Even in the depths of winter, summer seems almost tangible when your mind drifts to perfectly sun-ripened tomatoes. Growing tomatoes is a must for any urban gardener, whether you prefer sweet cherries, juicy beefsteaks or a little of both. Although, you’ll have to wait until summer temperatures reach their warmest to become fully submerged in the growing process, there are things you can do year-round to help your tomatoes thrive. Put the following tips into action and growing tomatoes for slicing, canning and summer salads will be easy.
1. Choose Sun
Tomatoes love a sunny location, so choose an area that allows full exposure and is large enough for an extra planting about three weeks from the first. Allow for ample space—about 24 inches between plants and rows three feet apart—to aid in air circulation.
2. Test Your Soil
Tomatoes enjoy a mid-range soil pH of around 7. Simple-to-use soil sampling kits are available from your local cooperative extension office. The results will tell you if your garden spot is acidic or alkaline. Incorporating garden lime is the fastest way to increase soil pH, while amending with finished compost or peat moss will lower it.
3. Know Your Zone
Be aware of the weather patterns typical for your USDA plant hardiness zone. Planting before the last frost has passed could mean damage or even death to tender seedlings unless you’re prepared to protect them.
4. Choose Varieties Wisely
An array of tomatoes are cultivated every year, each adapted for use and certain properties, such as heat resistance. Your local cooperative extension office can direct you to varieties that thrive in your region and for your preferred use. For example, large beefsteak varieties are better for slicing, while paste types are better for sauce. Be aware that heirloom varieties, while tasty and great for seed-saving, are less disease resistant and can be harder to grow.
When planting, work in a tomato-specific fertilizer that includes calcium or encourages calcium uptake to prevent blossom end rot. Follow up with a water-soluble fertilizer once a week for the first three weeks and then every two or three weeks after the blooms are set. Fertilization is especially important for today’s hybrids, which need plenty of nutrition.
6. Plant Correctly
Plant seedlings up to the first leaves on the stalk. New roots will develop on the stem to give your young plants extra support.
7. Water Regularly
Monitor soil moisture and water two or three times a week during long, hot summer spells. Always water the soil at the base of the plant, avoiding contact with the leaves; a soaker hose works well. Reduce watering when days are overcast or rain has been abundant.
A generous layer of mulch helps retain soil moisture and keep weeds at bay.
9. Monitor for Pests and Disease
Tomatoes are vulnerable to all types of fungi, bacteria and viruses. A good rule of thumb is to check often for early signs of trouble. If you can identify the problem early, you can intervene before any real damage is done. The same is true for insects, such as stinkbugs and Japanese beetles. Planting marigolds as a companion plant may help to repel insect pests.
10. Provide Support
All tomatoes benefit from support—even for determinate varieties. Trellising prevents sprawling, maximizes your growing space and reduces splintering. Simple stakes or tomato cages are all you need for a small garden. A technique called the Florida weave works well for longer rows. Stake or cage plants while they’re still young and tie with commercial tomato ties or strips of pantyhose. Continue to monitor growth, tying plants as they grow.
11. Pinch Back Suckers
Some gardeners swear by pruning tomato suckers, those side shoots that grow at the base of stems, while others like to leave them. Consider leaving two or three lower suckers to increase your yield and pinch the higher suckers to avoid breakage from top-heavy plants.
12. Remove Spent Plants
Here’s the step most people skip: After the last frost, pull up spent plants by the roots, and gather spent tomatoes, old mulch and weeds. Burn or discard the debris. Burning, not composting, will destroy the bacteria and fungus that could impact next year’s crop. Turning the soil in your tomato bed after spent plants are removed will help kill pest larvae.