Soil: Tomatoes like a rich, well-draining soil with a slightly acid soil pH of about 6.0 - 6.5.
Getting Your Tomato Plants Started - Tomatoes require several months to mature and they are not at all frost tolerant. So unless you live in a frost-free area, tomatoes are generally started indoors, as seeds. If seed starting is not for you, you can find many varieties of tomato seedlings available at local nurseries in the spring. When buying seedlings, look for:
- Thick, straight stems.
- Deep green leaves. Avoid plants that have already started flowering or fruiting. They'll just be set back by transplant shock.
- No spots or signs of insects.
- A proven variety
- Disease resistance.
Whether you start your own or purchase seedlings, don’t be in a rush to plant them outdoors. Give the seedlings time to harden off before you put them in the ground. Once the ground has warmed and the night time temperatures are in the 50s F., it’s safe to plant your tomatoes in the garden. If you put them out too early, they will need a few weeks to recover from the shock, so you will not have gained any time. If you give in to impatience, be prepared to cover your plants, if frost is predicted.
Planting Tomatoes - Tomatoes are an unusual plant in that they can send out roots all along their stems. Since roots are a good thing, tomatoes are planted deeper than normal; all the way up to the top set of leaves. Don’t worry that you’ve dwarfed your plant or it’s going to take longer to mature. The extra roots will help the plant grow quickly. You can either dig a hole deep enough to bury the plant into or dig on long trench and bury the stem horizontally.
Staking Tomato Plants - Tomatoes are actually vines. They cannot support themselves enough to grow upright, especially when laden down with fruits. You could allow your tomato plants to sprawl on the ground, but they will take up a good deal of space and will be prone to more insect and disease problems. Unless you are growing your tomatoes in hanging baskets, it’s a good idea to stake them. Don’t skimp on the stakes. Tomato plants get tall and heavy. And stake at the same time you plant, to avoid stabbing the roots later on.
MaintenanceWatering - The most important maintenance for tomatoes is to make sure they get steady water throughout the growing season. Lack of water can cause blossom drop. Drench and drought will cause cracking. It’s hard to control water during a rainy season, but at least try to avoid drench and drought.
Pruning - Whether or not to prune your tomato plants is a matter for debate. Determinate tomatoes require no pruning, but indeterminate tomato plants send out suckers that take nutrients from the fruits. If you have only a few tomato plants, it is worth taking the time to thin out the suckers while they are small.
Feeding - It’s best to start your tomato plants in a rich soil, with plenty of compost. If your soil is on the poor side, you can also add some fertilizer at planting time. Don’t over do it or the roots may burn. Some supplemental fertilizing can be done mid-season. Side dressing with composted manure is sufficient, but you can use any plant food labeled for use on vegetables. There are some good, slow release organic fertilizers that can be worked into the soil at the beginning of the season. There are also fertilizers labeled specially for tomatoes, but any vegetable food is fine. Just make sure it’s not too high in nitrogen, or you’ll get a lot of leaves and few fruits.
While blossom end rot is often blamed on a lack of calcium, don’t be too quick to add calcium or lime to your soil. New studies are showing that it’s not a calcium deficiency in the soil that is the problem. It’s a lack of water to carry the calcium throughout the plant. Always test your soil before adding lime.
Pests & Problems:There are no shortage of problems ready to beset your prized tomatoes. Different areas are prone to different diseases and pests.
Tomato Diseases - To avoid problems, start by choosing varieties that have been bred to be resistant to the disease common to your area. Most seed and many seedlings are labeled with the variety’s resistance in code:
- V = verticillium wilt.
- F = fusarium wilt. (A double FF, means it is resistant to both types of fusarium.)
- N = nematode.
- T = tobacco mosaic.
- A = alternaria stem canker.
- S = stemphylium (gray leaf spot).
Besides these diseases, tomatoes are prune to a host of fugus and other disease problems, especially in damp weather.
Crop Rotation - Gardeners are often advised not to plant tomatoes in the same spot they as their cousins - peppers, eggplants and potoates - were grown last year. Since they are all susceptible to the same problems, crop rotation does help, But in small backyard vegetable gardens, it is not always practical. Do the best you can. If you have a bad fungus disease with this year’s crop, get all the diseased plants and debris out of your garden in the fall and move your tomatoes as far away as you can.
Insects - Pests that love tomatoes include: tomato hornworm, tomato fruit worm, tomato bud worm, aphids and just about every 4-legged creature. Monitoring for pests and catching them early is the best defense. The larger worms can be hand removed. You’ll need some type of fence or barrier to keep the critters out
Getting Green Tomatoes to Ripen - Finally, here are some tips for getting those last green tomatoes of the season to ripen, before it’s too late.