Grow Your Tomatoes
• Grow From Seed
• Store-Bought Plants
• Container Growing
• In the Garden
• Tomato Pests
• Tomato Diseases
• Heirloom or Hybrid
• Popular Varieties
• Companion Planting
• Grow Lights
• Saving Your Seeds
Care in the garden
There are a few basic things to know about caring for your tomatoes once they are in the garden.
PruningYou can choose to prune your plants or let them grow wild. Un-pruned plants will develop many stems and if not supported, they will sprawl across the ground and take up a lot of space.
Tomatoes that are pruned down to just a few stems will be more compact in size, can be staked, and will produce larger fruit.
How do I prune my tomato plants?
Around the time when your tomato plants start to produce flowers, they will also start producing side branches. Side branches are stems that emerge from the nodes between leaves and the main stem. They are commonly known as "suckers," and some say that they do not produce fruit. However, this is not true at all. Side branches will produce flowers and fruit just like the original stem. The result of side branches is a bushy tomato plant with many stems, and probably many fruit as well.
Pick side branches out when they are a couple inches long. You can leave a few to grow into new stems, and you will get a higher yield of fruit. If you are tight on space, I suggest pruning the plants down to anywhere from 1 to 4 stems so they can be staked close together. This means that you will let a couple side branches grow into full fruit-bearing shoots, but pick off any others as they come out.
If you are growing tomatoes in cages, pruning will probably not be necessary. Cages are designed to contain tomato plants full of shoots.
Since each side branch is basically another stem, side branches will produce their own side branches. Pruning requires work; you may have to prune every few days when the plants start growing fast.
As a general rule, you will get bigger but fewer fruit with fewer stems, and smaller but more fruit with more stems.
If someone is trying to grow a giant tomato, they may prune off all the branches, and even cut off all but one or two fruit to allow all the plant's energy to be put into producing one fruit.
On the other hand, many people will let their plants grow naturally with many stems in large cages and produce large numbers of average-sized fruit. It is more common to see non-pruned, caged or sprawling tomato plants than neatly staked and pruned ones. (I currently prefer pruning and staking, mainly because of space restrictions).
Allowing the plants to sprawl on the ground, without stakes, cages or any pruning, increases risk of disease and makes it harder to access the ripe fruit. I suggest either caging your tomatoes, or pruning and staking them.
Stakes and cagesIf you are pruning your plants down to just a few stems, then you should use wooden or bamboo stakes to support the plants. Drive the stakes into the ground as far as they can go, or at least 10 inches. Do this right after planting the tomatoes in the garden, so you don't damage roots.
Tie your tomatoes to the stakes every foot or so, and use a non-abrasive material to avoid damaging the stems. You can cut plastic shopping bags into strips and use these as plant ties.
The stakes should be at least 6 feet high if you are pruning. Tomato vines can get very long in some conditions; mine have grown to at least 10 feet!
If you are growing a bush variety, little or no staking will be needed as these plants will not continue to grow throughout the whole season. You can stake bush varieties, but the stake will only need to be a few feet tall.
Many commercial tomato cages are too small for most tomato varieties. Many tomato cages are less than 4 feet tall. While these will work well for bush varieties, I would never use them for a full-sized tomato plant.
A popular cage material that many use is concrete reinforcement wire. This is like rebar, except that it's thinner and is welded into a mesh. Thus, it's known as remesh and it can be found at a hardware store. You can use this to build your own cylindrical cages of a better height and strength. These cages will need to be anchored to the ground with one or more stakes, as they cannot be inserted into the ground themselves.
Determinate vs. IndeterminateThere are two main kinds of tomato plant that are distinguished by one big difference.
Most tomato varieties are indeterminate, which means that they continually grow and produce flowers and fruit all year long, until they are killed by a frost.
Some tomato varieties, notably bush-type varieties, are determinate. These will grow to a certain size, set all their fruit, and then stop growing. Most determinate tomatoes are much smaller than indeterminates and produce smaller fruit. However, there are some determinate bush varieties that produce average-sized slicing tomatoes. But it's not likely that you'll get a full season's continuous harvest from these plants.
Semi-determinate tomato plants are somewhat in-between. They will generally get larger than most determinates but not as large as indeterminates.
Never prune determinate (bush-type or compact) tomato plants. Since these plants do not continually grow and set fruit, you will be significantly reducing your harvest by pruning the plants. Once the fruit have all ripened, the plant may turn yellow and won't produce much at all.
MulchingYou can mulch with compost, straw, grass clippings, store-bought mulch, or even plastic mulch. This will help keep the weeds down and retain moisture.
WateringTomato plants require the equivalant of at least 1 inch of rain per week. Where I live in Middle Tenneseee, it gets hot during the summer and un-mulched tomato plants need watering almost every day during the hottest and driest months.
Water in the morning before the sun gets hot or thoroughly in the evening.
Use your hose and spray the ground with water. If mud spatters up onto the leaves, give them a quick spray to wash them off. Keeping the leaves clean and as dry as possible will minimize risk of disease.
You can also install drip irrigation, or a soaker hose, which will water the plants slowly but deeply.
Do not overwater. This can be just as bad as underwatering. Wait till the surface of the soil is dry before watering. If plants start to wilt, you have waited too long. If the soil is still slightly moist near the surface, you don't need to water yet.
SunlightIt is recommended by most experts and experienced growers that tomatoes need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day for good yields. My current garden only gets about 4 hours a day, but I still get a fairly good amount of fruit. Avoid filtered sunlight, as I have heard that tomatoes don't like this and prefer as much direct sunlight as possible.
My garden gets good yields only because the 4 hours of sunlight it gets are the most intense 4 hours of sun during the entire day. My garden is exposed to direct, strong sun from around 12:30 PM to around 4:30. If your garden doesn't get the "required" amount of sunlight, but gets the most intense sunlight, then you may still get good yields.
By July of 2009, I counted over 450 tomatoes, many of them cherries, all from 15 plants that got only 4 hours of sunlight per day.
HarvestWhen fruit have set, make sure the plants are consistently watered but not over-watered. Inconsistent or little watering can cause blossom-end rot. A dry period without water, followed by a heavy watering to make up for the loss, can send too much water into the fruit, causing them to crack or split open. Keep them as evenly and consistently watered as you can.
Harvest fruit when they are fully colored on the vine. Determining the ripeness of some varieties, such as the green-when-ripe heirlooms, can be difficult. Some colored heirlooms may ripen with green shoulders that don't ripen - this is normal for some varieties and the green part can be cut off. Generally a tomato softens when it is ripe; compare an unripe tomato to a ripe tomato by squeezing them a little.
If many of your tomatoes are cracking, this can be reduced or eliminated by picking the fruit when they show the first signs of color. Usually the blossom end of the fruit will "blush," indicating that it has started to ripen. Also, picking them early will save them from any animals that are hungry for ripening tomatoes.
Tomatoes picked at the "blush" stage will ripen indoors on the counter. From many gardeners' experience, this does not affect the flavor of the tomatoes. To speed up ripening, put the blushing fruit in a sealed bag along with a ripe apple or banana. (Apples and bananas emit relatively high levels of ethylene gas, a natural gas that stimulates the ripening of fruit.) Store tomatoes on the counter for several days. Some varieties will last for weeks, but others will become mushy within a couple days, so be sure to research the varieties you are growing.
Use your tomatoes in whatever dish you want - to start, I suggest a tomato sandwich with mozzarella and basil. The flavor of a good, well-chosen variety of tomato grown in your garden is like none other.
End of the seasonWhen you pull up your tomato plants at the end of the season, don't till them into the soil or compost them. They could harbor disease that could easily survive the winter and contaminate next year's crop. Use compost that has been made from other organic matter.
Tomato pests & diseasesClick here to go to the tomato pests page, where you can identify common pests that may show up on your tomatoes.
Click here to go to the tomato diseases page, where you can learn about common tomato disorders and diseases, and help prevent some of them.
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