How to grow a tomato

I’m obsessed with growing tomatoes and when your CEO asks for advice.. well you figure you might as well use the notes you gave him to fill a blog post. So here you go.. nothing whatsoever to do with dating, being 40, men, sex or humor. But lots on how to grow a tomato.

Sun. You need to plant in the sunniest spot in your yard. Ideally tomato plants should have 8 hours of sun a day. If your garden faces north or doesn’t get much sun, you should probably focus on growing leafy veggies instead (kale, spinach, chard) which do well in low light. Your tomatoes won’t grow with less than 2-3 hours of sun per day.

Planting: Most tomatoes don’t do well in pots (unless its specified on the plant). Cherry tomatoes are pretty much the only ones you can grow successfully in a pot. Tomato roots grow horizontally rather than vertically, so if you have to use pots, you need to make sure they’re wide, rather than deep. Roots generally only go down about 6 inches, but will spread horizontally up to 14 inches. Therefore don’t ever plant tomatoes too close together – not only can the soil not support the volume of roots of two plants, but you’re also opening yourself up for disease transmission (i.e fungus and black flies). Plant at least 14-18 inches apart. In Colorado I generally assume a 2-3 ft square minimum per plant since mine grow about 6-7 feet tall and about 2-3 ft wide. (full sun, good soil, good nutrients).. see I told you this was all about tomatoes and you thought I was kidding?

Plants: Since you’re probably going to buy an actual plant rather than grow from seed, I suggest mixing some heirloom varieties and a hybrid or two. The hybrids are genetically engineered to be more disease resistant but don’t taste as good as heirlooms. I have one or two hybrids in the garden as it seems to help keep disease and flies down. Supersweet 100s (hybrid) are easy to grow, you can grow them in pots if you need to and they’re deliciously sweet cherry tomatoes. For heirlooms I always grow Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and Green. The purple is very smoky in flavor (amazing with mozzarella and basil), the Brandywine is an all around winner on taste for anything and the Green is slightly tart but really delicious with cheese and wine. Add an Italian paste tomato such as San Marzano and you will have a slew of fruits for making red sauce or canning/ bottling/freezing. So 4-5 plants should keep you going for an entire summer and you’ll be giving them away. It also enables you to lose one (which you might), and not have to feel too bad about it. If you plant now, you’ll have fresh tomatoes from end July – mid October. Cherry tomatoes ripen fastest, and the brand ‘Early Bird’ are ready in early July… the rest are more likely for early August. (Again, we’re talking Colorado, so all bets are off for non mountain, moisture rich or cool places).

Staking: Since your plants will grow tall in Colorado (assuming full sun), you need good staking. Those flimsy wire cones you buy at Home Depot generally won’t cut it if you’re growing heirlooms or anything bigger than a cherry. The weight of the fruit will cause the cone to topple over by August. Why is that bad? The fruit is closer to or on the ground and more likely to contract disease. Plus a plant unsupported will take up much more space. Instead, head to a good nursery such as Paulinos (again, Colorado specific) and look at tomato cages or anything which is more sturdy than the basic thin wine cones. The Cadillac of cages is the Texas Tomato cage.. these are large and aren’t pretty, but if you want your plants to stand up, they’re second to none. Your neighbors will think you’ve started a pot farm.. but your tomatoes will love you.  If its your first year, maybe skip them, but if you get into growing.. definitely worth the investment and makes picking the actual fruit a LOT easier. Plus they fold up flat for storage in the winter.

You won’t need to stake until your plant is about 3 ft tall but after that its essential – usually around the time your first blooms are forming.

Supplementary planting: In order to pollinate your tomatoes you’ll need bees. And bees flock to flowers. Therefore make sure your garden area also has some ‘bee attractors’ i.e. honeysuckle, lavender, anything which gets a lot of play with bees. Don’t plant right next to the tomatoes, but in the general vicinity so that you attract more pollinators to your yard. I had a beautiful Rose of Sharon tree, full of huge blooms that bees love, with the result that I was drowning in tomatoes.. but my neighbor’s were pretty sad. (I stole his bees!). If you don’t have much room, I always recommend planting basil and marigolds around your tomatoes as they actually attract bees and add things to the soil that help your tomatoes grow. Don’t ask me what, but it works. Don’t plant onions or beans too close to tomatoes or you’ll have the reverse effect.. the alum family inhibits tomato growing and they just don’t like beans for some reason. (I’d tend to agree but I’m a bean hater). Your first blooms will appear in June/ July (depending on the heat/ dryness – this year is likely to be later due to our crazy ice/rain storms)- this is your first fruit forming. Without any blooms you won’t have fruit, so if you don’t see any blooms forming by the first week of July, I’d add some nutrients. (see below).

Watering: Tomatoes like to be treated quite harshly. They’re the biggest fans of S&M in the veggie world. Do NOT over water. This causes mold, fungus and all manner of problems. In fact, under watering is best. Parch those bitches. In June and July when we get heavy afternoon showers (Colorado.. gotta love it) you probably won’t need to water much at all but once the temps hit the mid 90s-100, you’ll need to water every day. When to water? Stick your finger in the soil and if its slightly damp, wait another day. If its as dry as your grandma’s skin.. soak the plant at the base. Really soak. This encourages them to put out more roots, and grow bigger. I can’t emphasise enough that you need to wait until they’re dry before watering..its even ok to wait until your plant looks a bit saggy or droopy. They LOVE it.  Most importantly don’t water the leaves, stick to the base. Water on the leaves creates burn and since all of the moisture is needed at the roots, what are you doing sprinkling water on the leaves? Unless its super hot, I water every other day in the hottest part of the summer, in the morning or evening (in the Colorado summer, it’s generally mid to high 90s during the day). Definitely don’t let your sprinklers take care of it… they’ll over soak and just burn your leaves. If you’re not sure whether to water.. leave it and then revisit the next morning. You can’t kill tomato plants unless you leave them for 3 days without water in 100 degree temps. They’re really do like a bit of abuse. *ahem* Maybe that’s why I love them so.

Nutrients: Unless your garden has never been planted, ever, you’ll need to add some nutrients to help things along. Ideally you add one variety before the blooms form (which help to increase the number of blooms and therefore fruit), and one later in the season to help the fruit grow big. Alternatively you can add this stuff (High Country Gardens Yum Yum Mix) to your garden and you probably won’t need to add much else (its hard to find locally but worth the shipping cost). This is the crack of tomatoes. But assuming you don’t want to pay $25 in shipping for a bag of dirt, head to your nursery (nope, NOT Home Depot or Ace). You need organic and tomato specific. Liquid is easiest as you can add to a watering can. Raking in nutrients is a pain and can disturb the roots if you get over ambitious. Don’t ever use non organic (who are you, Monsanto?), and anything called ‘Miracle Gro’ is destined to fail. Ask at any nursery for tomato food and everyone has a favorite so go with what your nursery suggests. But definitely use it periodically (every 2-3 weeks until September), to keep the blooms coming and the fruit-growing. Consider it vitamins for your plant.. or insurance against crappy soil.

Bugs/ disease: Most likely if you don’t over water, don’t plant too close, you won’t have any problems. Things to watch out for – white powdery stuff on the leaves (mildew/ mold), tiny black flies or burned edges of the leaves. If this happens (rare), just take a leaf to the nursery and ask them for an organic solution. They’re the most informative. Alternatively you can google pictures of tomato disease and it will let you know what the problem is and how to fix. One thing you might have this year is some tomatoes with black spots on them (due to the heavy rainfall – its called Blossom End Rot). If you don’t have tomatoes in the ground, don’t worry. If you do.. just don’t water them for a week or two so they can dry out. Any fruit which looks like it has big black spots or bruising is just a result of too much water very fast (aka, Colorado spring showers). Pick them off and the next round should be fine. It’s not fatal, it just looks ugly.

Thinning: As your plant grows you will want to thin out some of the shoots/ leaves. This gives more room for the fruit, and helps air circulate through the plant. After all you’re growing fruit, not leaves. There isn’t really a science to it (I’m sure there is but I’m not that nerdy). Every week, look for new minor shoots which don’t have blooms on them and nip them off. You can remove about 1/3rd of the non producing shoots and it helps avoid a build up of moisture at the center of the plant and any fungus/ mold/ disease. Remove from the middle, NOT the top of the plant. There are lots of articles on-line about pruning or thinning your plants. Some people take off almost all (the Italians do this), others only take off a few… I’ve found if you remove too many, you have a smaller crop, so I err on the side of only taking a few off.. but you do need to do this or you’ll end up with a 6 x 2 ft tomato bush with 2 fruit on it.

 Existing plants which aren’t doing well. If you already have plants in the ground and they’re looking very sad its likely due to one of the following;

  1. Its early in the season and we’ve had a LOT of rain. Tomatoes don’t like rain. Give it a few weeks for the soil to dry out and if they don’t bounce back, dig up and replace with new plants from the nursery. (you can do this until July).
  2. Your yard is too dark/ doesn’t get enough sun. Either move your plants/ replant or move to pots (and cherry tomatoes) which you can put in the sunniest spots.
  3. Crispy leaves that look burned white. If you’ve been watering from above on the leaves on a hot day, or if it’s rained after a hot day, this is water scarring. Nothing fatal. Just looks ugly. Wait until the plant is bigger and then remove the scarred leaves.
  4. Lower leaves are dead/dying. Again, the weather has been temperamental so wait a little white until the plant dries out and grows a little more, then remove. It’s normal for the lower leaves to die off as the plant grows. Just don’t remove ALL leaves or your plant will die. Duh.
  5. Other – I’ve always googled diseases and found out what’s the problem. I’ve probably lost one plant per season due to something (perfectly normal). Ideally you plant 1 more than you need so that if it happens, you’re not short. If one plant is diseased, try to avoid contacting the diseased plant and then your other plants as this will transfer the disease. Similarly if your plants are too close and touching, prune back so that they’re not. This will help stop disease from spreading. If your plant doesn’t respond to treatment, dig it up and move away from the rest of your garden. Yes its sad, but its essential that whatever killed it doesn’t spread to your other beauts. Don’t replant in exactly the same hole unless you have to. If its something in the soil, it will just re-infect the new plant. Best to leave the empty spot, let whatever it is get killed during the winter freeze and start again the next year.

Yes growing tomatoes is incredibly nerdy but its cheap (compared to the tomatoes at the farmers market), you know where your fruit came from and that they really are organic. Plus nothing beats standing in an evening, plucking a sun warmed fruit off a plant and eating it right there with juice dripping down your hands.

Happy gardening!

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2 Responses to How to grow a tomato

  1. Chris Monnens says:

    I think we’ve only done about 23 thinks wrong with our tomato plants so far :) Any way you can come out before the tomato festival this year and we’ll start all over again?

    • I’m so there :) And its not too late to revise what you’re doing :) Just move your plants to the front of your house (super sunny), higher than any dog can pee on, stop watering so much, and you’ll have a ton of fruit.

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