For Beginners: Tomato Growing Basics

tomatoI know I previously mentioned tomato blight, an infection that can do some serious damage to tomatoes in damp summer months, but I thought it would also be good to just go over some basics about tomato growing. Tomatoes are probably one of the most popular vegetables for home gardeners to grow. They are pretty easy to grow but if you take the time to learn some very basic steps to care for your tomatoes you can increase your yield and improve the health of your tomato plant. These steps are mostly the cause of trial and error on my own part (my tomatoes last year were no bigger than a quarter), but now I have nice and healthy tomato plants growing up on my roof. After the jump, find my five basic steps for growing tomatoes.

Tip One: Know when to start your seeds. This relies almost completely on your USDA hardiness zone and your frost dates. You can find this out easily on the internet or having a farmer’s almanac handy. Another good way to find out is to know when your city turns on/off heat for buildings. In Brooklyn, the last frost is usually around April 10 to April 20 and the first frost is usually around October 27. That means, if you live in Brooklyn, you have a growing period from April 10 to October 27 for most of your plants. Tomatoes don’t come into season until July from October, so if you want to enjoy your tomatoes in July be sure to start your seeds 4-6 weeks before your frost date.

Tip Two: Know when to plant your seedlings. Wait until the seedling is more than 5 inches in height before planting it outdoors. When planting the seedling, make sure to bury the bottom leaves in the soil so they can turn into strong roots to support the tomato plant. You should bury about an 1.5 inches of the seedling underground. It is absolutely imperative that you do not plant your seedlings outdoors until the threat of frost has passed. If you have planted your tomatoes in April and are worried they might get too cold (they don’t like to be in temperatures below 60 degrees), cover them with a glass cloche. Usually, if you are planting your tomatoes in the ground, you shouldn’t plant the seedlings until you can walk on the soil barefoot. I’ve found that since I grow all of my plants in containers and thus the soil is kept warmer, I can start my tomatoes a little earlier than those gardeners who plant in the ground.

Tip Three: Size matters. Know the right container for your tomatoes. I couldn’t afford to buy new containers this year so I used some old 3-5 gallon gardening bins I had leftover from some bushes I bought. Determinate, or bush tomatoes, will usually grow best in that size. Indeterminate, or vining tomatoes, can grow happily in a slightly smaller container. I’ve hear some purists say that you can’t grow determinate tomatoes in containers but I’ve never had a problem, just avoid plants that will produce huge fruits. If you have determinate tomatoes, be sure to stake or cage them when they start growing past 2 feet.

Tip Four: Prune often and prune a lot in the first month. Here is where you will separate yourself from the casual tomato growers and start getting big, healthy yields. Within the first month of growing, prune all of the leaves below the first flower cluster. Prune off suckers that appear in the node where the plant leaflet meets the stem when they reach about 1.5 inches. This will ensure that all of the tomato plant’s sugar is going towards making and ripening fruit instead of making leaves. Always prune off dead or yellowed leaves. Below is a guide to pruning from Fine Gardening which is really helpful:

Tip Five: Don’t be afraid of green tomatoes when the frost comes. Hopefully, come your frost date, most of your tomatoes will have ripened, but often there are still a few green ones left on a plant. If you still have a few weeks left of the season and are noticing new flowers coming out of your plant, pinch them off. This will encourage the ones that are left to ripen. Don’t be afraid of the frost date: my biggest regret was uprooting an entire plant in early October because that week’s temperature went below 60. Sure enough, the temperature shot back up and my tomatoes would have done fine if I had left them intact for the next few weeks. However, if your frost date is fast approaching and things are looking chilly, carefully uproot your plant and make sure some of the roots are intact. Put the plant in a paper bag and hang it upside down in a cool location. The fruits will continue to ripen during the process. You don’t need to mist or soak the roots during this process, just leave the whole thing a lone for a bit of time, checking in every few days to see how things are progressing.

Enjoy your tomatoes! I will do a post about canning tomatoes pretty soon, they are my favorite thing to can.

2 responses to “For Beginners: Tomato Growing Basics

  1. This is helpful – very clear – and ilike knowing I can find it the archive when I need it.

  2. Very helpful, thank you!

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