How to Grow Tomatoes
There is nothing quite like the flavor of a home-grown tomato, and there are few food plants that are easier to grow. While it is true the healthiest plants and most abundant harvests are achieved by spending a good amount of time fertilizing, pruning and maintaining your plants, it is absolutely possible to grow tomatoes with very little time and effort.
Tomatoes are a particularly good choice if you are hoping to get your children interested in gardening and are great for small spaces, since they can thrive in containers.
Choosing the Right Tomato Plants for Your Garden
You can grow tomatoes from seeds and this is a great option if you are on a tight budget. Tomato seeds are inexpensive and you can even get free tomato seeds by saving them from tomatoes you purchase at your local farmers market or grocery store. If you decide to grow tomatoes from seed, you will want to start them indoors in a seed starting tray before transplanting them to your garden as seedlings.
With that being said, it is much easier, faster and more popular to grow tomatoes from young plants purchased at a local garden center. Tomato plants are not expensive, so, if at all possible, you should go this route.
Your next consideration is the variety (or varieties) of tomatoes you want to grow. You will have the most success and the longest harvest if you plant more than one variety, including varieties that produce at the beginning, middle and end of the growing season.
When selecting varieties, you will need to choose between determinate and indeterminate options. Determinate tomato plants are more compact, grow more like a bush and have a smaller footprint. Indeterminate tomato plants grow more like a vine and can sprawl out and take over a large section of your garden if not caged.
Anyone who has tried to grow tomatoes in their backyard garden knows that they are highly susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests. Between the aphids, hornworms, nematodes, blight, wilt, blossom end rot and more, it can sometimes seem like a never-ending struggle to keep your tomato plants healthy.
Some of these issues can be avoided by choosing disease-resistant varieties. You will also need to be diligent about crop rotation so that diseases do not establish in the soil and about pest control, since some tomato pests can decimate a plant in a matter of days.
Do not let this scare you off of growing tomatoes; tomatoes are actually quite easy to grow, they just happen to be more susceptible to disease and pests than many other food plants.
Preparing Soil to Grow Tomatoes
Tomatoes prefer well-draining, loamy or sandy soil with a slightly acidic pH. You can easily test the pH of your soil with an inexpensive soil testing kit available at any garden center.
If you live in Southern California, you most likely have clay soil, which is not ideal, but you can improve it significantly by mixing in plenty of organic compost from your backyard compost bin or purchased from your local garden center. Adding compost will also help you get your soil to the slightly acidic level that tomatoes and most food plants prefer.
If you will be planting smaller plants that do not require a deep hole, mix the compost in to a depth of about eight inches. This will add nutrients and improve soil structure for better drainage. The act of turning over the soil will also loosen it for easier planting and happier plants. If you are planting larger tomato plants, you may need to till the compost into the soil to a depth of up to about two feet.
If you are interested in using fertilizer to boost your tomato plants’ growth or productivity, you will have no trouble finding several options specifically formulated for tomatoes. Follow the instructions on the package for how much and how often to apply fertilizer for tomatoes.
Best Place to Plant Tomatoes
You can grow tomatoes in containers, in raised garden beds or in the ground. Choose a sunny location in your garden or on your patio that receives a minimum of six hours of sun each day.
How to Plant Tomatoes
One of the tricks to growing healthy tomato plants is planting each plant deep enough to bury about two-thirds of the stem. While this might sound a little extreme, your plants really will do much better if you remember this crucial tip. Planting tomatoes this deep can be even more beneficial in drought-prone areas, like Southern California, since it allows your plants to access more water from roots grown from the covered stem.
If you are planting in the ground or in raised garden beds, plant determinate tomato varieties about 24 inches apart and indeterminate tomato plants about 36 inches apart. Some varieties can really take over your garden and crowd or shade other plants if they are not given plenty of space and kept under control, so this is not a food plant you can plant closer together to save space in your garden.
You will need to use cages, stakes or a trellis to support your tomato plants and to help keep them under control. Put your chosen support structure in place at the time of planting. This will allow you to begin to train your plants right away and to avoid trying to corral your plants into support structures after they have started to sprawl.
Once you have your tomatoes planted and supported, water them well to help get them off to a good start and add a thick layer of mulch to improve moisture retention and limit weed growth.
Ongoing Care for Tomato Plants
When the weather is hot and dry, you will need to deeply irrigate your tomato plants twice per week. When the weather is more favorable, you should be okay with watering deeply once per week. Every garden is different and even the same garden can have different irrigation needs from one month to the next, so check soil moisture often to help you determine the best watering schedule for your tomatoes.
The thick layer of mulch you applied at the time of planting will help limit weed growth, but tomatoes are heavy feeders, so you will need to stay on top of removing any weeds that do manage to grow in your garden bed.
If you are using fertilizer, follow the instructions on the packaging to know how often to reapply the fertilizer throughout the growing season.
You should also side dress your plants with compost about once a month to continually add nutrients to the soil.
Harvest your tomatoes as they ripen so that the plant’s energy can go towards setting new fruit. You will also want to prune yellow or dead leaves and stems to keep your tomato plant healthier and producing as long as possible.
After you harvest your tomatoes, you can store them at room temperature or can them to have home-grown tomatoes to use up to a year after harvest. If you chop or slice your tomatoes and have some left over, you will want to store the cut pieces in the refrigerator, but whole fruits should be stored at room temperature in a spot with good air flow to maintain their flavor.