Nothing tastes quite as good as a ripe Tomato picked right off the vine. As long as you have a spot that receives eight hours of sun a day throughout the summer, you can grow your own. It just takes a little planning. First, consider where you will plant and how you want to enjoy your crop. Read on, and we'll help you have success!
Where are you going to plant?
If your sunny area is on a driveway, patio, or deck, then grow your Tomatoes in containers. Any pot roughly the size of a six-gallon bucket will work, as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom. Use a good-quality potting mix because soil from the ground won't drain well and may rot the plants' roots. Self-watering containers are great time savers, and allow plant roots to draw up moisture from a water reservoir as needed. For containers and small spaces, choose Tomato varieties described as compact, patio, or determinate.
If you will garden in the ground, make sure the soil is well drained and work in a layer of organic matter (compost or shredded leaves). A nearby source of water is important, too, in case what Nature provides isn't sufficient. Most vegetables grow best in a slightly acid pH, and it's a good idea to have your soil tested before you plant. Contact your county USDA Cooperative Extension Service for information on soil testing and what to add to your soil for specific crops.
Words to know when shopping for Tomatoes
Determinate means the plants stop growing at a certain height, rather than continuing to grow all summer. Their fruits ripen all at once. Determinate Tomatoes work well in containers because they are more compact and need less staking.
Indeterminate Tomatoes are a good choice for gardens, as these varieties continue to grow as long as the weather is warm and sunny, and produce higher yields. Their vines will climb or sprawl out over the ground, so you'll need to use stakes or cages, or cover the ground with mulch to keep the fruits from touching the soil.
"Ripens 70 days from transplant" means fruits will ripen about 70 days from the date you plant this particular Tomato variety in the ground or in a container.
Choosing which varieties to grow
Different varieties have different features, so read plant labels and descriptions to learn more about each Tomato. As you make your selections, keep these points in mind:
So the plants are now home with you. What's next?
Don't rush to plant them until the ground is warm. The general rule is to plant about 2-3 weeks after the last frost date. Tomatoes just won't grow until the soil warms and air temperatures stay above 50°F at night. In New England, that generally means Memorial Day weekend. Adjust accordingly for your area.
If your plants have been in a box or growing in a greenhouse, you'll want to help them get used to the sunny outdoors. A few hours in bright sun each day for several days will ease the transition.
Place all but 4-5 inches of the stem of your Tomato seedling in the soil because more roots will form off the stem and help provide water and nutrients to the leaves. You can bury the stem sideways in a trench, rather than straight up in a deep hole, if the plant has gotten ""leggy."" Pinch off leaves along the portion of the stem that will be buried. Remember that the soil is warmest near the surface, not 8 inches down, and warm soil will stimulate your plant to grow.
Allow plenty of space (about 3 feet) between plants so air can circulate. This helps prevent disease by keeping the leaves and stems dry, and aids in pollination.
At planting time, fertilize your plants with a balanced fertilizer or apply a fish emulsion or organic fertilizer. Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. Then, when the plants start to flower, fertilize again. That's it -- only twice. Too much fertilizer produces lots of stems and leaves, but not much fruit.
You can add a handful of powdered lime (a source of calcium) to the potting mix or soil around each plant to help prevent blossom end rot.
To prevent cutworms in the soil from damaging young stems, cut the bottom out of a paper cup, slice it up the side and circle it around the base of the plant. Be sure the edge of the cup is sunk well into the ground.
Water your plant once it's in the ground, and if you will be using a stake, insert it next to your young plant right away, being careful not to skewer the roots or buried stem.
More tips for a bountiful crop
To tie Tomato stems to a support, make loops around the stem and the support like a figure eight with soft twine or plastic tape (or tear old sheets or fabric into narrow strips). Allow enough slack for the stem to grow bigger without being cut by the twine or tape.
Water if the soil is dry an inch down, but don't keep plants soggy. Make sure there is good drainage. As the season progresses and fruits start to ripen, ease off watering. Too much water will dilute the flavor of the fruits and can make them swell and split their skins. If there are ripe fruits on the vines and a heavy rainstorm is imminent, pick them and bring them inside to keep the fruits from cracking.
If your Tomatoes are in the ground, put mulch around them to hold moisture and reduce weeding.
Watch out for pests. The Tomato hornworm caterpillar is a particularly ugly one. If you find leaves missing or bites taken out of your prized Tomatoes...look for this critter under the leaves. If the culprit is a chipmunk or squirrel, try Hot Pepper Wax. It is great for insect control as well.
The bottom line!!!
Have fun...gardening is a journey with many levels. Mother Nature gives us lessons all the time. Be sure to ask friends and neighbors about their experiences...gardeners love to share! If everything isn't quite perfect this year, try again.