Tomatoes get a lot of attention in the garden. And for a good reason! Store bought tomatoes have nothing on the sweet, acidic, juicy, sun-warmed tomatoes waiting in our own backyards, ripe for the taking. The crème de la crème of the kitchen garden world. For many folks, tomatoes are the reason they garden at all! We love all veggies (though our kids need occasional convincing) but we agree that a home grown tomato will knock our socks off any day, and our kids too.
Tomatoes are, sun lovers, heavy feeders, and deep drinkers. Picky, maybe, but if we give them a good start, they'll thrive and reward us!
P.S. If you're a tomato veteran, check out the end of the post for an outline as a refresher.
- Choose a site that gets plenty of sun! Tomatoes (like all fruiting garden plants) require at least 6 hours of sun, but will be much more productive with 8 or more hours of sun a day. Choose a day to track your sun. Start by sketching your yard, then check outside and sketch the sun/shade line noting the time. After a day of tracking, you'll see which bed in your garden receives the most sun. (Note the hours of sun your other beds get, and keep this handy note in a safe place!).
- Morning sun and onward is ideal. Tomatoes can burn in hot afternoon sun from the west, so if they get their 6-8 hours in the morning they'll appreciate light shade the last few hours of the day. It's not always necessary, but if your garden gets full late afternoon sun, light filter cloth angled from the west will prevent scorch.
- You have your spot, next enrich your soil. Tomatoes love rich and well draining soil, so mixing in 3 inches or so of good compost is a good plan for them and about any kitchen garden veggies you plant. Make it your motto: When you bring home a plant, bring compost to go with it.
- Tomatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they need lots of nutrients to produce high yields of fruit. (Insert here the line we've all heard before: Yes, Tomatoes are a fruit...and the chicken came before the egg!)
Anyway, while you're mixing in compost, add in some vegetable fertilizer as well such as MicroLife, or a tomato specific fertilizer if you prefer. Just follow the label directions on all products you use in your garden. We like the organic goods.
- Last but not least make a watering plan. Tomatoes need deep and consistent watering to produce good quality fruit. Fluctuations in watering can cause splitting and formation problems. So prepare ahead to water regularly.
Many gardeners find rising early to hand water their gardens very rewarding and therapeutic. Purchase a long watering wand to water right at the base of the plants and to ease your back. Enjoy the fresh morning air to start your day! Just remember to water deeply to encourage roots to reach down, not stay shallow to find water.
Another method is to install drip irrigation prior to planting, with a timer at your spigot to give your plants a deep drink at regular intervals (likely every morning in the dog days).
Tomatoes can suffer from diseases, most of which are splashed up from the soil. So watering with drip, or gently at the base with a wand, can prevent these diseases.
Whew! Don't let this prep before hand scare you off. It's honestly a quick fix to make the rest of your summer dreamy and easy, a well laid garden is pleasure to tend throughout the year, with a good foundation to allow it's full and glorious potential!
- Always choose tomatoes that grow best in your area! The variety of tomatoes is huge, and many varieties have been bred (or heirlooms treasured) to flourish in your specific climate. We'll list some great options for Central Texas at the end of the post.
- If you haven't started your own from seed, then head to the garden center. Big brand stores don't always have the best varieties, we very much prefer local nurseries for the best selection of healthy and area specific plants. Choose tomato plants that are small, 6-8 inches high, to avoid root bound or stressed plants. They get big fast, so save your pennies and skip the larger potted plants.
Determinate varieties form bushes that need less support, no pruning, and once mature produce a flush of fruit all at once.
Indeterminate varieties, or vine tomatoes, grow continuously producing tomatoes along the stem as they grow. These need pruning and a trellis or cage for support, and are perfect for an arch or obelisk, making a gorgeous statement in your kitchen garden.
- When planting your seedlings, aim for about one to two feet of spacing, in holes about 3-4 inches deep and wide. Remove a few lower leaves to plant deeply for more roots, and water in well.
- Continue watering deeply (check your soil and adjust if too wet or too dry), and fertilize your plants every 3-4 weeks to keep them vigorous and healthy.
-Check your tomatoes regularly for pests or diseases, this can be a daily morning walk through your garden, make it a ritual you look forward to. Address any problems promptly.
-Indeterminate varieties benefit from pruning to focus energy into the fruit rather than off-branches. They produce fruit on the stem, so new branches are not necessary. Remove new shoots or "suckers" from the V between the stem and a set of leaves. Determinate varieties produce fruit at the end of branches, and so require no pruning.
- Tomatoes are ripe when they are fully colored, and between firm but tender when pressed. Snip them off leaving a big of stem on them for added shelf life.
Ripening on the vine is great, but if birds or furry friends frequent your garden you may have better luck picking them early and ripening in a bag on the counter. As soon as you see the first blush of color you can pick them with no loss of flavor at all. OR pick them fully green and firm for excellent fried green tomatoes! I LOVE fried green tomatoes, and since I graciously run a squirrel food bank some years that's all I get.
Enjoy your tomatoes in sandwiches, salads, salsas, kebabs, with olive oil and mozzarella, or my favorite: right out of hand while plopped down in my garden with a salt shaker. I've lost many a good shaker this way.
- Plan for 6-8 hours of sun, amend your soil with compost and fertilizer and lay watering plans.
- Choose smaller plants, plant them deeply, and water deeply at the base as they grow.
- Fertilize regularly, pruning and supporting indeterminate varieties.
- Harvest early to beat the birds, or allow to ripen on the vine, both options are great.
Your local nursery can assist you in choosing varieties, here are some of our favorites.
-Juliet, Super Sweet 100, and Sun Gold are small cherry, indeterminate type tomatoes that are delicious, high yielding, and often produce into the hotter months of summer.
-Popular determinate varieties include Celebrity, la Roma, and Homestead (semi-determinate) which is a fantastically heat tolerant variety.
-Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Porter's Pride are examples of heirloom tomatoes, often prized for their excellent flavor while being less disease resistant than hybrid varieties.