There’s no great mystery to growing tomatoes. Even a newbie gardener can grow a delicious crop without much effort. With a few extra steps, however, you can reap more bountiful and flavorful tomatoes with fewer problems. Here’s how:
Choose the Right Type of Tomato for Your Climate
The first step is to choose a type of tomato that is suited to your growing conditions. Tomatoes need a good deal of heat to ripen to peak flavor, so if you live in a region that tends toward hot summers, you can grow larger types of tomatoes, like beefsteak and oxheart. In cooler or moderate climates, however, you’ll have better chances with smaller types, such as grape, cherry, paste, or slicing tomatoes.
You should also consider the length of your growing season. In regions with shorter growing seasons (a later last average frost date and earlier first average frost date), gardeners will do better with varieties that require fewer days to maturity. “Days to maturity” is a metric used to track the number of days from transplanting outside to the first ripe fruit. In cooler climates with short growing seasons, look for less than 75 days to maturity. In warmer climates with longer growing seasons, you aren’t so limited.
Plant When Soil Is Warm
Tomatoes need warm soil in order to stimulate the root growth necessary for a healthy plant. Wait until night-time temperatures are consistently above 50°F to plant tomatoes outside. Planting earlier than that can leave the plants vulnerable to frost, pests, and diseases without achieving significantly more growth. By transplanting into warmer soil, the plants will put out new growth much faster.
Before transplanting tomato plants outside, snip off all but the top two or three branches and bury the plant deeply enough that only those top branches are left exposed. Roots will sprout all along the part of the stem that is buried, so that the plant develops a bigger, healthier root system and produces more fruit.
Healthy plants can get quite heavy as the tomatoes grow, so they’ll need extra support to prevent branches from breaking under the weight. Install a cage, trellis or stakes around the plant right after planting to avoid damaging the roots.
Add Sun and Heat
Be sure to plant your tomatoes where they will get a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight each day. That much sunlight and heat is necessary to fully ripen the fruit and develop the flavor. To maximize the heat in your garden, plant the tomatoes against a south-facing wall.
Regular application of at least one inch of water per week is the best practice for healthy and productive tomato plants. Using drip irrigation or soaker hoses delivers the water right to the roots with minimal evaporation and avoids getting water on the foliage, which can encourage fungal diseases. Consistent watering will also help prevent blossom-end rot, a disorder that is common to tomatoes. Yellowing leaves or wilting can be a sign of overwatering or underwatering. You may also find that if the ripening tomatoes aren’t very flavorful, they may improve if you decrease watering slightly before harvesting.
Healthy tomato plants can sprout a lot of branches, but not all of them will bear fruit. By pruning out unnecessary branches (those without flowers or fruit) and suckers (branches that sprout in the crotch between the stem and another branch), you can redirect the plant’s energy to the parts that are bearing fruit. Pruning also allows for better air circulation around the plant, which will make it less susceptible to diseases and much easier to harvest!
Follow these simple tips and you’ll be amazed at how much better your tomato harvest will be. If you want to grow tomatoes in pots, check out Growing Tomatoes in Containers for additional tips and guidance.