What says summer better than a big, ripe and very juicy tomato? Gardeners have been growing there delicious fruits and enjoying their goodness for a very, very long time.
Tomatoes are a garden staple; it is hard for one to even imagine a garden without at least a few tomato plants. Although growing tomatoes isn’t overly difficult, there are some ways to ensure you have the biggest and best tomatoes possible.
A lot of factors such as the quality of the seed, fertility of the soil, and the amount of sunlight and water the plants receive go into the making of a great tomato. Here are some little secrets to help you grow delicious tomatoes that all of your friends will be super jealous of.
Select flavorful varieties
You are spoilt for choice when selecting tomato varieties for your garden, but one thing you have to remember is that every type of tomato is not as red, juicy, plump or flavorful as another. In fact, the original tomatoes that grew wild in South America were much smaller than what we have today, probably as small as the cherry tomatoes. They were very light in color as well, perhaps yellowish orange at the best. Mutations along the way, and selective breeding, and later hybridizations have given us fleshy and juicy tomatoes of eye-catching color and large size.
The myriad colors and odd shapes of heirloom tomatoes aside, there exists plenty of variation among the tomato varieties today. Many of the commercially cultivated tomatoes that we find in the supermarket shelves are thick-skinned, with a waxy feel and bland taste. They have been especially developed to withstand the rigors of mechanical picking, sorting, and transportation. They need to have a long shelf life too.
When you grow your own tomatoes, you are not restricted by such considerations. Go for the sweetest and juiciest ones you can find or grow different varieties for different purposes, acidic ones for salsa, sweet ones for salads, and fleshy ones for slicing and grilling. Some of the heirloom varieties with best flavor are Aunt Ginny’s Purple, Burpee’s Globe, McClintock’s Big Pink, Big Ben, African Queen and Brandywine. In hybrids, you can look out for Glacier, Crimson Fancy, Beefy Boy, celebrity, Jet Star, Red Sun, Dona, and Scarlet Red.
Grow varieties suitable for your area
It’s not enough that you have mail-ordered the best varieties of tomatoes according to your needs and personal liking. They should be right for your climatic and soil conditions. Some heirloom varieties that produce excellent fruit in some areas may perform poorly in others. Some People carry the seeds of their favorite varieties along when they relocate, only to find that they don’t taste the same in the new place. It is not just a problem with shifting between different USDA Zones; differences in soil pH, amount of rainfall, humidity, and wind conditions can also have a big impact on fruit quality.
Scout for varieties that do well in your area. It doesn’t hurt to experiment, but you can learn a lot from fellow gardeners in your area. Try to find out what works best there. They would have had long years of experience trying out different varieties; so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Start them early
Tomato plants love a head start on growth, so don’t be too late in starting them. This is particularly important for colder areas. Last spring frost date is used as a guideline for seed starting as well as planting them outdoors. Sow the seeds at least 8 weeks prior to the last frost date, especially if you have a short growing season. Those with long summers can wait until 6 weeks before the last frost date. It is a good idea to talk to other gardeners about timing too.
When you start the seed, the soil temperature in the seedling trays should be kept steady in the 70 F – 90 F range. Tomato plants love warmth. The seeds germinate faster and develop healthy root system in warm soil. If you are not sowing the seeds in individual compartments, leave ½ inch distance between them. When the baby plants start sprouting, provide strong light from a sunny window or use artificial lighting. Strong light is important since light-stressed seedlings grow thin and weak and become prone to diseases.
Although cotyledon leaves may appear in 1-2 weeks, it may take up to a month or more for true leaves to emerge. You can gently prick out the seedlings when they have a set of true leaves. Plant them in individual containers, burying them right up to the base of the cotyledon leaves. This helps them develop more roots and grow into sturdy seedlings. Maintain the seedlings at about 70F until they are ready to be hardened off prior to planting out in the garden.
Tomato seedlings should not be transplanted into the garden before all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up to 50 to 55F; the warmer, the better. Ideally, you should have a soil thermometer to measure this, because it can vary from the atmospheric temperature depending on the amount of water in the soil. You will have healthy tomato plants bearing the best crop if you avoid subjecting them to cold stress during early life.
Provide plenty of sunlight
Tomato plants are high light plants, and for good reason. They need all the sunlight they can get to make food in their leaves and use it towards developing plump, flavorful tomatoes. Tomato plants require at least 6 hours of sunlight for moderate fruit set, but without a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight they may not give satisfactory results. There is no such thing as too much sunlight for them. The more they get, the sturdier they grow, and give maximum yield. This should be kept in mind when you choose the location for planting out the seedlings.
Low light conditions result in spindly plants that become more prone to pests and diseases, especially fungal diseases that are the bane of tomato plants. With good exposure, it is not just the light from the sun that these heat-loving plants enjoy. They thrive in the warmth. The flavor of the tomato also is determined to a great extent by the amount of sunlight they receive. In fact, tomatoes grown in desert areas in full sun and supplemental irrigation are the most flavorful.
Artificial lighting can be used to grow good tomatoes if sunlight is not sufficient, but they need very bright light for longer periods to compensate. The height of the light source should be periodically adjusted according to the growth of the plants to provide maximum exposure to the plants at all times.
Plant them in rich soil
Another important consideration while choosing the location for your tomato plants is soil. These plants are heavy feeders requiring a consistent supply of nutrients. Ideally, they should go into rich soil in well-cultivated beds fortified with good quality compost. This will give them a steady stream of nutrient supply rather than heavy doses at intervals. You often see an odd tomato plant growing in the compost pile giving better yield than the well-tended ones in your beds and pots.
When you grow tomatoes in pots, use large ones and fill them with plenty of organic materials including compost, manure and leaf mold to facilitate good root run. Long release organic fertilizers like bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion etc., would ensure a continuous nutrient supply. It is important to maintain good drainage and aeration in the potting mixture by adding vermiculite or other gritty materials.
You can mix in some bone meal and Epsom salt to give the extra calcium and magnesium to your tomato plants. Another option is adding dolomite, a natural limestone mineral supplement that supplies calcium and magnesium. But care should be taken to balance the pH of the soil, as dolomite can cause excessive alkalinity. So can coffee grounds, if used excessively. Crushed eggshells can be added around the plants to slowly release calcium into the soil. They also act as a mechanical barrier to soft-bodied pests like slugs.
Plant the tomato seedlings deep
Tomato seedlings should be ideally around 6 inches tall with a few true leaves before they are transplanted into prepared garden beds. They should be hardened off over a week by exposing them to the sun, gradually increasing amount of exposure. Finally they should get used to spending the entire day outside. Provided the nights are warm enough, they can be planted in holes lined with organic manure like kelp meal and bone meal mixed with compost.
The planting holes should be deep enough to take the root ball and part of the stem. If the seedling is too tall, remove the lower branches with a sharp blade and submerge that portion too. The covered portion of the stem will grow plenty of roots that help to anchor the plants better. The idea is to allow the tomato plants to develop a strong base by growing as many roots as possible.
In colder areas with short growing seasons, tomato seedlings are sometimes planted horizontally in shallow trenches. The plant is first prepared by removing the side branches, leaving only the top cluster of leaves. They are laid horizontally in the trench and covered with soil with all but the top cluster above the soil surface. This helps the plant to quickly develop roots all along the stem, taking advantage of the warmth of the top soil layers. A large root system ensures good yield later on.
Provide extra warmth
Tomatoes are generally warm-season plants that love a good amount of heat, preferably in the range of 60-80F during the day, with night temperature never falling below 50-55F. Turning up the heat on tomato plants seem to give a better yield of flavorful fruits. If you are growing tomatoes up north, extra warmth in the root zone would be particularly useful as good root growth gives large, fleshy tomatoes.
Some use black plastic mulch on the tomato beds even before the seedlings are planted. This warms up the soil faster. When the seedlings are later planted through slits in the plastic sheet, the additional warmth protects the root zone from unexpected freezes. Aluminum foil has been used by some gardeners to not only cover the soil around the plants but to reflect more sunlight on to the plants. It protects them from some pests too. Red mulch is used towards the end for uniform ripening of the tomatoes.
Aim for luxurious growth
Unlike some plants that thrive on neglect and in poor soil, tomato plants love all the attention you can give them. They reward you for your efforts by producing luscious, flavor-filled fruit.
To start with, they need rich, well-turned soil that allows good root run. This should enable them to put out good top growth with healthy branches that would bear plenty of fruits for you. Healthy tomato plants should have fat stems with closely placed nodes. If the stems are thin and spindly, it may be because of inadequate sunlight or insufficient nutrients. Such plants are prone to breakages and diseases. Always stake your tomato plants from the very start.
As a general rule, the bigger the tomato plant, the more the yield. That said, too much nitrogen in the soil is known to produce vegetative growth that does not translate to more flowers or fruits. If you find your vigorously growing plants not producing flowers, pinch their tips and add some phosphorous fertilizer.
Tomato plants need plenty of water, especially during their growth phase. That does not mean that they should be watered every single day. Deep watering at regular intervals is the best. The frequency depends on the temperature, wind, and humidity in a specific area.
You can test the soil dampness by removing the topsoil with a shovel. It is fine if the plants wilt slightly during the hottest part of the day but recover as the temperature goes down. But, if wilting extends into the evening, it results in water stress. It can affect yield as well as make the plant prone to fungal infections.
Once tomatoes have formed, water supply should be reduced to avoid fruit-split. Slight water stress at this time has been found to increase flavor too. Similarly, too much rain when the fruits are ripening dilutes the flavor.
Trim tomato plants to get larger, tastier tomatoes
The determinate type of tomato plants with limited growth may not require intervention to start producing flowers and fruits once they attain a certain height. But the indeterminate varieties need to be trimmed slightly to turn their attention to fruit production. You can pinch the tips of all main branches at the beginning of summer.
Tomato plants may develop many small branches on their main branches. They may bear a few inferior fruits or none at all. Remove them to channel the resources towards the good branches. The lower leaves that no longer receive good sunlight are a burden to the plant. Pluck them off periodically.
Sweeten the soil to sweeten the tomatoes
Tomato plants do well in slightly acidic soil, but once the fruits start ripening, you can increase the alkalinity of the soil for sweeter tomatoes. Wood ash is the preferred agent for raising pH levels because it supplies potassium too, a mineral known to increase the production of sugars and their transport to fruits. It can also increase the production of lycopene, the carotenoid behind the antioxidant power of tomatoes.
Another option is the application of limestone/dolomite which also adds calcium and magnesium to the soil. Home gardeners often use baking soda as a quick fix solution to reduce the tartness of tomatoes.
A final word:
When it comes to taste and flavor, individual preferences exist, so it may take a few years of trial and error for you to zero in on the tomato cultivars right for you. In the meanwhile, you can follow the above pointers to get best out of your plants.