Some folks feel that the person who picks the first ripe tomato is the best gardener in the neighborhood. Whether that’s true or not, the flavor of a home grown tomato is hard to beat, and most gardeners will want to include them in their list of crops. Besides their taste, tomatoes have some other things going for them; they are easy to grow, are heavy yielders, and can produce all summer from one plant, if the proper variety is chosen.
Tomatoes are available in determinate or indeterminate varieties. Both types can be found in seed catalogs in astounding numbers of varieties for those who like to grow their own plants, or as garden ready transplants in some of the more popular varieties at nurseries and garden centers.
Whether you have started your own seeds or purchased transplants, take care to harden off the plants before you set them out in the sun and wind. Tomatoes are warm weather lovers, so don’t plant them too early. Expose them to an increasing number of hours outdoors each day, starting in a relatively protected site and gradually working up to leaving them out all day in a sunny area. If heavy weather or frost threaten, be sure to rescue the plants by bringing them indoors briefly. After a week or so of this treatment, the plants will be ready to plant in the garden.
Tomato plants will form roots anywhere the stem contacts the soil. Many gardeners take advantage of this by planting tomatoes horizontally, with only the tops sticking out of the ground. To set out plants in this manner, dig a trench several inches deep and as long as the roots and stem. Lay the plant in the trench, allowing the top two or three sets of leaves to come to the soil surface, and gently firm soil around the roots and stem. Roots will grow quickly in the warm, top inches of soil, getting the plant off to a fast start. Watering the plants at this time with a starter solution of fertilizer (two Tbsp. 5-10-10 or 5-10-5 in a gallon of water) will also benefit the plant. If a late frost is predicted, cover the plants with light sheets or boxes to protect them.
If you are growing an indeterminate variety, you will have to choose between staking, caging, or allowing your plants to sprawl. All of these methods have their pluses and minuses. You will have to decide which will work best for you. Determinate plants sometimes benefit from a small amount of support, but staking and caging are not necessary for these low growers.
Staking tomatoes saves space and encourages earlier harvest. Harvest is easier and the plants are kept within bounds so venturing into the tomato patch does not seem like a jungle adventure. Staking does require extra work in pruning and training the vines, and the removal of foliage can result in sunscalded fruit.
To grow tomatoes on stakes, drive five to six foot long stakes one foot into the ground next to the plant at transplanting time. Prune the plant to one or two main stems by pinching out suckers, or shoots, which arise at the junction of each leaf and the main stem. Tie the main stems to the stake every ten inches, using strips of cloth or heavy twine. Leave some slack in the tie to avoid crushing the stem. When the plant reaches the top of the stake, trim the top back to concentrate energy into fruit ripening.
Letting your tomatoes sprawl is certainly easier than staking them. All you have to do is let them grow. Harvest will start somewhat later than for staked tomatoes, but will likely be much greater per plant. A light organic mulch is useful in reducing fruit rot.
Caging is a reasonable compromise between staking and sprawling. The plants are grown in circular cages which provide support and containment for the plants and eliminate the need for tedious pruning. Sunscald is reduced as compared to staked plants because of the abundance of foliage produced by caged tomatoes.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and will benefit from a sidedressing of fertilizer during the season. Place a small amount of a general purpose fertilizer once or twice during the season, scratching it in lightly. Don’t overdo it; one cup of fertilizer will take care of ten plants. Do not allow any to touch the foliage or stem or it will burn them. This won’t be a problem if you sidedress your plants with an organic fertilizer such as dried manure or cottonseed meal, though salts in fresh manure can burn plants.