How about planting tomatoes as a stay-at-home project?! We all know there’s simply nothing like the flavor of homegrown tomatoes! A San Diego gardener’s desire to grow these wonderful tomatoes is occasionally met with some challenges. But with a few basic tips, I guarantee you that growing your own tomatoes can be both easy and fun anywhere on the west coast from Mexico to Canada.
First, you’ll want to decide whether to grow tomatoes from seeds or to buy started plants. By starting your own seeds, you initially invest more time and space starting the seeds. In the end however, you’ll save money and end up with potentially a LOT of plants.
Buying started plants, on the other hand, may make more sense if space is limited. For example, you may only have enough room for only 1 or 2 plants, or you may be wanting to save space to grow a bunch of other warm-season crops. Using started plants also makes sense when you want to grow several different varieties, or simply lack the time and space to start seeds.
Always choose the sunniest and warmest possible location within your garden plot for growing tomatoes. Remember tomato plants can get really tall, so be sure the tomatoes will not be shading other plants that will be needing the sun.
Amend your soil with compost, and avoid too much manure. Too much manure will grow a lot of foliage but not as much fruit. We want tomatoes! I suggest that veggie gardeners amend their soil with Happy Frog Soil Conditioner. It’s excellent for growing any kind of vegetables, especially the vegetable “fruits” like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, etc. Use an organic fertilizer when planting, and continue to use it according to the instructions.
TYPES OF TOMATOES
Tomatoes can be thought of as one of two types: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow to a “determined” height, about 3-5 feet, depending on the variety. Some determinate varieties remain more compact (e.g. ‘Tiny Tim’) growing to about 2 ft tall. Most varieties of tomatoes, however, are indeterminate with a rambling habit growing to a potentially “undetermined” length/height – well beyond 6-8 feet or more when they are happy.
Regardless of the type, space all your tomatoes 3 feet apart – yes, those little seedlings will get that big when given space and proper care. Ideally, we do not want to let our tomato plants touch each other. Crowding tomatoes by spacing them too closely, reduces air movement which greatly increases the chance of disease, and ultimately decreases yield. Plant a quick maturing crop (e.g. spinach, lettuce, cilantro) between your tomato plants while they grow. Carrots are the classic “companion plant” for tomatoes and both grow well together.
PLANTING AND GROWING TOMATOES
All tomatoes perform best when staked or “caged” immediately upon planting. Any plant that cannot support itself (e.g. vines, ramblers) always grows faster when provided support. That little un-staked tomato seedling wobbling around in the breeze will grow much more slowly than a tomato plant securely staked and supported right from the beginning.
Indeterminate types require a stake or cage at least 6 feet tall – remember part of the stake/cage goes in the ground. Use that plastic tie tape (the kind that expands as stems grow), and secure the main shoot every 6 inches as it grows; avoid tie-tabs or string that can cut growing stems.
As your tomato plants grow, remove any leaves and side branches on the bottom 12” of the plant. We want to end up with a 12” tall, bare trunk at the base of our tomato plants. We also do not want to allow any part of our tomato plant to touch the ground. In this way, air flow is increased under the plant, water is less likely to splash on the foliage, both of which reduce the chance for disease. If the plants are not staked securely from the beginning, they will eventually sag and touch the ground as they grow and become heavier.
As plants continue to grow, allow three or four thick side branches grow. Prune (remove) ALL other side branches that develop. This increases air movement through the plant and further reduces the chance for disease. Besides, side branches grow more side branches, which grow even more side branches. But we want tomatoes (i.e. the fruit of the plant), so we limit the number of side branches to 3 or 4.
As your tomato plants approach 6-8 feet tall, cut the stem tops to prevent them growing upward. In this way they will be forced to put more energy into flowering and fruiting. Of course, if you have large trellises or stakes you can allow the plants to grow larger. In addition, if you do not prune the tops the stem will fall over the cage/support, creating a big tangle of branches and likely lots of powdery mildew.
Don’t forget to water your tomatoes. If they don’t receive enough water, the lower leaves typically turn yellow and fall off. Some of the oldest leaves inevitably turn yellow as the plants grow and shade themselves. Remove any browning or yellowing leaves immediately. We want to see a green tomato plant! Insufficient water also causes the tomatoes to have thicker skins.
Never water overhead! Water the ground not the plant. We never want water on the foliage, especially closer to the coast. Water on the foliage definitely increases the likelihood of diseases, especially blight. A soaker hose or drip irrigation works great, because it keeps the water on the ground.
Yes, those dreaded tomato diseases. Many diseases like early/late blight and the dreaded powdery mildew are spread when water gets on the foliage of the plant. Use an organic fungicide like Neem Oil to treat tomato diseases. You will have far less problems with disease on your tomatoes by using good culture techniques as described above:
Tomato culture techniques to maximize yield and minimize disease:
*Stake/support plants immediately upon planting;
*Space plants 3 feet apart to reduce crowding and provide good air flow.
*No leaves/stems/side branches touching the soil; create a “trunk” 12” tall.
*Prune side branches to increase air flow.
*Don’t forget to water. Water the ground, not the foliage.
*Avoid planting tomatoes in the same location two years in a row.
What is this powdery mildew stuff? You’ve probably seen it on your squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, and other crops. It looks like a fine layer of baby powder on the foliage of the plant, typically starting with the oldest leaves first.
Let’s dispel a little confusion. THIS IS IMPORTANT! Getting water on the foliage is what causes powdery mildew to spread, once the plant already has the disease.
But the main reason tomatoes and other crops like squash and cucumbers initially contract the disease is LACK OF WATER. A plant wilting or lacking water is unable to perform simple biological functions and becomes way more susceptible to getting any kind of disease, especially powdery mildew. All along the west coast of North America, if you underwater your tomatoes, or your plants wilt even just a couple of times, you will always get powdery mildew.
If you are not sure what is wrong with your tomato plants, immediately contact me for a consultation, or take samples or photos of your sick plants to your favorite independent garden center to get your problem diagnosed; learn what’s going on.
If you apply these basic growing principles above, and keep your tomatoes watered, I am certain you will have fun growing tomatoes this year! Here are a few of my favorite varieties.
CHUCK’S FAVORITE TOMATOES…JUST A FEW!
Large, slicing tomatoes
Beefsteak – very productive slicing tomato
Better Boy – the BEST large, slicing tomato for the coast!
Kellogg’s Breakfast – beautiful, huge, orange tomatoes
Mr. Stripey – low acid, colorful heirloom variety
Early Girl – an old tried and true standard; disease resistant
Green Zebra – unusual color and flavor – awesome!
Stupice – excellent flavored heirloom for the coast and winter growing
Celebrity – nematode and disease resistant! Determinate.
SunGold – an orange cherry-type and THE SWEETEST tomato!
Yellow Pear – small, flavorful, yellow, pear-shaped tomatoes
Sweet 100 – sprays with lots of small cherry tomatoes.
Black Cherry – Heirloom; rich, smoky flavored, dark red cherry tomatoes.
Celebrity – highly productive; disease resistant.
Oregon Spring – highly productive; amazing flavor; great on coast!
Patio – dwarf plant; richly flavored, golf ball-sized tomatoes.