaves. New roots will form all along the buried stem and provide a sturdier plant that will produce a much better crop.

4. Water evenly. Tomatoes need a lot of water, but they don't like their feet either too wet or too dry. Blossom end rot is primarily the result of uneven watering. A drip irrigation system may be well worth the effort. As an alternative, you can poke a few tiny holes in a gallon milk jug and sink one into the ground near each plant. Then keep the jug filled with water so the plant can draw moisture as it needs it. If you water with a hose or watering can, make sure you put the water on the ground, not the leaves, to reduce the likelihood of disease problems. For the same reason, it is best to water in the morning and avoid afternoon and evening watering.

5. Use tall stakes or cages. Use at least 6 foot or taller stakes or cages, especially if you are growing indeterminate tomato varieties that continue to put on new growth all season long. If you train your tomatoes to two or three leader stems you can space them two to three feet apart. If you prefer the more prolific vines, you should stake them four to five feet apart. Place the stakes in the ground at transplanting time to avoid damaging emerging roots.

6. Harvest when tomatoes are ripe, but firm. Don't let your tomatoes get too ripe on the vine. Harvest them as soon as they have reached their full size and mature color, but are still firm. This will decrease the chance of fruit cracking. If they get too ripe, some varieties get mealy and lose some flavor.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.

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