There is nothing as lovely as the first tomato of summer, even more enticing is the tomato you grow yourself. These heat loving summer plants are extremely versatile and can be grown in a variety of environments and spaces, making it a loved addition to any garden. The array of different types, from roma tomatoes to the rainbow-colored heirloom tomatoes, gives plenty of options to gardeners. It doesn’t matter if you dream of luscious Sun Gold cherry tomatoes in a crisp salad, or a sandwich with thick slices of hearty Brandywine beefsteak tomato, if you’re planning on growing your own it is all going to start with a plan.
Seeds, Seedlings, or Started Plants
Every plant must start small, and it doesn’t come smaller than a seed. Starting from seed is a wonderful way to start your garden because you get to really understand the variety you are growing, but it does take time and the process requires thought. Seeds need to be kept at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate. There are many seeds available to peruse, as tomatoes come in over an amazing 10,000 varieties.
Luckily, if you’re starting your own seed there are wonderful options available to you. A small seed starter kit would be ideal for a small number of seeds. There are kits with lights to help indoor propagation, while others offer self-watering seedling trays.
One of the better self-watering seed trays by Burpee:
Traditional peat pots offer the added benefit of being able to compost or plant the pot in the ground, while compressed dirt discs wrapped in a thin netting are also available as a peat free option. Both of those last options require trays to keep from becoming a huge mess. If you intend to keep the tradition of growing your own tomatoes then keeping a Gardener’s Journal would be a wonderful way to see trends in previous years, as well as what worked and what didn’t.
Jiffy is a good brand for tomato seed starter kits:
Seedlings can be purchased in your local nursery or online from a reputable grower. As seedlings the plants will need a warm space to continue growing and require full sun or grow lights. If you determine that you want to do this outdoors there are small pop-up cloche style green houses that will allow for natural sunlight and make that transition to the garden easier for your plant. If you have more room, there are built-in raised beds with green house attachments or walk in green houses that can be broken down when you are ready to leave your plants in the open air.
This pop-up mini-greenhouse is one of the best:
If the season is upon you and you haven’t the time to start plants from their seeds, then it’s easy to pop into a nursery and find plants that are already 12 to 24 inches high and are ready for immediate planting into your garden. This can limit your options to the variety available by the nursery but if you ask there might be a way for the nursery to procure popular but not available varietals.
The Tomato Bed
Choosing your tomato beds for the season is a way to get your tomatoes started off right. Whether you’re a gardener with a lot of space or minimal space the options are vast because tomatoes are so versatile. Large pots on a patio can yield a season of baby cherry tomatoes while a large garden will have you setting aside marinara sauce for the winter to come. Rolling self-watering planters are the patio growers’ best friend. Small raised beds may be perfect for the city dweller with minimal space.
This self-watering planter and tomato trellis by Hydrofarm is one of the best available, and perfect for those who want a “garden on wheels”:
When you are determining the size of your available space take into consideration the positioning of the sun and how much shade your tomatoes will be getting. Make sure you’ll have enough room for your plants and their cages. Look at the soil you intend to use for growth. The tomato plant wants full sun with rich soil. This means that if you are container gardening you need to consider what potting material you will need and how best to deliver the nutrients to that hungry plant. Large gardens also benefit from the addition of plant fertilizer that can enhance your growing soil.
The Dirt on Soil
When you are ready to plant your tomatoes, you want to make sure that they have lots of nutrients in order to grow quickly and for the plants to remain healthy through the season. Tomatoes grow best with a soil that has a balanced pH. Assuming you have a balanced soil, you want to use a fertilizer with phosphorus and not too much nitrogen. It isn’t a bad idea to make sure that there is also some calcium readily available to the plant.
Potting mixes are available for the grower who doesn’t have access to soil. You’ll need to determine if you are in the market for an organic garden soil, one that boasts natural composts, or one that has nutrients in the soil already. There are potting mixes with guaranteed fast root development and all-purpose soils. Using an all purpose soil allows you to make sure your plants are receiving the right amount of nutrients because you are the one applying the fertilizers. Be sure to choose one with a 6.0 to a 6.8 pH level.
Happy Frog by FoxFarm is arguably the best tomato soil ever invented with over 20 beneficial microbes and pH-balanced for optimal tomato growth (also good for other vegetables as well):
Finding a Fertilizer
When thinking about fertilizers, you are going to want to purchase ones that are aimed at tomato growing. What you’re looking for is a fertilizer that offers some mixture of Nitrogen, Phosphate, Potassium Sulfate and if possible, a form of calcium. There are several forms of fertilizers including liquid, fast dissolving, slow dissolving, and fertilizer stakes.
Types of Fertilizers
Liquid fertilizer usually comes in a concentrate or powder and is added to the water in a watering container. Sprinkling watering cans are perfect for this job as it allows for slow, but deliberate watering and can be aimed away from the roots.
Fast dissolving powders are sprinkled onto the soil and will dissolve with watering, usually in one to two days. These are also good for deliberate placement but if a strong watering method is used then your plant can be splashed and may suffer burns.
Slow dissolving fertilizers are placed in or on the soil and will dissolve over time with watering. Some formulas boast all season, while others are up to 6 weeks. Make sure to read the directions to determine when reapplication is necessary.
Fertilizer stakes are a spike of compressed plant fertilizer usually planted into the soil at a variety of intervals. These are a long-term option but must be watched as they are concentrated and should be used according to the directions on the package.
Choosing the Best Tomato Fertilizer
You’ll need to determine if you’re in the market for organic fertilizers, similar to the Burpee organic tomato and vegetable fertilizer that is granular and contains beneficial microbes. It also includes calcium, making it an easy one step process.
Organic Tomato-tone tomato and vegetable food is also an option for organic gardeners looking for an all in one step plant food. It also contains calcium to prevent blossom problems and boasts a long lasting formula that keeps the plant healthy and growing properly.
If you purchase a liquid concentrate like Great Big Tomatoes you need to follow the directions on the manner of application thoroughly to ensure you do not burn the plant or the roots. However, when used appropriately, Great Big Tomatoes full lives up to its name and you will have the greatest, biggest tomatoes you have ever seen.
Another organic option is Dr. Earth Home Grown Organic Tomato, Vegetable, & Herb Fertilizer. Their product is marketed as “people & pet safe” and has a number of beneficial microbes. The benefit from a multi-use product is that you can also use it on other plants it can benefit.
Miracle Grow offers a Tomato Plant Food as well as a separate LiquaFeed. The benefit of choosing Miracle grow is that it is a trusted name when it comes to tried and true plant foods and fertilizers. There’s only one reason for the fact that its name has almost become cliche when it comes to plant food and fertilizer – it simply works and works well.
Here is the standard when it comes to Miracle Grow tomatoes food for your tomato plants:
And here is the liquid variety tomato plant food by Miracle Grow (quickly becoming popular purchase among tomato growers):
How to Fertilize Tomatoes
Tomatoes should be fertilized when you plant your garden and then again when the plants begin to fruit. To begin with most fertilizers should be mixed into the soil at the bottom of your hole when planting, and then covered with soil up until the first leaves are covered up with soil.
Make sure that the raw fertilizer is mixed well at the bottom of the hole so that the roots aren’t exposed to it. Tomatoes roots can be burned by raw fertilizer and it can have an impact on the growth of the plant.
From then on, if you opt for a fertilizer that needs consistent touch up, you can add light fertilizer after that every two weeks until the plant dies or is no longer fruiting. If you opt for a powder or mulch type fertilizer, then you can spread more fertilizer 6 inches from the base of the plant after watering.
You want infrequent watering to make sure that the plants aren’t receiving too much water, and you should make sure that the soil isn’t bone dry or it has been too long in between. Aim for every couple of days to do a deep, long watering that gets the roots and the surrounding base.
The Tomato Cage
From galvanized round hoop style tomato cages to the heavy duty square 10 gauge wire cages, there are so many options it might make you wonder about what type of cage is best for your plants. Tomato plants need proper support because the weight of the tomatoes can become too heavy for a plant. Even most varieties of cherry tomatoes will need support.
Tomato cages should be put in place around planting time, very early on because the plant should be able to grow into the cage. The right cage for your plant is the one that will hold up your plant. Check the variety of plant you have and determine whether a smaller or larger cage might be necessary.
All cages are designed similarly and require the ability to be shoved/staked into the ground. Some pots or growing spaces for tomatoes come with cages attached and offer an all-in-one style growing space.
Where’s My Caprese Salad?
Now that you’re planted, fed, watered, and fertilized your plants all that is left to do is wait for your tomato plants to produce fruit. Remember that growing tomatoes takes time. You want to make sure that the plants remain free of pests and disease.
Any time you have a question about your plants you can take a picture of a clipping to your local nursery to see if they can be of any help. Don’t bring in a clipping unless they ask due to the possible spread of any kind of blight. Most are easily cured and planting varietals that are resistant to disease is a great option.
Overwatering can cause a variety of problems, as can over fertilizing. Remember to read the directions for fertilizer and take the time to learn about your chosen varieties. Some are more susceptible to certain problems and it can be noted on the information stick or on the seed packet.
When your fruit does start coming in remember that color is the best indication that your fruit is ripe enough to eat. However, there are several varieties of green tomatoes that will not be very obvious. If you have opted for these varieties, remember that the fruit will be slightly soft and you shouldn’t have to break the fruit from the plant, it should come off easily.
Tomatoes are also wonderful because they can ripen in your home. At the end of the season, if the plant is dying and there are still tomatoes unripe on the vines or if a tomato falls from the vine, you can take those unripe fruits and put them on a sunnier spot on your counter stem side down. They will ripen quickly over the next few days. Then it’s Caprese salad city!
Tips For Beginner Tomato Growers
If you’re just starting out in growing tomatoes or find yourself with a need to save space, then growing cherry tomatoes might be a wonderful option due to their heartiness. Remember to look up your climate zone and when planting is going to be the best for your area. If you are having trouble finding that information your local nursery or even online nurseries will have that information available.