WHEN TO PLANT
- Growing tomatoes requires a long and relatively warm period of time before the plants can bear fruit (about 60-90 days). In many parts of the country, tomato seeds must be started indoors
- Tomato seeds are best started indoors 6 to 7 weeks before your last frost date
On a Personal Note
We used to start growing tomatoes indoors much earlier than we do now.
Here in Eastern Washington, with our short growing season and long winters, it’s hard to resist the gardening bug that hits in February.
Planting and growing tomatoes too early, though, results in plants growing taller than the grow-lights permit. And a sunny window generally does not provide enough light to prevent spindly growth.
Planting tomato seeds 6 to 8 weeks (no earlier than 8 weeks) before setting out is sufficient growing time. Our plants are bushier and more vibrant when we are patient.
WHERE TO PLANT
- Quite simply, plant tomatoes in full sun. If you make sure tomatoes get the maximum amount of sun love, they’ll be more likely to love you back with lots of tomatoes
PREPARING THE SOIL
- Tomatoes grow best in a slightly acid soil with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8
- Correct amounts of calcium (lime) may be added to the soil to bring the pH level up
- One pound of lime per 30 sq. ft. should be sufficient
- Lime will also increase your levels of potassium (K)
- (N)-High (P)-High (K)-High
On a Personal Note
We’ve had success planting in rocky soil (small stones). The rocks absorb and retain heat and keep the soil warm into the evening.
SEEDS AND GERMINATION
- Tomatoes germinate well in a soil-less material such as perlite or vermiculite
- The germination phase is approximately 6 days when soil temperature is kept between 78 to 86°F
GETTING STARTED INDOORS (transplanting)
- Plant your tomato seeds in flats ¼” deep and 1″ apart
- Tomato seeds germinate best in the dark at 85°F, but will germinate with temperatures as low as 60°F; it will just take longer
- Once seedlings emerge, keep the room temperature no higher than 70°F and soil consistently moist but not soggy
- Transplant seedlings at least once to a larger flat or container before planting outside. Plant deeper than they grew before (especially if they have gotten leggy). Allow 2” spacing between plants
- Jenny’s Tip: Apply a liquid organic leaf spray fertilizer once a week until bloom; this will increase the number of blooms on your plants
- Discard sick or spindly plants that could potentially be disease carriers
- With newly transplanted indoor seedlings, increase exposure to light and cut back slightly on the watering but do not allow soil to completely dry out
- Daily, brush your hand gently over the tops of the tomatoes to simulate a slight breeze. This releases a hormone in the tomato plants that encourages thicker, bushier growth
- One to two weeks before transplanting your tomatoes from indoors to your garden, we recommend you “harden off” your tomato plants
- Hardening off means to set them outside during the day-light hours, then bring them back indoors before sunset. This helps them slowly absorb the climate change and prevent transplant shock
PLANTING & GROWING
- The best way we have found to plant tomato starts (and the way our family has done it for three generations) is to dig a trench about 12 inches long and 5 to 6 inches deep for a 12 inch tall plant
- Sprinkle the bottom of each hole with several inches of loose compost (N). Then sprinke a handful of bone meal (P) and a teaspoon Epsom salts (magnesium) in the hole; this will encourage plant productivity and vitality
- Lay the plant down in the hole with only the top leaves showing above the soil level. Be careful of breaking the stem when placing it in the hole and bending it upward
- You will notice the numerous “hairs” on the stem. Each one of these fine hairs is a potential root and the more of these that can be placed in the ground, the stronger will be the root system that your tomato plant will develop
- Once your tomato is positioned in the hole, fill hole half way with soil. Fill the rest of the way with water. Let the water drain; finish filling the hole with dirt
- Press the soil down enough to remove air pockets and support the plant; water thoroughly
- For staked tomatoes, plant 2 feet apart. Tomatoes left to sprawl need 3-4’ between plants
- Apply compost tea and a liquid organic leaf spray fertilizer every 14 days. Once flowers bloom, side-dress plants with compost
- Use soft twine, strips of cloth, or strips cut from old pantyhose to tie up branches. Rough garden twine can cut into your plant
On a Personal Note
There are two options when growing tomatoes…to stake or not to stake.
Staked tomatoes are less likely to rot (being off the ground). They produce higher levels of vitamin C due to more sun exposure.
Yet, allowing indeterminate tomato plants to sprawl (no staking) will actually produce more fruit.
We made an accidental discovery a few years ago when we were remodeling during planting season. We were lucky to get the plants in at all let alone stake them. To improvise, we just propped football-sized rocks under the tomato clusters of the unstaked plants to keep them off the ground. The result (due to the heat the rocks retained) was that we had tomatoes a full two weeks earlier than anyone else!
- Pruned tomato plants are likely to produce fruit two weeks earlier than plants that are not pruned
- Carefully break off lower branches that grow downwards
- Pinch off any suckers (sprouts that grow between the main stem and the branches), leaving them on the top 1/3 of the plant to help shade the plant from sunscald
- Do it early while the sprouts are still easy to pinch off
- Both of these parts of the plant suck energy out of the plant rather than putting that energy into production
- Occasionally pinch off the tip of the plant to promote more flowering and fruit production
- Watering should be moderate to heavy until fruit begins to ripen
- During ripening, only small amounts of water should be applied to plants. This will allow for the best flavor in the tomatoes
- Avoid over-head watering; this can cause disease and split the fruit
- Try either drip irrigation, or if your garden area is small you can easily apply with a hose, bucket, or watering can
- Consistent and even watering practices also help to maintain plant health and prevent disease which can harm root growth and blossom production
COMPANION PLANTING & ROTATION
- The best companions for tomatoes are basil (repels mosquitoes and flies), chives (promote health), and garlic
- It is not recommended to plant tomatoes near the cabbage family, mature dill plants (inhibits growth), and corn (attracts the horn worm)
- Separate nightshade family plants in your garden from each other such as potatoes (prone to early and late blight), tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. They are subject to the same diseases
WHEN TO HARVEST
- For immediate usage, tomatoes are best harvested when they turn red (or what ever their ripening color may be) but are still firm on the shoulder of the fruit. Pick ripe fruit daily; do not over-ripen
- Another method for achieving ripe tomatoes before the frost hits is to “stress” them by cutting the roots about half way around the plant with a shovel
- When a frost is predicted, you have two choices;you can pick all tomatoes, ripe and unripe, or pull up your tomato plants by the roots and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location.
- If you choose to pick all the tomatoes, gently twist or cut off the fruits, holding the vine with your other hand to prevent breaking the vine off. Sort by ripeness and place in boxes, one layer thick. Store in a dark, warm area. Even green tomatoes will ripen.
- If you choose to pull up your tomato plants by the roots and hang them upside down, the nutrients from the plant will continue to feed and help ripen the tomatoes
- Tomatoes don’t store well for very long, but will last several days on the counter, out of direct sunlight
- Don’t store tomatoes in the fridge; this changes their consistency, making them mushy and less flavorful
- Tomatoes are the foundation of many preserved foods. Salsas, pizza and spaghetti sauces, soups, and chopped tomatoes are staples in our home
On a Personal Note
Bryan freezes his tomatoes whole. One advantage in freezing is that you do not need to blanche your tomatoes; once they are defrosted, the skins easily come off. We also discovered that broiling green tomatoes brings out the flavor and makes for fantastic salsa!
- Horn worms are a problem in some areas. Handpicking is practical for removal if the problem is minimal. Planting marigolds is another way to deter these and other pests. Finally, parasitic wasps can also be useful against these worms and are usually available at a local garden store
- Many diseases in tomatoes can be avoided when pH levels are optimally between 6.2 to 6.8
- Include plenty of well-composted manure and rock minerals, such as lime (see ‘Preparing the soil’)
- These practical applications will help strengthen your tomato plants against insects and disease
- Give your plants as much warmth as possible in the spring. One way to accomplish this is with the use of water walls
- Tobacco is a nightshade family member and even smoking near tomato plants (or touching a plant after holding a cigarette) can spread tobacco mosaic to your tomato plant
On a Personal Note
If using water walls (I speak from experience), be sure to remove them once the plant grows beyond the height of the wall. Otherwise, serious breakage of the plant can occur when removing the wall. The extended use of water walls can also cause plants to become spindly.
- More information to come!
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