Who doesn’t love a fresh garden tomato sandwich?!
Tomatoes are delicious, and I could easily eat a tomato every day.
Although tomatoes prefer hot weather, and are a bit more finicky than some other vegetables, many people manage to grow them regardless, even if only in a little pot on their back porch.
So really you may already be a tomato expert, but if you aren’t, here we go!
Like I said, tomatoes are warm weather crops (like the squash/cucumber family, and peppers). Ideally, in our climate, having a well ventilated greenhouse would be the best way to ensure lots of big tomatoes for an extended period of time. But most people do not have a greenhouse, including myself (at least not yet). And so let’s look at growing tomatoes sans greenhouse.
No greenhouse means you have to wait for the weather to pick up and be sure it is going to stay up. Tomatoes are very sensitive to frost and light freezes and simply grow better in warmer conditions. The warmer the better (not to be taken literally, because we do not want to fry our tomatoes).
For germination (seeds to grow), you need temperatures of at least 15 degrees (preferably soil temperature as well). And for continued growth, you need temperatures between 20-23 degrees. The more consistent temperatures are, the more growth you have. If temperatures are dropping every night, growth will take longer.
Row cover is often used to keep heat in, and can act as somewhat of a greenhouse, but most tomato plants require staking, and therefore are too tall to be put under row cover. Another option would be a hoophouse, if you have the money for the investment. But if we start talking about a hoophouse, we are talking about more than just your backyard garden. Here’s a picture of a hoop house to give you an idea of what it looks like but I will be working sans hoophouse (at least for this summer).
Determinate tomato varieties, which are genetically controlled, can grow as a bush and do not need staking, and therefore could possibly fit under row cover, but I would like to buy organic indeterminate tomato varieties which will need staking. So keep this in mind when you are planning the layout of your garden. Anything that will grow tall will be casting a shadow. And so you probably want to have your taller plants at the edges of your garden, or spaced far enough away from your other vegetables so that they are not keeping them in the shade for half of the day. We love the sun and so do vegetables, so let them soak it up as much as possible!
Seeing as we have to wait so long for temperatures to warm up, it is best to start tomatoes from seed 6-8 weeks before you plan on planting them outside, and/or they can be bought as seedlings when you are ready to plant.
Starting tomatoes from seed does require a bit more work in comparison to some other vegetables but it ain’t nothin that we can’t handle!
So: plant them in flats or trays 1/2 inch deep, spacing them at least 1/2 inch apart. This should be done about 8 weeks before you plan on transplanting them. The more time they have to grow, the bigger and stronger they will be when transplanted, and therefore they will be more likely to survive the transition. Keep them in the warmest, sunniest spot you have. Once they have 4 leaves, transfer them to a deeper pot (about 3-4 inches). When you ‘pot up’, remove the lower leaves, and place the uppermost leaves just above the soil line (so you can bury the rest of the plant). This will allow the stem to grow stronger. And you should ‘pot up’ again once they have reached a height of 8-10 inches into an even bigger pot. (The second potting up isn’t absolutely necessary, but it is a very good idea from my experience.)
Before transplanting them directly outside, you also want to give your transplants the chance to ‘harden off’ which means getting them used to outdoor temperatures but still sheltering them. So you can place them outside on a table under row cover, or you could place them outside but bring them in if ever it is too windy or cold. This helps them acclimatize and get used to outdoor weather. Treat your vegetables like babies; be very gentle but firm, so they can grow big and tall.
Once they have hardened off and you are ready to transplant them into your garden (because temperatures, including night time temperatures, are at or above 20 degrees), space them about 3 feet apart (only one row per bed). Again, set them into the ground deeply, so that the first leaves are just above the ground.
Once they are in the ground, if ever you know there is going to be a cold night, cover them up with something, even if it’s just a newspaper tent!
As the tomatoes grow they will need to be supported by something; poles, hanging wires, cages…something. It’s your choice really, you can use whatever you have at your disposal.
If you don’t have that many plants, you can probably get away with not trimming them, but you will have to support them a lot because they may get out of control. If you do trim them, which you should do if you have quite a few, you simply need to trim the suckers (the little stems that grow between the main stem, and the leaf stem). Basically, if you have what looks like 3 stems growing, break off (gently) the middle one.
Your tomatoes will be ready to harvest about 70-80 days after transplanting. They normally don’t all ripen at the same time. There’s not much point to staggering planting dates, seeing as you basically need to get them in the ground as soon as you can so that they have enough time to grow. If ever some are still green when the frost approaches, you can keep them in newspaper or a paper bag in a dark warm place and they will continue to ripen.
It is best to eat fresh tomatoes right away! And if you do keep them for a day or two, you should leave them out, not put them in the fridge. And if you have tons of tomatoes, well then make sauces, soups, salsas, whatever you like! And freeze them. Or share them with friends and family!
(Important note: tomatoes need at least an inch of water per week!)
You can also use a red or black color mulch for tomato plants, to prevent weeds and keep the soil warm and moist. (A mulch is a sheet of plastic or biodegradable material that you can lay down on your bed. You can make holes in it where you place the transplants.)
Et Voila! You have beautiful, red, plumpy tomatoes.
This is a short 101 version of tomato planting of course. Just the basics. There is a lot more information on tomatoes and you can read about it at VeggieHarvest.com or any other site/magazine/book.
For now that’s it for me though. It’s a beautiful day outside and I (like the veggies) would like to soak up some sun!