Planting and Caring for Tomatoes in the Home Garden

In part 1, I discussed the many different types and categories of tomatoes and talked about how to pick the right varieties for your garden and your needs.  This week I will talk about when and how to plant them, and how to care for them throughout the season to maximize their yield, taste, and health (and your own enjoyment!)  First lets talk about seasonal timing.


WHEN TO PLANT TOMATOES:

The short answer is: Now!

When the first rains come in September or October, it generally spells a bitter and abrupt end to tomato season with many exploded and quickly rotten fruits.  With such an uncertain end looming, and with our relatively mild Summers, it is important that we give our tomatoes every opportunity to mature.  This means making sure that they don’t get planted so late that they don’t have time to mature their fruits.  

On the other hand, tomatoes that are planted too early, when night time temperatures are consistently below 50 degrees, can suffer significantly and become stunted or diseased during a fragile time of their development.

Our Oregon Springs are about as unpredictable as our Falls, so proper timing for planting is always a bit of guess work, but I generally think of the planting window for tomatoes as being between May 1st and June 1st.  A little later or a little earlier cane work depending on the particular year, but your tomatoes may suffer for it one way or another, or you may get lucky!  So given the timing of this post, get those tomatoes in ASAP!


HOW TO PLANT TOMATOES:

When planting tomatoes it is important to think about location in your garden, spacing between plants, and planting method.

I know I’m vegetable biased, but in my opinion, the sunniest place in your garden should always be reserved for tomatoes! (and peppers, and eggplants, and zucchini, and melons, and cucumbers!).  Without full sun, you are going to struggle with any of these vegetables.  If you don’t have good garden space with full sun, grow tomatoes in 5 gallon pots.  Smaller containers have the adavantage of being portable, where they can be placed in ideal locations with reflected heat.  These containers also warm up earlier in the season and on a sunny day.

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Also consider how tomatoes will affect other vegetables around them.  If planting tomatoes in the ground, keep in mind that they will grow tall!  When possible, plant them on the north sides or ends of garden beds so that they will not shade out other plants as they grow.  Give at least 18” between plants when space is at a premium, and ideally allow more like 24-30”.

So you are ready to stick your tomatoes in the ground!  Your starts are watered well and the sun is shining.  The most important thing to remember when you plant is to plant DEEP.  Tomatoes have an incredible capacity to grow roots right out of their shoots (this is called “adventitious rooting”).  First remove lowest 2 or 3 lateral branches pinching or snipping (not tearing). 

Prune out lowest 2 or 3 lateral branches before planting

Prune out lowest 2 or 3 lateral branches before planting

Then bury each start all the way up to the lowest remaining branch. 

Though your tomato will look smaller to start, this will stimulate the plant to grow many more roots which will support the vigorous top growth throughout the season and will ultimately lead to healthier and more productive tomatoes!

HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR TOMATOES:

Now that your tomatoes are planted they will need some TLC in the many weeks before they offer you their treasured fruits.  In caring for tomatoes it is important to think about fertility, physical support, pruning and training, and irrigation.

Tomatoes have relatively high fertility needs.  This is partly because of the fruits they bear, and also because they take so long to mature.  For this reason, I like to fertilize my tomatoes once at the time of planting by dusting with a balanced organic fertilizer like EB Stone Organics Tomato and Vegetable Food.  A second light application when fruits begin to set can also be beneficial.

Soon enough, you will need to support your tomato plants as they outgrow their ability to stand up on their own.  There are dozens of ways to give this support, but the easiest and most widely used supports are tomato cages.  They come in many shapes and sizes, so just make sure that you purchase a cage that will last.  Simply surround your tomato with a cage and let it do the rest of the work!

Simple tomato cages

Simple tomato cages

There are many ways to prune and train tomatoes.  Different methods and approaches lead to different growth responses and tomato forms.  The truth is, you don't have to prune your tomatoes at all!  Tomatoes that go unpruned, though often unruly, will produce many and delicious fruits.  That being said, I am a proponent of light pruning early on which leads to a form which keeps later fruit off of the ground.

At the “axis” of each lateral tomato branch, small buds or “suckers” form.  These suckers grow into vegetative branches and will not bear fruit in the life of the tomato.  For this reason, I like to “thin” or pinch out suckers on the bottom 8-12” of all of my plants.  After that, I let my tomatoes run wild (within their cages).  This selective pruning of suckers involves minimal effort and leads to a tomato plant which bears its fruit on intermediate and higher branches where fruits are safe from rodents and from rotting.

Pinching out suckers

Pinching out suckers

Finally, we should all consider our approach to irrigation for tomatoes.  Tomatoes evolved in climates where irrigation was not a sure thing, and for this reason, they are remarkably resistant to water deficiency.  That is not to say, however, that they should be stressed.  During most of their life, and especially during their time of vegetative growth, they like regular deep waterings.  They suffer from having their roots saturated so provide adequate intervals between deep waterings.  

When tomatoes begin to set their fruit, their water needs change markedly.  At this time watering quantities and intervals should be reduced significantly.  Denying your tomato plants the water that they desire will encourage them to shift from their vegetative stage to their reproductive stage and will actually speed up their process of setting and maturing fruits and getting you tomatoes!

Many farmers in more arid climates "dry farm" their tomatoes, never irrigating them, and letting their deep roots tap into ground water to sustain them.

Many farmers in more arid climates "dry farm" their tomatoes, never irrigating them, and letting their deep roots tap into ground water to sustain them.

Reducing irrigation close to harvest time also reduces the moisture content in the fruits and concentrates their sugars making for much more flavorful and less mealy tomatoes.  Also, deep watering during fruiting causes sudden H20 uptake by the plants and often leads to cracking and exploding fruits.  So as counter-intuitive as it may be, take it upon yourself to be very spare with your irrigation during fruiting.


RECAP:

WHEN TO PLANT: May 1st - June 15th or when night time temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees

LOCATION: Sunniest warmest place you got! North of smaller vegetables to avoid shade effect.  Excellent grown in 5 gallon pots on patios or against south facing walls with reflective heat.

PLANTING METHOD: Deep! Snip out lower 30-40% of lateral branches and bury stem up to 1st remain branch to encourage new root growth and support future top growth.

FERTILITY: Fertilize at time of planting with balanced organic vegetable fertilizer like E.B. Stone Organics Vegetable and Tomato Food.  Fertilize again lightly at time of fruit set.

PHYSICAL SUPPORT: Support each plant with a sturdy tomato cage or other trellising system (Keeps plant from falling over and setting fruit on the ground.  maintains airflow.)

PRUNING AND TRAINING: Unnecessary but can help in establishing intended form.  My approach: Pinch out “suckers” that appear on lateral branches in first 8-12” of growth. (Keeps plant from setting fruits close to the ground where they can rot)

IRRIGATION: Water regularly during vegetative growing period.  Once fruit begins to set reduce water to light watering 1-2 times/week (Helps stimulate fruit production and maturity and concentrates sugars in fruits.)

Hopefully you now have all you need to select, plant, tend, and harvest your own tomatoes!!  Once you enjoy your own home-grown tomatoes, you will never go back to the grocery store in search of these precious fruits!  Knowing that you are growing your own tomatoes, I can now say with real conviction, Happy Summer!!!