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How To Grow Tomatoes: the Gardening for Gains Guide

Solanum Lycopersicum; Lycopersicum esculentum

Determinate vs. Indeterminate – what type is best for you?

When I first starting gardening, I had no idea about the differences in tomatoes plant types – I just wanted to grow tomatoes! There is a really big difference between the 2 plants & it is important to know these differences and how each plant should be cared for.

Determinate Tomato Plants – these are the “bush-type” varieties of tomatoes. Typically they will grow 3-4 feet tall & 3 feet wide. They do not require pruning and tomato cages are probably your best bet for plant supports – my Grandpa drives a stake in by the plant & has fencing along one side of his that keep them supported & fruiting all summer long. Determinate varieties set fruit all at once & then they are done producing for the year, unlike Indeterminate tomatoes which produce all year long.

Indeterminate Tomato Plants – these are “vining” varieties that tend to grow more vertically. Typically they will grow between 4-6 feet tall & 2-3 feet wide. They do require pruning – remove the bottom third of branches, and prune and “suckers” that emerge between the main stem & a branch. Those suckers will basically form another head to your tomato plant. You may think this is a good thing, but it will actually suck a lot of energy from the plant & is not ideal for optimal fruit production. With proper care, Indeterminate varieties will produce fruit all year long (or until the frost gets them).

Spacing

  • 24-36″ between plants, 4-6′ between rows (room for plants to grow & accounts for 2′ walking path).

Height

  • Depending on type of plant, will grow 3-6′ tall, width 2-4′. That’s for the garden – some greenhouse varieties grow over 25′ tall!

Seeding

  • Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date.
  • Can start in trays, but I am thinking about planting seeds straight into 4″ pots from the start next year. (Anybody with thoughts on this, would love to hear it in the comments!)

Transplanting

  • After danger of frost has past and soil temps warm to 60°, you can transplant into the garden.
  • Drop a couple tablespoons of Epsom salts in planting hole to prevent blossom end rot – also provides good source of Sulfur & Magnesium.
  • Plant your tomatoes deep – this will help establish deep, strong roots to help support the vine’s growth.

Fertilization

  • I generally mix a balanced fertilizer or manure into my garden before the year. Then wait 2-4 weeks after seedlings emerge for dry fertilizer & every 1-2 weeks after flowers & fruit have set.
  • Sprinkle Epsom salts in planting hole & soil surrounding Tomato-tone or balanced fertilizer.
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My organic pest management kit consisting of: Diatomaceous Earth, Monterey Complete Disease Control, Neem Oil, Neptune’s Harvest Hydrolyzed Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer, and my Jacto Sprayer

Cages & Stakes

Stakes

  • Best for Indeterminate varieties (vining tomatoes).
  • Place stake in ground @ time of planting to avoid harming roots later in growth cycle.
  • Metal – may want to use one with coating over metal to prevent hot metal on sensitive plants. These are great because they last multiple seasons.
  • Wood – may last a few seasons, very sturdy, solid support for plants.
  • Bamboo – most cost-effective & I have used them the last couple years with good results. Typically want to use one year to avoid the potential to spread disease.

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Cages

  • Best for Determinate varieties (bush tomatoes).
  • Place over tomato after planting.
  • Cage should be 4-5 feet tall.
  • Be mindful of the gauge of wire being used & check the welds to make sure you’re getting a quality product!
  • Can be used multiple years.
  • Several different sizes, shapes, colors.

Trellis – Florida Weave

This is my first year using the Florida weave method – I think my mom tagged me in something about it? Or maybe I found it while looking at a customer’s website? Either way, it’s an awesome alternative to traditional staking.

  • Drive stakes every 4-6′, in-between the tomato plants. Use wood so that you don’t have as much flex in your stakes as I am having with bamboo!
  • As the plants grow they will need to be supported.
  • Tie twine on the end stake.
  • Run it along one side of the plants.
  • When you get to another stake, wrap the twine around the stake a few times to hold it tight.
  • Continue down the row.
  • When you get to the end of the row, go down the other side of the plants – this gives stability to both sides, and essentially creates a long, narrow tomato cage.

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Water needs

  • Irrigation types – Drip irrigation, soaker hoses, hand-watering.
  • Water @ base of plants to avoid damaging foliage.
  • Keep water consistent – large amounts of water will cause fruit to split.
  • Containers will dry out faster than in-ground grown tomatoes & will require more attention – good opportunity for drip irrigation.
  • Soaker hoses should be placed ~6″ from the base of plants & buried a few inches to promote the water to spread through the soil.
  • Tomatoes need about 1-1.5 inches of water per week – keep them hydrated, not saturated!

General Maintenance

  • Pinching suckers – Indeterminate tomatoes require pruning, Determinate do not.
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Notice the “suckers” growing between a branch & the main stem. These need to be pinched or clipped off to keep the plant growing vertically and to keep the plant to 1 main stem.
  • Pinching Flowers – It sounds counter-productive, but in the early stages of growth, you need to pinch flowers that emerge too early. Doing this will allow the plant to focus on growing in other aspects (height, leafy growth) to support the production of fruit.
  • Fertilize – I fertilize at time of planting by putting Epsom salts in the planting hole. This supplements plants with sulfur & magnesium, and will help with overall plant health, and help to prevent blossom end rot. Fertilize @ planting with Epsom salts & your fertilizer of choice. Then once fruit sets, fertilize every 1-2 weeks to keep them healthy, growing strong, and yielding tons of tomatoes! Fertilization after the initial planting can be done with any variety of products – the easiest way to go would be to throw some Tomato-tone Fertilizer around the base of the plant. This will be incorporated into the soil when you water & I had really great luck with it last year. This year I am testing out a hydrolyzed fish & seaweed fertilizer – plants are loving it so far!
  • Pulling Weeds – a necessary evil of gardening, weeding can be done while you’re already pinching suckers & pruning your plants. Weeds will suck up the nutrients around your tomatoes, so get them outta there!

Weed Management

I think pulling weeds is kind of therapeutic. It makes you stop and focus on a “mundane” task – but you know it is essential to your garden’s success, so you suck it up. But there are other options to help prevent pulling so many weeds!

  • Groundcover Fabric – Water-permeable material that will allow the soil to breathe, but suppress weeds. You can cut holes in the fabric where your plants will go. A lot of people will use this in conjunction with drip irrigation.
  • Mulch – a natural, dye-free mulch will suppress weeds & help retain soil moisture in the same way it does in your landscape & also add some organic material to your garden.
  • Mulch Films – similar to groundcover, this will block weeds & help retain moisture. There are also red films that are supposed to increase your yields (testing this out this summer & that will discussion will be a semi-scientific article from the research I’ve done so far).

Pest Management

You’re not the only one who wants to eat your tomatoes – here are some tips on pests & what to do to control them.

  • Pests include – aphids, tomato hornworms, whitefly, among many, many more.
  • Neem Oil – this is my favorite organic pest control product. It smells citrusy and goes to work instantly – I swear I see the bugs bolt immediately and they stay away until we get a few good rains.
  • Diatomaceous Earth – this is my first year experimenting with this stuff & so far it’s had really positive results. You can apply diatomaceous earth as a dusting or mix it into a slurry. I opted for the slurry and was really pleased. Even with the heavy downpours we’ve had in Ohio this summer, that stuff really sticks to the plants’ leaves. Be careful that you don’t overcoat the plants – it may prevent/restrict growth if you suffocate it. Again, this is an organic product.
  • Basil – plant Basil around your Tomatoes & it will help to repel some insects with its aromatic foliage.

Disease Management

Tomatoes are usually bred to have pest or disease-resistance, but that doesn’t guarantee that will be the case. There are some simple steps you can take to ensure your tomatoes will survive & not suffer from diseases or pests. The most important this when it comes to disease is not necessarily treatment, but rather, your plan should be focused on prevention.

  • Epsom Salts – put a few tablespoons in the planting hole. This will supply the plant with 2 crucial elements: Magnesium, and Sulfur. Along with Calcium you would call these secondary nutrients (of secondary importance to the macronutrients of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium), but the role they plant in the plants health is critical. Calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are required by plants for normal healthy growth and help fortify & strengthen the cell walls (important in new growth as well as existing). The secondary nutrients basically work in conjunction with the macronutrients – helping make them more available, assisting in nutrient delivery & uptake (please drop some knowledge on me if I’m out of line saying this!)
  • Neem Oil – I swear, this stuff is awesome. Not only does it take care of insects & pests, but is also listed for several diseases and fungal infestations!
  • Copper Fungicide – Copper fungicides are considered as preventative, not curative – but so are most products. If you have gotten to a point of noticing a disease taking hold of a whole plant, you’re probably too late. Prevention is always the best method of control – it’s like putting sunscreen on before going to the beach.
  • Complete Disease Control – this Monterey product is a biofungicide/bactericide – bio meaning this is a live product. The active ingredient is a naturally occurring strain of the beneficial bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. This is my first year using this product, but given the fact that we’ve had buckets of rain poured over this season and my plants are still okay – is a good sign! The really great thing is that this product is so safe that you can use it up to the day of harvest – and it’s certified Organic as well!

Harvest

  • Leave tomatoes on the vine as long as possible, picking when fruits ripen to red.
  • Heavier varieties may need to be given extra support, or pulled when green. Let it ripen in a cool, dark place – not in a sunny windowsill as this may damage the skin of the tomato.

Storage

Videos will be coming in the next couple weeks as all of my tomato plants are fruiting like crazy right now! (You can see those on the [once] greatly neglected Gardening for Gains YouTube Channel – I PROMISE MORE IS ON THE WAY SOON!) If I don’t learn how to make a perfect sauce, I’ll end up buried in tomatoes from the 55 plants we have blooming.

  • Do not store in sunny areas (unless you want sun-dried tomatoes)
  • Do not store in the fridge (unless you make salsa or pico)
  • Salsa
  • Pico de Gallo
  • Canning – Tomato Sauces & Pastes
  • Freezing

Supplies needed

  • Seeds
  • Soil mix
  • Growing trays
  • Grow lights if you don’t have south-facing window for seedlings
  • Epsom Salts
  • Tomato-tone Fertilizer
  • Stakes – bamboo, fiberglass, steel, wood.
  • Plant Tying materials
  • Sisal/Jute Twine (Florida weave method)
  • Sprayer to apply fertilizers/treatments
  • Drip irrigation / soaker hoses / sprinklers
  • Canning Jars
  • Patience, Passion, and Persistence! I used to hate growing tomatoes, but now I just love the challenge & the reward!

Really hope that this guide has given you a somewhat detailed roadmap to successfully grow tomatoes! Please like, comment, follow AND PLEASE let me know if you have any wisdom to contribute to this tomato growing guide!

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