A little bit of preparation goes a long way in the garden! Before you put your new tomato seedlings in the ground, there are some steps you can take to ensure healthy plants and a great harvest. Here are 5 of our favorite tips, compiled from personal experience learned over more than a quarter of a century gardening (plus some expert advice from local Master Gardeners.)
- Grow several varieties. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Mixing it up will help you discover which varieties do best in your area or in your particular growing conditions. As tomatoes ripen at different times, from Stupice on the early end at approximately 55 days to Pineapple tomatoes on the late end at approximately 90 days, planting multiple varieties can help extend your harvest. Planting both determinate (set their fruit all at one time) and indeterminate varieties (ongoing production throughout the growing season) also extends your growing season. Plus, with renewed interest in heirloom varieties, there’s more to choose from than ever before so indulge yourself!
- Rotate planting location every year. Tomatoes are very susceptible to soil borne diseases. That’s why you never want to plant in the same location from year to year. Moving your plants around gives new plants a chance to get a fresh start if there are remaining pathogens from the prior year’s crop. Tomatoes are also heavy calcium feeders so crop rotation gives you a chance to replenish the calcium and other important soil nutrients. Don’t revisit the same spot for at least 2, and preferably 3 years.
- Bury them deep. You’ll probably buy a tomato plant that is roughly 12″ tall or taller. Pinch off the lower leaves and plant it so that at least 1/3 of the stem is under ground. Some experts recommend removing all but the top cluster and planting so that only 2-3″ of plant remains above ground. We bury ours to about half the length of the plant. Doing so will allow the buried stem to sprout roots. This helps stabilize the plant when it gets big and heavy and all those roots will provide greater moisture and nutrient absorption. Some people recommend planting your tomato on its side with only the top cluster above ground. This has the same effect as burying them very deep. It’s just a matter of personal choice.
- Install stakes when you plant. Once you get your tomatoes in the ground, it may seem like the little seedlings don’t really need any kind of staking or bracing. But they’re going to get big and most varieties benefit from some type of cage or trellis to climb on to keep their foliage off the ground. The time to install those stakes or cages is when you first plant your seedling. If you wait until the plant is big enough to actually need it, you risk damaging the developing root system when you drive the stakes into the ground. The root system grows surprisingly fast so it’s harder to avoid hitting the roots, even on a young plant, than you might think.
- Pinch off the first flowers. This one is really hard because as soon as you see that little yellow blossom, you’re already envisioning that first ripe, juicy tomato. But removing the first blooms will help the plant focus its energy on growing a healthy root system and vines. In the long run, your plant will bear more fruit, even if you don’t get that first tomato as soon as you were hoping. The same goes for pinching off suckers. Sure, suckers will eventually (eventually) produce fruit. But the energy it takes away from the developing plant probably doesn’t make a worthwhile tradeoff. Suckers are the growth that develop in the crotch or ‘v’ between the main stem and side branches.
There are many other great tips to growing tomatoes. These are just a few to help you get off to a good start. We would love to hear your feedback. What tomato growing tips can you share with our readers?