Tomatoes are warm-weather vegetables and sun worshippers, they need at least 6 hours of sunlight daily.
There is so much information out there about tomatoes, I couldn't possibly write it all. I have compiled this overview to take us all back to basics, and hopefully inspire more of you to grow tomatoes at home!
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GROW A TOMATO?
This is one of our most common questions. The exact “days to harvest” depends on the cultivar and it can range from 60 days to more than 100 days.
In addition, tomatoes can not be started too early in the ground as they are a tender warm-season crop that can not bear frost. In most regions, the soil is not warm enough to plant tomatoes outdoors until late spring and early summer. If you want to start your tomatoes from seed, do so inside or over a heating pad. Once the soil temperature warms up to at least 60°, you can transplant your starts out into the ground or raised beds.
TYPES OF TOMATOES:
- Determinate tomatoes, better known as “bush” varieties grow 2 to 3 feet tall. These varieties tend to provide numerous ripe tomatoes at one time, do not put on much more growth after setting fruit. They are generally productive earlier than the vining varieties, and not in the latter part of the growing season. Determinate tomatoes do not require staking or caging. Once these plants have put out their fruit, they will die off. These plants are idea for containers and small spaces.
- Indeterminate tomatoes, better known as “vining” varieties produce the largest types of mid- to late-season slicing tomatoes all summer and until the first frost. Because indeterminates experience more leaf growth, their production tends to be spread more evenly throughout the season. Indeterminate tomatoes need staking. They are ideal in large gardeners. Most beefsteak and cherry tomatoes are indeterminate.
Select a site with full sun and, ideally, a space where tomatoes (and members of their family, especially eggplants, peppers, and potatoes) have not grown in the previous couple of years. Look up crop rotation tips!
Dig soil to about 1 foot deep and mix in aged manure and/or compost. Give it two weeks to break down before planting.
- Transplant your seedlings or nursery-grown plants after all danger of frost has passed and the soil is at least 60°F.
- When you plant tomatoes, plant a little deeper than they come in the pot, all the way up to the top few leaves! Tomatoes root along their stems so this trip helps them develop stronger roots.
With leggy transplants, dig a trench and lay the stem sideways, 3 to 4 inches deep, bending gently upward. Bury the stems up to the first set of true leaves. Roots will develop along the buried stem. If you plant this way, consider setting four tomato plants in compass-point positions (north, south, east, west). This formation enables you to fertilize and water the plants in the middle.
- Plant seedlings 2 to 3 feet apart. Crowded plants will not get sufficient sun and the fruit may not ripen.
- Place tomato stakes or cages in the soil at planting. Staking and caging keep developing fruit off the ground (to avoid disease and pests) and also help the plant to stay upright.
- When you transplant tomatoes, add a handful of organic tomato fertilizer or bone meal (a good source of phosphorus) to the planting hole.
- Do NOT apply high nitrogen fertilizers as that will promote luxurious foliage but can delay flowering and fruiting.
- Remember to allow enough space for the plants to spread out.
- Water well to reduce shock to the roots.
- Use a large pot or container with drainage holes in the bottom.
- Use loose, well-draining soil (e.g., at least 12 inches of a good “potting mix” with added organic material).
- Choose bush or dwarf varieties; many cherry tomatoes grow well in pots. Taller varieties may need to be staked.
- Plant only one tomato plant per pot.
- Keep soil moist. Containers will dry out more quickly than garden soil, so check daily and provide extra water during heat waves.
- Water in the early morning so that plants have sufficient moisture to make it through a hot day.
- Water generously the first few days that the tomato seedlings or transplants are in the ground.
- Then water with about 2 inches (about 1.2 gallons) per square foot per week during the growing season. Deep watering encourages a strong root system.
- Avoid overhead watering and afternoon watering. Water at the base/soil level of a plant to avoid splashing water on the leaves (which invites disease).
- Mulch 5 weeks after transplanting to retain moisture, keep soil from splashing the lower leaves, and control weeds. Apply 2 to 4 inches of organic mulch such as straw, hay, or bark chips.
- To help tomatoes through periods of drought, find some flat rocks and place one next to each plant. The rocks prevent water from evaporating from the soil.
- You should have already worked compost into the soil before planting, and added some bonemeal to the planting hole when transplanting.
- Side-dress plants, applying liquid seaweed or fish emulsion or an organic fertilizer every 2 weeks, starting when tomatoes are about 1 inch in diameter (some folks say “golf ball-size”). If you are using an organic granular formula such as Epson Tomato-Tone (4-7-10 or 3-4-6), pull mulch back a few inches and scratch 2 to 3 tablespoons fertilizer around the drip line of the plant. Water in, and replace mulch.
- Continue fertilizing tomatoes about every 3 to 4 weeks until frost.
- Note: Avoid fast-release fertilizers and avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers. As stated, too much nitrogen will result in lush foliage but few flowers and little or no fruit.
PRUNING & STAKING:
- If growing vining tomatoes, pinch off suckers (new, tiny stems and leaves between branches and the main stem). This aids air circulation and allows more sunlight into the middle of the plant.
- Gently tie the stems to stakes with twine, clips or soft string.
- As a plant grows, trim the lower leaves from the bottom 12 inches of the stem.
ISSUES WITH FLOWERS & FRUITING:
- If no flowers form, plants may not be getting enough sun or water.
- Flower drop-off could be due to consistent high daytime temperatures (over 90°F). Provide shade during the hottest part of the day by using row covers or shade cloth.
- If plants produce a lot of flowers but no fruit, the cause might be inadequate light, inconsistent watering, drastic temperature fluctuation, or not enough pollinators (bees).
- Low humidity can also affect pollination; the ideal is 40 to 70 percent. If humidity is low, mist the plant to help pollen to stick.
WHAT ABOUT PESTS & DISEASES?
Tomatoes are susceptible to insect pests. To avoid overpopulation of insect pests, follow these basic tips:
- Monitor tomato plants daily, checking under leaves, checking fruit, and checking near the soil.
- Handpick insects bigger insects like worms off and drop them in a bucket of soapy water.
- Apply insecticidal soap directly to the insect on the plant; this works for smaller pests such as aphids and spider mites.
- Apply horticultural oils or sprays diluted in water. Neem oil sprays block an insect’s air holes.
- Tomato cutworm (early in the season). Indicated by a chewed stem
- Aphids will cause yellow curling leaves and white sticky residue
- Flea Beetles cause holes in leaves
- Tomato Hornworm and tobacco hornworm cause defoliation
- Whiteflies indicated by sticky white residue.
- Leaf miners are indicated by tunnel or zigzag patterns on leaves
- Corn earworms (aka tomato fruitworms), stink bugs, and slugs cause holes in fruit.
TOMATO DIEASES & OTHER ISSUES:
- Blossom-End Rot causes the bottom side of the tomato to develop dark, sunken spots, due to a calcium imbalance. See the link for remedies and prevention.
- Early Blight is a fungal disease that causes leaves to drop; it’s common after rainfall or in humidity. It starts with dark, concentric spots (brown to black), about ½-inch in diameter on the lower leaves and stems. If you catch it early and destroy infected leaves, you plant may survive.
- Late Blight is a fungal disease that causes grey, moldy spots on leaves and fruit which later turn brown. The disease is spread and supported by persistent damp weather.
- Mosaic Virus creates distorted leaves and causes young growth to be narrow and twisted, and the leaves become mottled with yellow. Unfortunately, infected plants should be destroyed (but don’t put them in your compost pile).
- Fusarium Wilt starts with yellowing and wilting on one side of the plant and moves up the plant as the fungus spreads. Unfortunately, once this disease strikes, the plant needs to be destroyed.
- Powdery Mildew is a fungal disease which leaves white spots or a dusting of white on the leaves. It can be managed. See the link to learn more.
- Cracked Fruit: When fruit growth is too rapid, the skin will crack. This usually occurs due to uneven watering or uneven moisture from weather conditions. Keep moisture levels constant with consistent watering and mulching.
SO MANY VARIETIES!
Tomatoes come in many sizes, from tiny “currant” to “cherry” to large “beefsteak.” There are thousands of tomato varieties to suit different climates and tastes.
Early Varieties (fewer than 70 days to harvest)
- Early Girl
- Dirty Girl
- New Girl
Mid-season Varieties (70 to 80 days to harvest)
- Lemon Boy
Late-season Varieties (80 days or more to harvest)
- Cherokee Purple
- Sun Gold
- Chocolate Cherry
This year we are bringing in locally grown tomato plants from:
Green Planet Organics & HP Green Vivarium. In addition, we also have started some of our own with seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
We have THE BEST soil & amendment selection. Featuring a wide range of products from:
EB Stone, Fox Farm, Roots Organics, Down to Earth, Kelloggs, Tru Organics & many more.
We also have cloth Grow Bags if you don't have a huge garden space, they are ideal for growing container tomatoes!
Enjoy your gardening adventures & don't hesitate to ask any of us here at Valley Hills Nursery for help.