Tips and Action Steps to Grow Tomatoes to Beat the Band!

Growing Tomatoes to Beat the Band!
Growing Tomatoes to Beat the Band!

It seems that Tomatoes are another crop everyone tries to grow. You can buy the plant from your garden store, put it in the ground, and chances are, it will grow. But will it grow big and take over, or stay bushy and small? Will it produce tomatoes or leaves? Big or small tomatoes? To get the most out of your tomato plant, you first need to know a few things about it.

First things first

First, you need to know what type of tomato plant you have: a determinate type is bushy, produces tomatoes all at once and has a short growing season. An indeterminate type grows tall and vining, yields tomatoes throughout the season, and has a long growing season. For Zone 9, I suppose the determining factor would be how much space is available. Small spaces should grow determinate varieties; larger gardens can grow both varieties.

Large Tomato varieties for Zone 9 are: Better Boy, Big Beef, Brandywine, Early Big Red, Floradade, Bush Early Girl, First Lady, New Girl or Sunmaster.

Medium tomato sizes are: Carnival, Celebrity, Golden Jubilee or Porter Improved

Small tomato sizes are: Cherry Grande, Small Fry, Sunsugar, Agrises, Juliet, Sweet Baby Girl, Sugary, Sugar Cherry, Sungold or Yellow Pear.

Before planting

Before planting, enrich the planting hole with compost, calcium from 2-3 eggshells (stops blossom end rot), 1 tablespoon magnesium from Epsom salts (aids growth), and a couple of Aspirin. Cover these amendments with soil; don’t let the roots touch the Epsom salt. The soil needs plenty of compost and organic matter, as tomatoes are heavy feeders.

At planting

If you plant indoors, plant them 8 weeks before you want to move them outside. The best time to put them in the ground is when the transplants are 8″ tall or 8 weeks old. Set the plant deep in the ground so additional roots can grow along the stem. Or, plant in a trench, with the top 3″ of the plant exposed. Planting from seeds is not the best.

Start seedlings outdoors when the soil is 70-75 degrees warm. In zone 9, this is about mid to late March. Space the plants 24″ apart to allow air circulation, and plant them where they can receive full sun.

Fertilize with Phosphate (Bone Meal) at planting; do not use Nitrogen fertilizers at planting; rather use it when the tomatoes have set, by side dressing with 1 tablespoon fertilizer for every 24″ of row.

If you plant determinate varieties, stagger the plantings during the season for longer harvests. Plant some, then plant more two weeks later, and some more two weeks after that. The tomatoes from each planting will ripen all at once, so staggered plantings mean the tomato harvest will be longer.

Enclose each plant with a tomato cage. Determinate, bush varieties can be enclosed with the small store-bought tomato cages, about 3-4 feet tall and 18″ around. I grow indeterminate varieties, and use a circle of cattle panel, about 3 feet in diameter and 5 feet tall, and the plants still outgrow the enclosure. Be sure to stake the cages to prevent them from blowing over in high winds.

Companion plant with basil (improves flavor), peppers, borage (attracts bees) garlic (improves flavor) and marigolds (deters nematodes) to help deter insect pests. Plant dill somewhere else in the garden, because that plant attracts tomato hornworms away from the tomato plants.

During the season

Cultivate to keep the weeds down. Mulch heavily about the time of blooming. Clip off diseased or sickly leaves to enable the plant to focus on developing flowers and tomatoes. Fertilize with Ammonium Sulfate after first yield. Fertilize once a month with 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts (Magnesium Sulfate) per 1 gallon of water.

Water at ground level, not on the leaves, to avoid fungi and diseases. Water deeply once a week, consistently. Too little watering allows the tomato to split.

After the first fruit sets, prune any leaves below the first fruits. This will allow the plant to concentrate on the fruit, not the leaves. Also, it minimizes the chance of fungi and pests attacking the leaves close to the ground. Be sure to prune on sunny days, during the hottest part of the day. This allows the plant to heal faster. Only prune once a week to avoid too much plant stress.

Prune suckers that grow between the main stalk and an established side stem. You can root those prunings to have more plants.

At Harvest

For maximum flavor, leave tomatoes on the bush until they are ripe. To deter birds from eating your harvest, use bird netting. Or, pick them when they are 3/4 green, and wrap in newspaper to ripen in your house.

Harvest often to encourage more fruit production.

Deter Insect pests

* Cutworms eat the stems of young plants. Place a cardboard or aluminum foil collar around the seedlings.

* Hornworms eat the leaves of mature plants. It is best to handpick the worms on sight. They are hard to see, as they are the same green as the plant. Look for poop on leaves or on the ground. Another trick is to use UV light to see them at night; they fluoresce brightly. Pick them off and drop them in jar of soapy water.

2 views of a Tomato Hornworm
2 views of a Tomato Hornworm-day and night (under UV light)

* Stinkbugs or Leaf-footed bugs suck tomato juices. You can use Kaolin clay on the fruit or handpick the bugs. In early morning or evening, you can easily knock them off into a jar of soapy water. During the day, they will just fly away.

So, there you have it. Tips to grow tasty tomatoes that will make you the envy of your garden club. If you have any other tips, I would like to know. Be sure to leave a comment below.

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