The tomato is probably the most popular vegetable grown by the home gardener. (Technically, the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). Their popularity is probably due to the fact that they are easy to grow, require little care and when ripened on the vine, taste so much better than those from the store.
Since tomatoes take around 120 days to mature from seed, they are generally started indoors six weeks before planting in the garden. Or you may buy established plants (transplants) from your garden shop (considerably more expensive).
To start from seed indoors, place seeds 1/4" deep in small peat pots filled with planting mix and keep in a warm place (around 70 degrees). Keep moist but not soggy. Placing clear plastic over the pots until the sprouts break the soil will hasten germination. Be sure to remove the plastic as soon as the sprouts appear.
Place the seedlings in a sunny window away from drafts. Tomatoes need plenty of light and they love the sun. You can fertilize with a weak liquid fertilizer solution after they are about 3 weeks old.
Tomatoes are very sensitive to cold nights (below 50 degrees). They will either die or simply not grow until it warms up. Harden off the young plants before planting in the garden by placing them outdoors for several hours for a week prior to placing them permanently in the garden. Avoid direct sun the first two days. Then allow the plants to be in the sun for an hour the 3rd and 4th days. Finally place the plants in direct sun for the last 3 days (about 4 or 5 hours). Then you are ready to transplant in the garden.
Here is a trick that will not only allow you to plant your tomatoes earlier outdoors, it will also increase your yield and give you earlier ripe tomatoes. A week prior to moving your plants outdoors, select a sunny location in your garden where you want to place your tomatoes and cover the ground with black plastic. The plastic will speed the ground warming process and your tomatoes will love the warm soil. Some garden shops are selling a red colored plastic for this purpose. I have tried it and it does work.
When transplanting, make sure you dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots without crowding. If using peat pots do not remove the plants from the pots. Plant the entire peat pot with the plant still in it. If using any other type pots, water the plant prior to removing from the pot.
Here is another trick when transplanting that will give your tomatoes a strong, healthy root system. Remove all the lower leaves and branches from the plant (keep a minimum of three leaves). Dig a trench rather than a hole and plant the tomato horizontally with just the top foliage exposed out of the ground. Your tomatoes will grow new roots all along the stem everywhere it is under dirt and produce a vigorous plant. Water the new transplant thoroughly after planting.
When watering, try to keep water off the leaves. Wet leaves promote fungus, disease and pests. Water the ground at the base of the plant. Avoid short, frequent watering. Water when the ground is dry to the touch 3-4 inches under the surface. Water long, slow and deep. Then do not water again until soil is dry. In some areas this may be every 2-3 days. In others, once a week. The plant will tell you when it needs water if you just observe closely. Look at the leaves in early morning or just before dark; if they are drooping. the plant probably needs water. Of course, if you just watered recently, the leaves may droop for other reasons.
Fertilizing is not rocket science. It's fairly simple. I have had a great crop of tomatoes without any fertilizing at all, in different locations, in different parts of the country. I've also had poor crops when I did fertilize and did everything right. So, what follows is only from my own personal experience. Others will advise various different procedures.
I only use well aged steer manure. Incorporate a cup of manure into the soil of the hole before planting your tomatoes. Then fertilize again when the first blossoms appear. Place a cup of manure around the base of the plant and scratch it into the soil. Watering will take the fertilizer down to the roots. I do not fertilize again the rest of the season. Just keep in mind that over-fertilizing will promote large, vigorous plants with few tomatoes. Some may not agree, but I believe under-fertilizing is preferable to over-fertilizing.
Care of Your Tomatoes
Pruning and culling are controversial subjects. I like to prune my tomatoes as they are growing to keep them manageable and to allow light to get into the center of the plant. According to the variety, unpruned tomatoes can spread into a monstrous mess making it difficult to find tomatoes in the center and promoting disease/pests. Since pruning is an entire subject of it's own, we will not attempt to include it here. There are many web sites that give pruning procedures (google search for "pruning tomatoes").
Culling is the technique of removing some of the tomatoes when they are small to allow the remaining tomatoes to have less competition for nutrients, thus growing larger. I have tried it and did not notice an appreciable difference. So, we make no recommendation. You might want to try culling one plant and not another (of the same variety in the same general location) and see for yourself if it helps.
It is very important to keep the leaves and tomatoes off the ground to prevent disease, pest and rot from invading your tomato plant. Some varieties do not need staking, others do. If you are not sure, just watch as the plant grows and if the leaves start to sag close to the grown, stake it.
I am not a fan of commercially available staking methods (metal cages, plastic lattices, etc.). I have found that they are too short and too flimsy to support a mature plant. I use a 6 foot wooden 2x4 buried one foot into the ground. Use ties developed for this purpose (available at garden shops) and tie the wayward branches to the stake, beginning with the very first one. Never use thin string or wire to tie, it will cut into the limbs.
I suppose various locations may have different pest but I have never had a problem with any other than snails/slugs and the tomato horn worm.
Snails may be picked by hand early morning, late afternoon or in the dark with a flashlight. This requires effort and persistence but it will eventually reduce snail damage.
We strongly encourage you NOT TO USE snail bait in your garden!!! These products are poisonous to small children, wild life and your pet dog (dogs are actually attracted to snail bait). So, you ask, but what about the "Pet Safe" snail bait.
It is true that the ingredients listed on the label of these products are safe. The label states that they contain iron phosphate and inert ingredients. Iron Phosphate occurs naturally in nature and will not harm you, your children or your dog. It also WILL NOT KILL SNAILS!
So, how does snail bait kill snails? It works because the inert ingredients contain sodium ferric EDTA. When EDTA is mixed with iron phosphate it makes it deadly. Without it the snail bait would not harm snails. It is not listed on the label because no regulatory agency requires inert ingredients to be identified on the label.
Do some research on "pet safe snail bait" and decide for yourself before using them. Google "EDTA in snail bait" and read the article Iron Phosphate Slug Bait - How Dangerous is it in the Garden
Bottom line...we believe "pet safe" snail bait will harm pets, wild life and you and urge you not to use it. Why would you want to put poison in your garden where you are growing vegetables you intend to eat?
We believe the best deterrent to snails and slugs is food grade diacoutoumas earth ("dia-toh-may'-shus) which is available at most health food, natural food stores and Amazon online. Be sure to get "food grade" not "pool". The pool product used to clean swimming pools has harmful additives. Food grade diacoutoumas earth is totally harmless to you, your pets and all mammals. You can eat it if you want (don't know why you would want to).
It kills crawling insects like roaches, snails, fleas and ticks by dehydrating them. It has some drawbacks such as it must be reapplied after rain and it takes several days to rid your garden of snails but it works and is safe.
For more detail on controlling snails and slugs see our article CONTROLLING SNAILS AND SLUGS
Tomato Horn worm:
You will not have trouble recognizing one of these monsters if you have never seen one. First, you will notice an entire limb of your plant completely stripped of leaves. Then if you look closely in that area, you will see a large (2-4 inches long and 1/2 inch thick) worm with a pronounced horn on one end. They can be difficult to see since they are green and blend into the foliage of the plant.
The simplest method to get rid of them is to pick them off by hand and dispose of them. I have never had to use any other controls for tomato horn worms. I've never found more than two on only one or two plants and after picking them off for two or three days they do not reappear. If you have a different experience, you will have to resort to a commercial pesticide (unfortunately).
There are many tips and different methods for growing tomatoes, but if you follow these basics, chances are that you will have a great harvest of beautiful tomatoes.