When it comes to growing your own fruits and vegetables, tomatoes give you the biggest bang for your buck. Tomato plants come cheap, yield pounds of produce, and fit in even the smallest backyards or balconies. With that being said, you have to grow them under certain conditions to get perfect, ready-to-eat tomatoes a.k.a. ones that are firm yet juicy, and sweet yet tangy.
In fact, tomato plants can be rather difficult to grow. No matter which variety you choose — beefsteak, heirloom, cherry, and so forth — put your green thumb to work by giving your plants the right amount of strong, direct sunlight (at least six to eight hours of sun per day) and frequent watering.
While tomatoes flourish during the summer months — May through October, to be exact — the extreme heat may interfere with their growing process, so be sure to pick heat-tolerant varieties and practice patience as the weather heats up.
Choose the Right Variety
From giant beefsteaks to tiny cherries, tomatoes come in a lot of shapes, sizes, and colors. While some of it comes down to climate and personal preference, there’s one key difference every gardener should know: determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.
Determinate (or bush) tomatoes tend to fruit over a two-week period and then stop, making them great for canning. They’re also more compact, which means they’re a smart choice for container gardens.
Indeterminate tomatoes grow longer vines and produce more flavorful fruit all season long. Most common varieties fall into this category, including heirlooms.
Plant Tomato Plants
If you’re using your own seeds, plant them 1/4 inch deep and 1 inch apart in flats placed in a warm, sunny room. Once the seedlings grow their second set of leaves (the first true leaves), transplant them to plastic cups, burying the stems deeper than before. This encourages a strong root system. If you’re buying transplants from a nursery, you’ll also want to let them develop a solid root system before planting.
Wait until the temperature stays consistently warm before putting plants in the ground. When you’re choosing a spot in your garden, look for a bed that’s in full sun. Dig bigger holes than you think you’ll need at least 2 feet apart, setting the plants so that the lowest set of leaves sit at soil level. Some gardeners will bury almost the entire plant, since new roots will sprout on the stems and lead to more fruit. Then fill the holes with a mixture of compost and soil.
Cover the bed with a layer of mulch, straw, or grass clippings to prevent weeds from popping up.
Water and Fertilize Often
Soak your bed with 1 inch of water once a week, slightly more often during the height of summer. Make sure to pour the water directly on the soil, not the leaves.
Adding compost when the first fruit is ripening will encourage new growth. Over time, too much nitrogen will make your plants lush, but not very fruitful.
Stake Tomato Plants
Support your tomato plants by tying the stems to stakes or cages. Leaving the vines on the ground makes them more susceptible to pests or disease.
You’ll want 5 -7 – foot long stakes inserted about 7 inches into the ground. If you can’t find cages large or sturdy enough, you can make your own using welded wire mesh from the hardware store. Just make sure you can fit your hand through the squares!
Prune Tomato Plants Regularly
To increase fruit production, you should regularly prune your tomato plants. Start by removing any suckers — small shoots emerging from the stems at the base of each leaf — ASAP. This helps the plants stay upright, improve air circulation, and grow better produce. While caged tomatoes can develop one or two suckers, staked tomatoes do best as a single stem. Try to clip (or even pluck with your fingers) any visible suckers every few days.
Some common tomato plant problems and how to fix them
- Blossom End Rot
What it looks like: The tomato plants appear healthy, but as the tomatoes ripen, an ugly black patch appears on the bottoms. The black spots on tomatoes look leathery. When you try to cut off the patch to eat the tomato, the fruit inside looks mealy
What causes it: Your plants aren’t getting enough calcium. There’s either not enough calcium in the soil, or the pH is too low for the plant to absorb the calcium available. Tomatoes need a soil pH around 6.5 in order to grow properly. This soil pH level also makes it possible for them to absorb calcium. Uneven watering habits also contribute to this problem. Hot, dry spells tend to exacerbate blossom end rot.
What to do about it: Before planting tomatoes, conduct a soil test. Lime may be added for calcium, but they must be added in the proper amounts depending on your soil’s condition. That’s why a soil test is necessary. Adding crushed eggshells to your compost pile can also boost calcium naturally when you add compost to the soil. Water plants regularly at the same time daily to ensure even application of water.
- Blossom Drop
What it looks like: Flowers appear on your tomato plants but they fa;; off without tomatoes developing.
What Causes it: Temperature fluctuations cause blossom drop. Tomatoes need night temperatures between 55 to 75 degrees F in orger to retain their flowers. If the temperaturesfall outside this range, blossom drop occurs. Other reasons are insect damage, lack of water, too much nitrogen and lack of pollination.
What to do about it: use neem oil (organic insecticide) to spray your tomato plant.
- Leaf Roll
What it looks like: Mature tomato plants suddenly curl their leaves, especially older leaves near the bottom. Leaves roll up from the outside towards the center.
What causes it: High temperatures, wet soil and too much pruning often result in leaf roll.
What to do about it: Although it looks ugly, leaf roll will not affect tomato development, so you will still get edible tomatoes from your plants. Avoid over-pruning and make sure the soil drains water away.
Harvest (and Enjoy!) Your Tomatoes
Typically, tomato plants will produce ready-to-eat fruit 40 to 50 days after the initial planting. If you want to grow enormous tomatoes, eliminate fruits at the top of the vine and let the ones at the bottom develop fully, leaving one per cluster. Otherwise, just pluck any ripe tomatoes once they’ve reached the desired size and color.