The best place to start in developing practical tips for growing tomatoes well and efficiently is understanding what tomato plants need. Here is the definitive list of key requirements gleaned from years of experience:
Now there is a huge range of varieties in your area. Do some research or ask the staff at your local garden center which type best suits your needs in terms of product and your growing conditions. Ask your neighbors which variety has been the most successful for them and the expected yields. Generally speaking there are three main types:
There are a huge range of tomato sizes, colors and production rates. The older varieties tend to be more reliable and less prone to diseases and pests. The newer hybrids are prolific but are more sensitive. Match the number of seedlings you plant to the production rate for the variety.
Choose a sunny spot with some shelter for growing tomatoes in your vegetable garden patch. Allow plenty of space for the tomatoes to spread and areas in which you can work the soil, add mulch, manure and organic matter to improve the soil and keep it moist. Work the soil in the planting area to at least a spade depth. Liberally add fertilizer such as pelleted chicken manure, cow or horse manure or package organic fertilizers. Work the organic matter well into the soil. Prepare the soil a week of so before planting. For tall varieties install the stakes when you plant the seedlings. Choose the seedlings carefully. Look for plants that are growing vigorously and are not root bound in the punnets or pots. Also, look for seedlings that have been hardened off in the nursery rather than those that have been brought to the nursery straight from the commercial hot house. Growing your own seedlings from your own seed plantings is best if you have the experience. Seedlings can be planted directly in cavities in straw bales filled with a little soil and mulch.
Tomatoes need consistent soil moisture, but do not over-water them. Brief drying causing wilting, can severely damage the plants, from which they cannot recover and may lead to permanently retarded growth. Water the seedlings well after planting, and water every one or two days until the root system becomes properly established. Then cover the soil all around the plants a thick layer of good quality mulch such as hay, sugar cane mulch, pea straw or well-rotted compost. Sprinkle manure through the mulch so that it feeds the plants without burning them. Water regularly and use a moisture meter to check the soil moisture levels below the mulch.
Tomatoes are heavily reliant on fertilizers and nutrients for sustained growth, especially when the fruit is growing. Tomatoes require regular feeding from 3-4 weeks after planting the seedlings. Use organic fertilizer such as manure or compost added to the mulch. Supplement this with regular applications of soluble fertilizer preparations, such as seaweed extract, good quality commercial preparations water from your worm farm. Feed regularly, at least every two or three weeks. Water the plants a little after feeding. Do not overdo it - following the dilution rates and application rates suitable for tomatoes.
Caterpillars (grubs) and other insect pests will decimate the leaves, reducing production. Various insects can bore into the green or ripening fruit making them useless. Pests spread diseases. Be vigilant and watch for early signs of infections. Start control measures early to nip them in the bud. Companion plantings are an organic way to control pests before they develop. You can enjoy the flowers and extra produce they provide. The list of companion plants for tomatoes include: Borage, Chives, Marigolds, Nasturtiums, Peppers and Mint Chives. Use organic insect control sprays such as pyrethrum as a first resort. Stronger measure may be required if these early interventions are not successful. Seek advice from you local nursery to match the control with the type of pest. Seek the best control measure by conducting research on the internet and speaking with your neighbors.
Tomatoes need support structures to grow vigorously and prevent them collapsing onto the ground. Use canes or stakes to support tall growing forms. Tomatoes can also grow up walls, over arches, and on other vertical forms. Bush style tomatoes also benefit from frames and hoops to support the plants and keep the fruit off the ground. Regular tying is necessary as the plants grow. Tie the dangling branches to the support using soft ties such as stockings and rags. You can train the tomatoes to the shape you want by using strategic tying.
Tomato growth can be prolific and can leave insufficient resources to go into fruit production. Many growers pull off some of the flowers so that the tomatoes that are produced are large and fully formed. Pinch off some of the suckers (non-fruiting branches) that develop between stem and main branches, after the fruit develops, as this can take valuable energy from the developing fruit. However do not nip off the flowering shoots that develop in the same areas. As the tomato plants mature it is a good idea to remove the old yellowing bottom leaves. These leaves do not contribute much energy to the plants and they can be a vehicle for introducing fungal problems. Some pruning can also help ensure the tomatoes grow vertically up the stakes, wall of over other supporting structures.
Tomatoes can be fickle. Some seasons are better for some varieties than others. Tomatoes are prone to insect attack and disease that affects some varieties more than others. Therefore, it makes sense to plant several varieties, rather than a single type. It also means that you can harvest a variety of tomatoes for various uses. Globe and cherry tomatoes can be very prolific and tend to be more hardy that the traditional varieties. Always do some research to select varieties that grow best in your specific locality.
As tomato plants grow, the lower leaves tend to go yellow and die. That is a normal process, so simply remove any yellow leaves that appear on your plants. Leaves with unhealthy looking spots and blotches, yellow patches and any sign of fungus should also be removed. This can help avoid the spread of bacterial, fungal or virus diseases. If spraying with fungicides and other disease control measures fail, it may be better to remove an entire diseased plant to reduce the chances of the disease spreading to your other plants. If diseases develop in the patch, do not grow tomatoes in that location again for at least two years.
Try to allow your tomatoes to fully ripen on the vines as the peak taste of vine-ripened tomatoes is one of the main benefits of growing your own tomatoes. You may need to cover parts of the bush with netting to avoid insect or bird damage. It is worth persevering to find and way of leaving them on the vine for as long as possible.
Choose a sunny spot protected from wind. Potted tomatoes need at least 6 hours of virtually full sun. Group the pots together so that they help support each other. The area needs to have a close water supply and to be suitable for frequent watering.
Bush style tomatoes with a smaller form are suitable for pots. Larger varieties will require large pots or tubs. Plant several varieties as the season and condition may suit one particular variety each growing season. Cherry tomatoes are particularly suitable for pots in cramped areas.
Garden soil dug from the garden is too heavy for containers and it will not drain properly. Use premium quality potting mix that is light, fluffy and has good drainage. This will ensure the roots will grow properly without becoming waterlogged. Add well rotted manure, compost or organic mulch to add extra nutrients. Adding fertilizer pellets or beads to the soil is also worth while.
Tomatoes need large pots or tubs, especially the tall varieties. Cool pot walls are also required so select concrete, ceramic, timber or terra cotta pots. Choose pots that are as wide as they are deep to allow plenty of room for roots to develop and grow. Pots with a water reservoir or drips for irrigation are also a good idea.
Plant the tomato seedlings deeper than you would when planting in the garden. This helps to stabilize the seedling when watering and encourages extra root growth. Install the stake, hoop or other support when you plant the seeding to ensure the roots are not disturbed when added later. Generally only plant one seeding in each pot unless the pot is very large in diameter. Press the soil down firmly around each plant to secure the roots. Using a deep mulch helps support the plants.
Provide a support for each tomato planted in a pot at the time the seedling is planted. The pot itself provides little or any support and excessive movement may disturb the root system. You can use traditional stakes anchored to the bottom of the pot, hoops or other frames. Tomatoes in pot against walls can be supported by the wall. Tomatoes plants in adjoining pots may be tied together for extra stability.
Moisture management in pots is even more critical and so adding a thick layer of mulch is a critical part of keeping the tomatoes healthy and growing steadily. Straw, compost, shredded leaves/bark and other types of mulch are all suitable. They layer should be relatively deep and fill the area between the soil surface and the top of the pot. Do not overfill the pot with soil to allow for a thick mulch layer. Adding well rotted manure, other organic fertilizer or pellets to the mulch helps keep the fertilizer away from the plant to avoid burning. The mulch layer may need to be topped up as the plants grow.
Proper watering of tomatoes in pots is critical for getting good yields. Keep soils in pots consistently moist, but not saturated. Use a moisture meter to test the levels regularly. Pots lose moisture through the soil surface, the sides of the pot and through the base and the mulch covering means that it is hard to see when the pots need watering. Place a saucer beneath each pot to act as a reservoir that the plant can draw upon between watering. A drip irrigation system for a bank of pots can also provide more efficient watering than occasional surface sprays Paying close attention to watering is very critical for successfully growing tomatoes in pots. If the plants dry off and wilt, their growth may never recover.
Adding good quality, continuous-release fertilizer granules to the soil helps to continuously food the tomatoes in pots. The plants only have a small volume of soil upon which to draw nutrients. You can also add manure of compost to the mulch to provide a supply of nutrients. Regular watering with liquid plant food also helps. Feed the tomatoes once every two weeks at first, but increasing this to once a week as when the plants have fruit.
Where possible, allow the tomatoes to fully ripen on the vines in the pots before harvesting, This maximizes the flavor of the tomatoes. You may need to cover ripe tomatoes with mesh to prevent insect and other attacks on ripe tomatoes. Remove dead yellow leaves and any branches signs of fungus or disease to minimize the spread to branches bearing ripe fruit.