Tomatoes for Every Garden
This is it. No more plastic-skinned, tasteless tomatoes from the supermarket, budget-busting trips to the roadside market for homegrown tomatoes, or end-of-summer care packages from gardening friends who have more tomatoes than they know what to do with. This season you are going to grow a tomato crop that will set your mouth watering years from now, just from the memory!
Tomato seed is best begun indoors in all but the warmest climates, so let's talk about selecting your variety, sowing the seed indoors, raising the seedlings, transplanting, and caring for the tomato plant right through harvest! Here we go:
The type of tomato you choose depends upon where you live. If your growing season is short -- as in the far north -- you will want to choose an early variety to get the best possible harvest. If you live in a very warm climate with humid summer nights -- as in the deep south -- you will want to choose varieties that are heat-tolerant and resistant to blossom drop. And wherever you live, you need to grow your plants in a location that receives at least 6 hours of full sunlight a day. Tomatoes just won't grow in the shade!
That said, tomatoes are famously easy when it comes to soil type, bad weather, and other tricks of Mother Nature. They can be grown in containers on urban balconies, in the flower garden, along the fence -- just about anywhere there's sunshine and reasonably good soil. Everyone grows tomatoes because everyone can!
The other point to consider is when you want your tomatoes to harvest -- all at once or gradually over the season. If you want to can a lot of your fruit, chances are you want determinate varieties, which grow as a bush about 3 to 4 feet tall and set all their fruit within just a few weeks. If you want to eat your tomatoes as they ripen all season long, you want indeterminate varieties, which grow as a vine and need staking. A compromise between the two is indeterminate short internodes, which bear fruit all season long but tend to be more compact, with the tomatoes closer together on the plant, than traditional indeterminate varieties.
When choosing tomatoes for your garden, remember to look beyond good old big reds to consider the cherry, grape, saladette, and heirloom varieties. These are just as easy to grow as "regular" tomatoes, and the flavor differences will surprise you.
To view our complete listing of tomatoes, please click here.
Now that you've picked out your favorites, the good news is that sowing and growing the seedlings is identical for all types of tomatoes! So just label your Bio Dome or seed flat to keep the varieties straight, and off you go!
Growing Tomatoes from Seed
Find out the last average frost date for your area (from the County Agent or local Ag Extension Service). You will want to set your tomato plants into the garden about a week after that date, so sow them 6 to 8 weeks before the frost date. If you live in a warm area and you're already 6 to 8 weeks within the date, starting them late is no problem.
Gather together your seeds, Bio Dome or seed flats and rooting medium, and labels to record the sowing date. Follow the instructions for using the Bio Dome or moisten, mix, and smooth the rooting medium in the seed flat.
Drop the seeds into the pre-drilled holes of the Bio Sponges or cover lightly with rooting medium in your seed flat. Tomato seeds are not picky about having light or darkness during germination. As long as the temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees F, they will sprout in about 5 to 8 days.
When the sprouts appear, move the Bio Dome or seed flat to a location receiving at least 6 (and up to 12) hours of sunlight a day. If this isn't possible, fluorescent light is a good substitute. The best alternative, for tomatoes and all your winter-sown seedlings, is a plant light specially formulated to give leaves the right combination of nutrients. The seedlings should remain under grow lights until they are about 3 to 6 inches high, and have several sets of leaves.
Feed with the seedling food provided with your Bio Dome; if you are using seed flats, keep the soil moist but not soggy.
If you are using seed flats, you may need to thin the seedlings as they grow, leaving about an inch between sprouts. Use nail scissors to snip the seedling you're thinning at the base; don't pull it up, because it may just take neighboring seedlings with it!
If you notice that your seedlings are growing very tall, with lots of stem between each set of leaves, they are "leggy" and probably need more light. Pinch the tip of each plant to encourage side shoots to grow, and stake them if necessary to keep the stems from snapping. Then stop worrying about them -- leggy tomatoes can be corrected at transplanting time!
At last, winter releases its grip on the garden and it's time to start thinking about transplanting those tomato seedlings! About 2 weeks before your transplant date, work the soil thoroughly, adding generous amounts of compost and about 4 pounds of fertilizer (5-10-10 is ideal) for every 100 square feet. Then cover the soil with a tarp or plastic mulch to keep the weeds from sprouting until you're ready to plant.
Ten days before transplanting, set the young plants outdoors in a lightly shaded area for an hour or two. The next day, give them a longer visit outside, until they remain outdoors overnight, still in their pots. (Of course, if a cold spell hits, bring them indoors and wait a while before exposing them again!) This process is called "hardening off," and it's one of the most important things you can do for your tomatoes.
The other important step -- and this one is much, much harder -- is not to rush the transplanting process. It's so tempting, when the weather finally warms up, to get the garden growing! But once your tomatoes are in the soil, they can't be dug up and moved indoors again, and a hard frost can kill or seriously damage these plants. On the other hand, they don't mind being set out later than expected, especially if you've hardened them off so they know what life is like outdoors. Try to avoid the temptation to grow the earliest tomato on the block by outwitting Mother Nature -- she's almost impossible to fool!
When planting your tomatoes, bury the stem almost up to the lowest set of leaves, even if this means covering up several extra inches. If your plants are "leggy" (a long, tall, spindly stem with leaves widely spaced), nobody need ever know -- because you can plant them horizontally in the ground right up to the first set of leaves! Just dig a long trench a few inches below the soil, lay the plant carefully into it as if you're burying it, and then gently angle the stem upwards, so that the only part showing is the very top, with at least 4 to 6 leaves aboveground. Be careful not to bend the stem so sharply that it breaks -- bank it with soil and pat the earth down firmly around it. Then strip the underground leaves off the plant and cover up the entire length of "leggy" stem. Believe it or not, roots will sprout from the places where you pulled the leaves, and will eventually grow all along the buried stem. Your leggy plants may just be the most vigorous and healthy in the garden by harvest time! (Unfortunately, this trick works only with tomato plants, so if all your seedlings are leggy, it may be time to find a better source of indoor light!)
The amount of space you need to keep between tomato plants depends on the type you're growing:
You might think that cherry, grape, and other small Tomatoes would grow on smaller plants, but it ain't so! Give them just as much room as the Whoppers!
If you want to forget about fertilizing your Tomatoes for the rest of theseason, sink a pair of Tomato Boomers into the soil beside each plant. This phosphorous-intensive feed (the ratio is 8-24-8) releases nutrients gradually into the soil, keeping your plants healthy right up to harvest! Otherwise, plan to feed the plants with fertilizer and Sea Magic as soon as the fruit sets, and then again each month until nearly ripe.
As soon as your tomatoes are in the ground, mulch heavily around the plants to keep weeds down and moisture in the soil. If you're growing the plants in straight rows, plastic mulch is far easier and effective than loose mulch (such as straw or pine bark). The USDA reports astonishing success with Red Tomato Mulch -- not only does it work as a mulch, it acts as a growth stimulant to the tomato plants. The bright red color makes the plants think they're overcrowded, so they compete for root space, growing stockier stems and setting fruit that is much heavier and larger than identical plants grown beneath plastic mulches of other colors.
If your plants are neatly lined up in rows, plastic mulches can be cut to fit the garden design, or you may want to try another type of mulch. Here in drought-ridden South Carolina, I've had a lot of success these past few seasons with the Tomato Automator, a piece of heavy black plastic that fits neatly around the base of the Tomato plant. It's got a rim that you can fill with water and fertilizer in just the amount you need, to minimize waste. The plastic keeps down the weeds, the "pool" around the plant feeds the roots, and the whole thing fits neatly into a tomato cage.
Now, if despite your best planning, frost still threatens after you plant your tomatoes -- or if you live in a short-season climate where late frosts are just part of spring! -- there are easy ways to keep your tomatoes going. Kozy Koats use water and sunlight to keep the air around your plants a few degrees higher -- and its red tint works just like the red mulch does! (They're also available in economical green, and of course can be used for any young plant, not just tomatoes!)
Once the fruit sets, be sure to keep the plants evenly watered until they're nearly ripe. The rule of thumb is an inch and a half a week, but if you begin the season watering more heavily, keep up the same rate. Just before the fruit ripens, taper off a bit. This will make the flavor meatier and less watery.
Pick your tomatoes when they are full, red, and firm. Eat them fresh off the vine or store them at about 60 degrees. If you find yourself frantically picking the last several dozen while they're still green (to avoid an early autumn frost, for example), wrap them loosely in newspaper and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. Or count your blessings and fry them up at once!
By the way, if a really early frost threatens a large part of your crops, toss a tarp over the plants, weighing it down at the edges if necessary to keep it from blowing away. You can uncover it during the day and recover it at night, or leave it in place for several days and nights without damage to the plants.
All home-grown vegetables taste better than store-bought, but tomatoes are so much more succulent, they're almost like discovering a new food! Try a few new varieties this season and discover the wonderful differences among this easy-to-grow, versatile veggie!