Tomatoes are a very common fruit to grow all over the U.S. and other parts of the world. They are one of the easiest plants to grow, but some seem to grow far better plants than others. Why? There are several things you can do to help your tomatoes grow bigger, redder, and better.
First of all, prepare your soil before you even plant your garden. You can do this four or five months in advance, so don’t panic if you’ve never thought about preparing a garden or having a compost heap – you won’t need it yet.
Dig up your garden and turn your soil. If it is heavy clay, you will need to remove some of it. If it is very sandy, you will need to add nutrients (and some clay). If it is plain dirt, you will need to add many things to it. You need to have a good balance of clay (which holds water in) to sand (which drains water). You want some water to stay with your tomato plants, but you don’t want the garden to flood easily. If you pick up the soil with your hands, you should be able to squeeze it together and have it hold its shape briefly. It should neither be picked up in large lumps, nor be light and fluffy (and unable to stick together).
To this basic mixture, add plenty of organic material. Whenever you peel potatoes or carrots, eat an apple (or core one), take these vegetable remains outside and dump them in the garden. It’s okay to let them sit on top for a few days; make sure you “mix” the soil every so often. Get the organic material all through your soil, because these are the nutrients your plants will want. If you continue to add this stuff for four or five months, your soil will be nicely prepared when it comes to planting tomatoes.
I recommend starting your plants indoors in late March to mid-April, unless you plan to buy them from a local nursery. Starting them indoors, sow them in potting soil about a quarter inch deep, spacing the plants about four inches apart (they’ll be moved while they’re still young). Make sure they get a decent amount of sun and water, and keep them warm (room temperature is fine, but don’t put them out on an unheated porch). You can use artificial light and heat if you want, but it’s not necessary.
Transferring Plants to the Outdoors
When it’s time to plant your tomato plants, take them outside on a nice day, after all danger of frost is past (in temperate climates, this will be around mid-May). Dig a deep hole – about six inches for taller plants. Strip the leaves off the bottom of the plants, except for the top six inches or so of the plant, maybe a bit less (depending on how tall the plant is). Bury the plant up to the point where the leaves have been stripped off. You will be burying several inches of stem. You can even lay the plant somewhat sideways so this is possible.
Stripping the leaves and burying the plant deeply is good because this part of the plant will form new roots, and the plant will be better for it.
Place individual cages over each tomato plant; they will grow up and lean on these cages. Put the cages around them when they’re still small or it will never possible. Water them lightly. Then, if you save grass clippings (which you should, they are also organic material), spread them around the tomato plants. If weeds are a problem in your garden, spread newspaper down first, around the plants, and then mound grass on top of this. This will allow water to drain through, it will prevent weeds from growing, and it will provide “mulch.” Also, the newspaper will disintegrate, as will the grass clippings, and both can be turned into your soil at the end of the season to prepare for next year’s garden.
Instead of cages, you could choose to plant your tomatoes in a raised bed. Many growers claim that it makes plants better, and the results show that it does. You may be able to buy a raised bed from a gardening supply store, or you may find a natural slope in your yard that you can plant tomatoes at the top of. Tomatoes seem to do better at higher relative altitudes (relative to whatever’s around them), but it isn’t necessary.
As your tomatoes grow, watch them carefully. If you start to get a lot of greenery and not too many flowers, clip some of the greenery at the top of the tomato plant, to encourage it to spend its energy producing flowers and fruit, not more stems and leaves. If there’s a lot of greenery but also a lot of flowers, leave it alone.
Some gardeners like to pinch off the flowers as they’re dying, because they think it makes the tomatoes grow faster. It isn’t necessary, but you can if you choose to.
Once you start to get a few small tomatoes (and it may take awhile – nearly two months after the plants are put outside), you will begin to rapidly get more. Once this happens, you should check your garden almost everyday as the tomatoes begin to ripen. The tomatoes will quickly become ripe, then overripe, and then they will split and fall off the vine. Whenever you find split tomatoes, pull them off the vine and leave them in the garden. They, too, can become soil.
Year End Preparations
At the end of the growing season, remove the cages and leave the plants. Break them down and turn them into the ground, preparing for next year’s garden.