Commonly found in the sunniest spot of a vegetable garden, tomatoes produce a bountiful harvest of tasty, colorful fruit all summer long. Here’s how to grow to your own successful crop of tomatoes.
Proper soil preparation is essential to the success of your tomato crop. The first step is to locate a spot that gets at least eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Till the soil in early spring to eliminate young weeds and improve the soil texture. Never till or dig when the soil is wet as this creates compacted soil clods which are difficult to break up later during planting.
Next, broadcast a balanced granular fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, or a generous layer of compost over the tilled soil. Till the amendments into the soil.
Once you’ve prepared the soil, lay down landscape fabric on the soil surface. This will reduce weed growth, slow moisture loss and keep the soil warm. Warmer soil means enhanced tomato growth in early spring and summer.
Wait until after the last frost date in your area to plant your tomato plants. If you plant this warm-season vegetable too early, plants may suffer due to frost and cold temperatures. Plant seedlings started at a nursery, or start your own seeds indoors in late winter. Grow several varieties such as ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Beefsteak,’ ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Better Boy,’ ‘Sweet One-Hundred’ or ‘Ace’ to ensure a longer harvest. Some varieties bear early but with smaller fruit, while others bear later in the season with large tomatoes.
Using a trowel, dig directly through the landscape fabric and prepare a planting hole. Since roots can form along the length of the stems, plant each tomato plant deeply, burying the rootball and about 50 to 75 percent of the stem in the hole. Don’t worry about letting the plants lean to one side; in a few days, they’ll straighten up on their own. It’s okay to bury the leaves while they’re still attached to the plant.
Space plants about 18 to 24 inches apart. Mark each plant with a label indicating the variety and date planted, and water thoroughly. Place a stake next to the plant or a tomato cage around the plant; this will provide it with a structure to grow on.
Once the plants are in the ground, continue to water as needed. Avoid getting water on the leaves as this can introduce rot and other problems. Keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy. Tomatoes are deep rooted, so infrequent, deep watering is best. Plants that have been overwatered have less flavorful fruit and are more susceptible to fungal diseases.
About two weeks after planting, apply a three-inch layer of mulch around the base of the plants. Clip off the side growth on young tomato plants to encourage fruiting, instead of excess vegetative growth. Continue pruning throughout the life of the plants. Periodically remove leaf litter, weeds and other debris around the base of the plants to keep diseases and other pests away.
Monitor your local weather forecasts if you’ve planted your tomatoes early in the season. Frost will kill them quickly, so if cold weather is on the way, cover your plants to protect them overnight. Then uncover them the next morning.