You Can Grow the Most Insanely Tasty Tomatoes Ever this Summer!
Is there anything better than a juicy, sweet tomato fresh from the garden? Nope, pretty sure there isn’t.
I’ve been growing heirloom tomatoes for several years now. Although they can be a bit finicky, the payoff is worth it, and I’m going to help you do the right things so you have a successful harvest this year.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Welcome to Week Nine of Crop of the Week. If you’ve missed the other posts in the series, you can find them here: Peas, Beets, Brassicas, Potatoes, Salad Crops, Raspberries, Beans, Cucurbits. And don’t forget, as an email subscriber, you get a FREE cheat sheet summarizing each blog post that you can print and keep handy to help you grow your crops all summer! If you’re not a subscriber yet, you can sign up here.
Tomatoes are best started indoors in all but the warmest of climates because they take a bit of time to get started growing.
Get them going between 8 and 10 weeks before your last frost date. Plant the seeds 1/4″ deep and be patient, germination can take 2 weeks or better in typical indoor temps that time of year.
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You can use a heat mat under your tomatoes to try to speed germination if you’d like, it certainly won’t hurt, although I usually have other things that need the supplemental heat more, so I don’t bother.
If you need a heat mat, you can find one here. I would highly recommend a thermostat as well, so you have more control over your soil temperature. The one I linked to is a little more expensive than some of the others, but I’ve been using it myself and have been very pleased with it, so I’m comfortable recommending it.
Once tomato seedlings start growing, they really GROW! You’ll find that they’ll get large quite quickly. You may even need to repot them once or twice before planting outside. Just be gentle and try not to damage any roots and you’ll be fine.
NOTE: Your seedlings may start looking pretty leggy before you can get them outside. Don’t stress about it. I’ll be giving you some tips at planting time that will make it a nonissue.
You should also plan to feed your seedlings with a weak compost tea or some fish emulsion about once every 2 weeks while they’re still in the house. If you’d like my recommendation for fertilizer, check out my Organic Fertilizer post here.
Be sure to harden off your seedlings outside for a week or two before planting to acclimate them to the outside temperatures and stronger light. I’m hoping to start doing that soon, but it’s been so cool and rainy this spring that I haven’t been able to yet.
Pre-Planting and Garden Prep
Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so be sure to add lots of compost to the soil where you’ll be planting them.
Of course, as with other veggies, full sun is a requirement. Also be sure you have plenty of room for your plants, they get BIG!
NOTE: Although you can grow tomatoes in containers, I haven’t had a lot of luck with heirlooms in pots. If you’re going to give it a try, be sure your soil is very rich and you have the biggest container you can get.
You might also want to consider a smaller type of tomato, such as Super Sweet 100 or Brad’s Atomic Grape. The Super Sweet 100 plants do get large, but they’re not as picky as some and I think they’d do well in a container.
I’m not sure about the Brad’s Atomic Grape as I haven’t grown them in the past (this is my first year with them), but grape and cherry tomatoes tend to be less picky and do better in containers than the larger tomato varieties like Brandywines.
There are Actually Two Types of Tomatoes
Did you know there are really only two types of tomatoes? Yup, that’s right. There are determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. Obviously, there are almost infinite varieties, but they’re either one or the other.
Determinate types are those that grow only one to three feet tall. Once the flowers form, the vines stop growing. This gives you a very concentrated harvest over about 2 weeks, so determinate types are ideal for canning and freezing.
Indeterminate types will get very large, some as long as 20 feet! The only time I’ve ever seen a tomato plant that big was in a commercial greenhouse where they strung lines from the ceiling down to the floor and allowed the plants to scramble up the lines. They were impressive!
The indeterminate types will continue to produce fruit until they’re stopped by disease or frost.
I like to plant a mixture of both determinate and indeterminate types so I have some for preserving and some for eating.
Planting in the Garden
Tomatoes are incredibly frost-sensitive, so be very sure you’re past your last frost date before putting them in the garden. If a late frost should threaten, you MUST cover your tomatoes or you’ll lose them.
When you plant, dig the hole a bit bigger than you need for the roots. To the bottom of the hole, add some compost mixed with bonemeal. You should also add a teaspoon of Epsom salts to the hole.
NOTE: You may have heard you should add a Tums tablet to your planting hole as well to give your tomatoes extra calcium. This isn’t effective. If you’d like the full explanation, you can find it here. I’ll explain in a bit my strategy for calcium addition to the garden.
Here’s the thing: I’m really (REALLY!) bad at listening to directions regarding plant spacing in the garden. I always put my plants too close together and it doesn’t usually matter. With tomatoes, it matters. Trust me, it matters.
You should plan to put your plants about 2 feet apart, and your rows (if you plant in rows) should be 6 feet apart. I ignored these directions 2 years ago, to my detriment. I ended up crawling under my tomato plants to get the tomatoes because they basically grew into one giant plant.
Don’t follow my lead, give your plants room!
I also got lucky in that growing tomatoes that close together would tend to contribute to disease problems. I think the only reason I didn’t have a problem that year was that it was, quite literally, a perfect summer. We got rain just about exactly when we needed it, but the other days were sunny and dry. We had very little humidity, it was just an all-around perfect summer.
Remember how I said it wouldn’t matter much if your seedlings were leggy when you planted them? Here’s why:
You’re going to plant your seedlings much deeper than they were planted in the pots. I bury mine about halfway up the stem (remove any leaves that will be buried). Tomatoes can develop roots all along their stems, so doing this gives your tomato the potential for a rockin‘ root system that’ll give you lots and lots of yummy tomatoes later in the season.
Some people suggest burying the stems horizontally. I did try that one year, but didn’t really notice a difference between that and just burying the stems as I would normally plant, other than that it was more difficult. You can try it if you’d like, it certainly won’t hurt anything.
I would highly suggest giving your plants some form of support in the garden as well, whether in the form of cages or frames, something to keep the majority of the plant and fruits off the ground. These cages are really nice sturdy ones.
Calcium Needs and your Tomatoes
Tomatoes need calcium. A calcium deficiency is one of the contributors to blossom end rot. But here’s the thing: Most soils are NOT deficient in calcium. The problem becomes the ability of the plant to use the calcium available to it. Tomato plants are most able to utilize the calcium already present in the soil when they’re neither too wet nor too dry, which is why regular watering is crucial.
That said, I had a VERY well-respected lecturer and soil scientist at UCONN (who also happened to be one of my favorite professors!) give me a suggestion I’ve used to good effect: He suggested applying a calcium source (either gypsum or Tomato-Tone) to my plants at the time of planting in the garden, and again just as they began to set fruit. The year I ended up with 315 lbs of tomatoes was the year I followed these instructions to the letter.
So, does it work? Well, 315 lbs of tomatoes later, I’d say yes.
A word of caution: Tomato-Tone STINKS! I don’t know what’s in it, but it reeks! Just so you know.
P.S. ~ You can also use calcium foliar sprays at the rate of 4 Tbsp per gallon 3 times a week if you notice a deficiency. However, if you add the Tomato-Tone as I suggested and water regularly, you probably aren’t going to have to.
Care in the Garden
Tomatoes are fairly care-free, as long as you remember to water them regularly. As with most other plants, at least an inch of water a week is ideal, and you want to water from underneath, wet leaves just encourage fungal disease.
They also appreciate regular feedings with comfrey tea (see my post here with a link to a recipe for it), and a couple of side-dressings during the season with compost are also helpful.
Good Garden Companions for Tomatoes
Marigolds, sunflowers, tansy, cosmos, shasta daisies, garlic, parsley, and basil are said to be beneficial to tomatoes, and you can plant dill close to your tomato plants as a trap crop for tomato hornworms.
So, speaking of tomato hornworms: You may already know what they are. If not, you can find a picture here. They’re pretty impressive, to say the least!
The best and easiest way to get rid of a hornworm is to hand pick it and destroy it because you’re unlikely to find very many in your garden.
However, if you happen to notice that the hornworm has what looks like little white grains of rice on its back, DON’T dispose of it! It’s going to die anyway because the “rice” is actually the eggs of a beneficial wasp that will hatch and prey on the worm.
The only hornworms I’ve EVER seen in my garden have had the “rice” on them, because I have tons and tons of native flowers, herbs and other plants all over my yard that attract the good guys. Want to know more about some of those good guys? You can read my Beneficial Predatory Insect posts here.
If you’d like a few ideas of what you can plant to help attract beneficials, check out my post here.
Problems with your Tomatoes
If you don’t know what cat-facing is, you can have a look here. I’ve had this happen here and there through the years, but never to a great extent. No one seems to know exactly what causes it, but it appears that temperatures below 60F when the plants are still young may be one cause.
This is another VERY GOOD reason not to rush planting your tomatoes out in the spring.
Splitting of the Fruit
This one is difficult to deal with. Often, you’ll notice splitting of ripe fruit right after a very heavy rain. What happens is that the tomato fruits pull in all that fluid and the skin ends up splitting.
Really, the only way to deal with this is to pick any ripe tomatoes just before a predicted heavy rain. Again, be sure that if you’re the one providing the “rain” in the form of irrigation, you do so regularly. Don’t allow your plants to dry out and then give them huge amounts of water, try to be consistent.
Because tomatoes and potatoes are closely related, I’m going to refer you back to my Growing Organic Potatoes post for information on diseases that may afflict your tomatoes. As with most crops, practicing good garden sanitation, watering from underneath, allowing for adequate air flow, and adequate crop rotation go a long way towards preventing disease.
NOTE: Tomatoes should NOT be grown on land that has grown any other nightshade (peppers, potatoes, eggplants) for at least the last 4 years. Additionally, DON’T compost your tomato plants at the end of the season. Destroy or burn them instead.
The nice thing with tomatoes is that they rarely cross-pollinate, so even a 15 foot isolation between varieties will almost guarantee no crossing. You can even try saving seeds from plants that are closer together, it’s rare for them to cross at all.
If you’d like to save seed from your tomatoes, there’s an awesome tutorial in the Heirloom Life Gardener book, which I’ve paraphrased below. It’s very easy.
To save seeds:
- Cut your tomato and crush the “innards” into a jar.
- Let it ferment for 3 days until mold forms on the top (it’s gonna be stinky!!)
- Rinse and drain the pulp, the seeds will sink.
- Continue to rinse until the seeds are clean.
- Spread the seeds out to dry for several days, breaking up any clumpy seeds after a couple of days.
- It doesn’t hurt to leave the seeds a few extra days, you want to make sure they’re VERY dry before storing so they don’t mold.
- That’s it! Then just store them in a cool, dry place like you would any other seeds.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post and that it’s been helpful for you.
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