Oh the thoughts of sunny summer days when fresh picked tomatoes from the garden are used on a BLT sandwich, in a salad or sauce. There are so many great things about summer and fresh tomatoes are definitely one of them! So how do you ensure a bumper crop of tantalizing tomatoes to tempt your taste buds this year? We call tomato plants one of the “gateway drugs” to this activity we love called gardening and growing plants. It’s because tomato plants are quite easy to grow and is often the first attempt of someone who doesn’t engage in plant nurture often. Once they have success they are hooked and proceed to add additional gardening ventures and plants expanding their experience. It’s one thing to grow a tomato plant and have some success with the fruits of your labor. It’s another to take it to the next level and increase the yield and success rate of your foliar investment. Here are some secrets of success for more tomatoes and better tomato production in your garden.
Tomato plants generally fall into three categories: determinate, semi determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants can be considered “bush” and limit their height when flowers blossom at the tips of the branches. Indeterminate tomatoes in lieu of frost will continue to grow and grow to the size of a small tree. This type continues to produce tomatoes all growing season and who knows how large the plant would get if it didn’t hit a wall called October frost. Indeterminate tomatoes need support as in solid staking or caging and good spacing for air movement between plants. You could say that determinate tomatoes set a terminal bud and flowers and indeterminate tomatoes do not dictate the eventual size of the plant. “Semi-determinate” plants obviously fall somewhere in between the other two. As you plan your garden plot or containers, read the tag or label on the plant to determine if it is determinate, semi-determinate or indeterminate so you can provide the necessary space and support.
Tomatoes love sunshine and summer! A minimum of 6 hours of full sun per day is your best bet. We wait for warm weather because tomatoes are a warm-weather crop. They can’t handle frosts, and they don’t like cold feet which causes stunting. Once soil temperatures are consistently above 65 degrees, the plants should be fine. You can speed the process by using black plastic on the soil where you will be planting for a week or two before you put them in the ground. Soil in elevated beds or in containers warms quicker than ground soil.
Nutrients play an important role and the three plant macro-nutrients (the majors) are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). Phosphorous is the one that encourages the development of sturdy roots and plenty of flowers and fruits. If you over-feed the tomatoes with high-nitrogen fertilizers you’ll be successful with huge leafy green plants but few flowers and fruits. Yes some people will use Epsom salts, dissolving 1 to 2 tablespoons of Epsom salt per 1 gallon of water. Use the solution to water your plants. Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. A magnesium deficiency can cause yellow leaves on tomato plants. If the yellowing leaves are due to a magnesium deficiency, then Epsom salt may help your plants green up. Using a balanced organic fertilizer is better, like Espoma Tomato Tone which has both the major nutrients and the “micro nutrients.”
Do you know what your soil pH is? The ideal soil pH for maximum tomato plant nutrient absorption is between 6.0 and 6.5. When your soil pH is in the ballpark of those numbers, the plant’s roots can best absorb all available nutrients.
In addition to nutrients, tomato plants need lots of water during the growing season. If they don’t get it, a physiological disorder known as blossom-end rot where the bottom of a tomato turns into a black, sunken canker develops. Unsightly cracks develop on the fruit. Blossom-end rot is a symptom of a lack of calcium AND watering practices. Most ground soils have enough calcium. Container soils do not. Calcium moves into a plant with water so you can see the importance of both water and the presence of calcium for great fruit. That’s why I like a fertilizer with micro nutrients like calcium as well as ensuring the roots always have sufficient water. How can you do that? That answer is next.
To water tomato plants, set the hose nozzle at the base of the plant and let the water slowly soak in for an extended time. Pistol grips on the end of a hose are not the way to water your plants. They are meant for washing your car. Same for lawn irrigation. It’s meant for your lawn. Trickle or drip from a hose is your best method. If you have to irrigate over the top with a sprinkler make sure this is done in the morning so the foliage can dry off. Don’t get foliage wet in the evening hours as you encourage disease using this approach. You will first see the affects on the cucurbits in your garden like cucumbers or melons as powdery or downy mildew will develop.
Here is one of the keys at planting time that will provide benefits all season long. Tomato plants form roots all along their stems called adventitious roots. Plant tomato transplants deeper than the soil line in the pot you purchased or horizontally bury some of the stem. Just pinch off some of the bottom leaves along the “hairy” stem with your thumb and forefinger. Deep and horizontal tomato planting results in an extensive root system improving both water and soil nutrient absorption. Incorporate organic material like Dairy Doo. When you take the plant out of the container you purchased you will see a mass of roots circling. Gently break the roots apart spreading them before planting in the ground. Pinch off foliage at the base of the plant so you can deep plant. Once growing, for tomato disease suppression, continue to remove the bottom leaves on your tomato plants. The lowest leaves closest to the soil removed can mitigate or reduce disease and fungus development.
Tomatoes are self fertile and can pollinate themselves. They need vibration to knock the pollen off the anthers to fertilize the flowers and produce a tomato. Wind helps a lot especially if you spaced the plants properly for good air movement at the time of planting. Bees and insects are important so encourage them by planting lots of flowers! An example would be edible flowers like Nasturtiums that are colorful and easy to grow from seed. Add other friends too as I’ve always said diversity is the key! If you plant nothing but tomatoes when a problem comes along it will spread like wildfire. Interplant some cilantro or carrots, dill or a Flowerland favorite…Basil! Basil planted in close proximity to tomatoes is thought to make the tomatoes taste better!
To prune or not to prune is a question many gardeners ask. If you like neat tidy plants you can prune off suckers during the growing season. Some gardeners will argue that if you prune, it allows the plant to put more energy into fruit bearing stems and improve sunlight and air penetration into the plant. It’s your call, not a deal breaker when it comes to success but it might give you the edge you’re looking for.
Your plants will thank you very mulch if you take the time to mulch. Mulch reduces weeding and makes watering more effective along with cooling roots. It suppresses soil-borne tomato diseases, such as early or late leaf blight and leaf spot. The spores of these pathogens are found in the soil and mulch keeps rainwater from splashing the spores onto the plant foliage.
You may say to-may-toe and I may say toe-mah-toe but either way we all want to work together for the classic summer time treat. Tantalizing tomatoes!