Dreaming of juicy tomatoes, plucked right from your own garden? Tomatoes are a staple for any veggie garden, and easy to grow with the right preparation and care.
Sun and Air
Tomatoes like it hot. Plant in late spring when temperatures have settled and there is no threat of cold snaps to harm your plants. Your plants should be in direct sunlight six to 10 hours each day to reach their maximum growth. Air circulation is vital as well, so plant tomatoes three feet apart so their leaves do not overlap and each plant is well ventilated.
Stake Your Claim
Tomato branches need to be supported off the ground to grow strong and healthy. A tomato cage, stake or trellis is needed to elevate plants and support the weight of the growing harvest. Each plant should be at least 3 feet apart to give the roots room to expand. Tomato cages work for tomatoes planted both in the ground or in a container garden. If planting in a container, make sure you have chosen a pot large enough to accommodate the size of a fully-grown plant.
Seeds and Seedlings
Growing tomato plants from seeds is a little bit trickier than transplanting an existing seedling. Beginners should go with a seedling and develop their gardening skills as their plant grows. But if you are ready to work with seeds, start with a sturdy variety that is disease-resistant to common problems in your region.
Germinating seeds should start six weeks before the average last frost date in your area. Seeds are grown indoors in seed-starting trays, biodegradable pots or egg cartons with holes for water drainage. Purchase specialty soil that is labeled for seed starting, and water often enough so that the soil is moist when planting. Your seeds will need a warm room of about 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and plenty of sunshine to sprout.
Transplant Seedlings and Plants
Tomato plants that have established roots and have grown a few inches tall are ready to be planted in a garden or large container once the last chances of frost have passed. When purchasing seedlings at a garden center or store, look for plants that have deep roots and lower leaves. If the plants are a very lush green with high leaves, they may not have established roots.
When planting your tomatoes, bury the plant until the soil covers the bottom leaves. Those leaves will grow into roots that will serve to strengthen the plant. This trick only works for tomato plants, so don't try it with other vegetables. Water your plants immediately to help the roots set into the soil. If you are using tomato cages, place them around the young plants while the ground is soft and wet.
Soil and Water
Did you have a veggie patch last year? It's time to move it. Soil can carry bacteria that can be harmful for your tomato plants, even after sitting fallow for a season. Move your tomatoes to a new spot with plenty of fresh soil. If you are using a raised garden bed, replace last year's soil with new garden soil. Your plants should be watered on a regular basis, with a few extra waterings during their first few weeks in the ground. Following these first weeks, you can reduce watering frequency to once a week until the temperatures rise in the summer. If the top inch of soil is dry, water directly on the soil. Water every five days when it is especially hot, or if there is little rain.
Keep Pests Away
Tomatoes are susceptible to pests, especially the caterpillar that loves the plant so much, it is named after them: the tomato hornworm. This green caterpillar munches on the leaves and it only takes a couple to destroy your tomato plants. Tilling the soil before planting can expose larvae hidden in the soil and prevent tomato hornworms from hatching. There are botanical pesticides that attack common plant-eating pests, but read the labels before purchasing. Companion plants are a natural way to deter some pests. Plant basil by your tomatoes to repel caterpillars and flea beetles. Catnip is a good companion to repel leaf-eating aphids. Adding mulch around your plants early in the season can keep weeds that carry disease and attract insects from growing by your tomatoes.
Keep an Eye on Your Plant
Your tomatoes should grow quickly and may double their size in 12 to 15 days. Add compost and fertilizer to your plant if it starts to wilt as it may be hungry. Wilting plants that do not respond to water or food may have caught a fungal disease or blight and should not be eaten. Pruning plants can help aid their growth so remove any limbs or leaves that do not have any blossoms or are not bearing fruit. Trimming the upper leaves back after your first tomatoes are picked can encourage new blossoms and helps to keep the height of the plant manageable.