What would spring be without a refresher on tomato growing success? Even veteran gardeners can experience challenges in growing these beauties to perfection. To be sure, I’ve had my share of challenges along the way. But over the years, I’ve honed my skills to master even the greatest challenges Mother Nature can throw my way. So here are a few of the non-negotiable steps you should employ now and every season to improve your tomato growing talent and get your plants off to the best start possible.
• Location is key. Pick a sunny spot that gets at least six hours per day. More is better so find the sunniest spot that works. Your plants will be fuller, fruit will form faster and taste best the more sun they get. Next, don’t plant too closely together. Keep your plants separated by at least 2 feet in all directions. It’s amazing how large they will get, and they need room to grow while receiving adequate light and air circulation. Your plants will be much healthier for it.
• Start with great soil. Starting with great soil and a healthy plant puts you well on your way to an abundant harvest. You can eliminate most of your tomato growing challenges with these two simple mandates. Well-amended soil, full of rich compost and other organic material, can be your secret weapon to having the best tomatoes around.
To illustrate this point, last year I grew tomatoes in raised beds, amended with about 2 inches each of compost and composted cow manure. As an experiment, in a neighboring bed, I grew tomatoes in just topsoil – no compost or manure. Over the next three months, the composted tomato bed outperformed the competition in every way, in spite of my best efforts to nurture the non-amended tomato plants to perfection. The composted plants grew vigorously, free from pests and diseases. As the season matured, so did the plants. They were heavy with abundant, delicious large red tomatoes right up until frost. The plants in the other bed did OK but fell short in every category. They were not as lush and had more disease issues and ultimately less fruit.
• Plant them deep. Planting seedlings deep, very deep, is a unique technique used for tomato plants. They’re one of the few vegetables that will grow roots along the stem if they’re in contact with soil. I leave about two sets of leaves showing above the soil when I plant new seedlings. This step will ensure a larger root area and a more vigorous plant.
In the planting hole, I add a tablespoon or two of dolomitic limestone and mix it into the soil. This step can help ward off a condition known as blossom end rot in emerging fruit. Cover the plant and water it in thoroughly. You may want to provide some liquid fertilizer now for a quick boost. As an organic gardener, I prefer to use fish emulsion and sea kelp. This adds nitrogen and phosphorus to get the plants off to a good start.
• Manage the water. Tomato plants like deep watering while keeping the soil consistently moist. A soaker hose is best for this because it allows the water to soak deeply into the soil, without saturating it to excess. Soakers are also great for not wetting the foliage above. Leaves that remain wet for too long can promote diseases that can be avoided by keeping water off the plants.
• Add mulch. The final step for a great start is to add a 2- or 3-inch layer of mulch once the plants are settled. Mulch will help keep the moisture in the soil, prevent soil-borne diseases from splashing on plants and reduce weeds.
These guidelines will get your tomato plants off to a great start. Like with so many examples in gardening and life, how you start out makes all the difference in the world with the success of the harvest.
Joe Lamp’l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television, and the founder of The joe gardener Company, devoted to environmentally responsible gardening and sustainable outdoor living.