Growing tomatoes, we will share everything about tomatoes from seed starting to harvesting to help you grow the best tomatoes.
Background information about tomatoes
Tomato plants worship the sun and the warmth it brings. They are the #1 vegetable grown today, there is nothing to compare in the flavor of a homegrown tomato when compared to a store-bought tomato. The flavor and freshness of a tomato you grew are as good as it gets when growing vegetables.
Tomatoes, Egg Plants and Peppers are in the nightshade family and they all have similar growth characteristics.
Types of tomatoes
Determinate tomatoes are a bush variety that grows 2-3′ in height. They tend to have tomatoes that ripen all at once and usually produce one, early crop and less to no crop later in the growing season. They grow well in pots or planters since they do not need to be staked up.
Indeterminate tomatoes are a vining type of tomato that produces a crop later and will continue to produce throughout the growing season until the first frost. These tomatoes need to be staked or caged since they grow substantially larger and have fruit that needs to be supported.
Flavor of tomatoes is as wide as the number of types. This is where you need to determine the flavor you most like to know which tomato to grow. They can be spicy, juicy, acidic, nonacidic, or rich.
Colors of tomatoes, are yellow, red, brown, green, purple, and even striped with a multitude of colors so enjoy the process of selecting the tomato that meets your needs. You can eat directly from the garden to sandwiches or sauces.
Sizes and shapes of tomatoes
There are a variety of sizes and shapes from tiny the size of peas, cherry size, larger golf ball size, larger slicer tomatoes for burgers or sandwiches, to huge tomatoes that can weigh in at several pounds. I recommend you have some of each size to use in many ways.
Needs of tomatoes
Sunlight for 6-8 hours each day is essential to growing the best tomatoes, it is good to have the hottest part of the day where they can get some shade to keep the plant from being stressed by late afternoon heat.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need rich nutrient soil to produce the most abundant best-flavored tomatoes, they also need lots of space to spread out and have good air circulation.
COF– Complete Organic Fertilizer Here is a recipe for making your own organic fertilizer. Ingredients can be purchased at most gardening centers. This fertilizer can be used on all your vegetable plants throughout the growing season. I cannot take credit for creating this fertilizer it belongs to Steve Solomon writer of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. It can be purchased or made yourself.
Another great way to support your tomato plants is to use worm castings which add nutrients and aerate the soil. I also recommend using ground-up eggshells in the bottom of each hole for your tomatoes when planting them.
Recipe for COF for 100 sq feet of growing bed
- Nitrogen 4 quarts of oilseed meal or 3 quarts oilseed meal and 1-quart feather meal ( you can substitute fish meal or blood meal for feather meal)
- Calcium 1-pint agriculture lime fine grind (do not use dolomite lime)
- Phosphorous 1-quart colloidal (soft) rock phosphate or you can substitute bone meal, high phosphate guano
- Borax 2 teaspoons (laundry detergent)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons zinc sulfate
- 1 teaspoon copper sulfate
- 1-pint kelp meal
Another option for making your own with Down to Earth products
- 1 1/2 gallons of Down to Earth’s Bio-Fish 7-7-2 mix in
- 1 pint of aglime
- 1-pint gypsum
- 1 teaspoon boron
- 1 teaspoon zinc
- 1 teaspoon copper
To purchase COF directly here is a list of locations that have made it available.
Best way to start tomato seeds
Whether you start tomatoes from your own seeds or purchased seeds indoors you should start them at least 6-8 weeks before your last frost. This will give you plenty of time for seeds to reach the proper size before you harden them off to plant outdoors.
Plant seeds in organic high-quality seed starting mix like Black Gold, they should be planted 1/2″ depth and mix should be moistened.
Use a container that is taller like a red Solo cup 16 oz., you should only fill it 1/2 full with seed starting mix before putting seeds in the container. Once they have sprouted and have true leaves reaching the top of the cup fill cup with seed starting mix to just about the top.
By following these steps in planting the tomato seeds the plants will be growing roots all along the stem that you covered which will help your plant grow strong producing lots of tomatoes.
Germination takes 6-8 days if the temperature is 65-85 degrees. This is why a heat mat is best for starting seeds.
To grow strong stout plants you want the light source close to plants and to keep them watered on regular basis (Not soaked just damp).
Ideally, the tomato start should have a stock about the size of a pencil when it is mature enough to start the hardening off process and be able to plant outdoors.
See the hardening off process described in detail in my article.
Be sure to allow for space around your tomato plants to grow and get plenty of air, this will also reduce diseases for your plants.
When planting the tomatoes outside you want to take the bottom leaves and stems off so that you can plant the tomato deeper (Do not be afraid to bury 2/3 of the plant). Add the COF mixture in the bottom of the hole and mix in with the soil, I would also recommend adding one handful of finely ground eggshells. If the plants do not have a strong stock and are leggy you can lay the plants out on their side and plant them that way. Do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer when planting your tomatoes.
When planting the tomato starts this deep it will allow roots to grow from the entire stem that you buried and make the plant stronger and produce more fruit.
The last step is to make sure you water your plants in to reduce the shock to them, I will usually fill the hole with water as I add the soil and COF mix into the hole.
Now is the time to steak your plants or place cages around them, I highly recommend you use strong cages or metal/wood that can support a large plant with lots of fruit.
Best plant care for your tomatoes
Watering is key to your plant’s growth, they need more water at first to acclimate to their new environment. Once they are established they need approximately 2″ per week even in the hot summer months (Do not over water otherwise it can create blossom end rot creating black spots on the bottom of the fruit). It is also best to not water overhead but down at the ground to prevent diseases.
The best practice to maintain moisture is to add 2″ of mulch around the base of the tomato plants. A secret tip is you can add some flat rocks around some of the base of the plant which will keep the soil from drying out and prevent evaporation during hot summer days.
Tomatoes are high feeders during the growing season and the best way to feed them is by side-dressing (placing fertilizer around the dripline of the plant not directly on the plant) them with fertilizer every 3-4 weeks.
If your tomato seedlings have the leaves curling in or turning brown they are telling you that they need more water. Be sure to increase the water you are giving them as they grow larger before planting them in the garden. They will also need to be provided fertilizing every week.
I would recommend Neptune Tomato and Vegetable liquid fertilizer but at 1/2 the rate they show on the label.
Diseases and issues that may impact tomatoes
- Blossom end rot– This is caused by a lack of calcium to the plant typically from overwatering.
- Powdery mildew- This is a white film on the leaves, it is known as a fungal disease. This can be caused by overplanting or planting in shaded areas. To correct these issues you can remove leaves impacted, spray with 1t baking soda to 1-pint water, and sprayed on the plant.
- Cracking- This is due to water directly getting on tomatoes through sprinklers or heavy rainfall. The best solution is not to water the plant but water at the base of the plant. If there is heavy rain coming you can cover the plants, especially in the fall.
- Blight- Can be early or late in the season, it causes the leave to turn yellow and sometimes black veining on the leaves. If caught early you can remove the leaves if not you may need to remove and dispose of the plant in the garbage. The biggest cause is bad ventilation and plants being planted too close to each other.
Common pests for tomatoes
- Cutworms- These are seen usually early in the season and can be identified by the stems being chewed on. Check plant often and remove any worms seen
- Hornworms- a larger worm that is mid to late season. Identified by leaves yellowing or dropping off or chewed on. Monitor plants often and pick them off the plant
- Aphids- These are seen as white or black patches on the leaves, leaving a sticky substance. They can quickly take over the plant if not handled soon after identifying the infestation. The best way to prevent aphids is by having ladybugs which you can buy and distribute in your garden.
Best ways to reduce pests and diseases for tomatoes
- Rotate crops every 2 to 3 years.
- Plant companion plants such as zinnias, marigolds, and basil around tomatoes
- Give plenty of space between plants
- Water once a week 1-2 gallons and not directly on the plants
- Mulch around the base or use large rocks to hold moisture around roots
- Release ladybugs once your plants have been established
- Make sure you have calcium-rich soil and not nitrogen-rich soil
Harvesting and storage of tomatoes
The best way to enjoy a tomato is either eating it right in the garden or soon after harvesting it for the best flavor. If you pick them and store the tomato you should place them on a tray top side down which will allow the tomato to continue to ripen and prevent bruising.
Tomatoes will continue to ripen as long as they are not refrigerated or in direct sunlight and heat from the sun after picking.
If you are looking for a great way to enjoy your tomatoes in the winter and still have the flavor of fresh tomatoes, here is my favorite way to prepare and store them.
Quarter tomatoes and onions in a 1″ deep baking dish and add olive oil. Mix these and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes or until tender. Once they are done and cooled on the counter place them in a freezer bag and freeze to enjoy with pasta or in sauces come winter.