Inula Royleana
Midwest Gardening
Growing Tomatoes

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Tips for Growing Great Tomatoes

A Tomato Jungle by the ordinary gardener

Tomatoes love sun and will produce little or no fruit without enough sun.  Be sure your tomato plants will get at least 8 hours of direct sun, more or even all day sun for the best results.

Tomato spacingSpacing your tomatoes properly is important so they have room to spread a bit and to give you easy access for maintenance and harvest.  Determinate and compact indeterminate varieties should be planted about 2 feet apart.  If you grow indeterminate tomatoes stripped to a single stem on stakes, they can be 18” apart.  Indeterminate bush varieties grown in cages will tend to spread more and will need to be about 3 feet apart.  A container variety should be planted in a two gallon pot.

Soil needs to be loose and fluffy very, very deep for tomatoes.  The roots need a lot of space vertically as well as horizontally.  If you soil is loose and the roots have plenty of room to spread, they will hold strong in the soil and be able to take in water and nutrients easily.

Biodegradeable peat pots are often suggested to make planting easier.   I don’t really care for them.  Plant roots grow extremely rapidly once planted in a moist, loose garden bed, much more rapidly than a peat pot will break down.  I want the roots to have as much room as they want to expand and take in nutrients with absolutely nothing to impede them.  When I purchase or plant in peat pots, I always break them apart as I put them into the ground.

Tomatoes are very heavy feeders.  It will be important to add plenty of compost or other organic matter to your soil.  They will also need periodic light feedings.

PlantingIt is really important to plant a tomato deep.  Strip the small leaves off up the stalk to the larger more established leaves along the branches.  Dig a very deep hole, deep enough to bury the entire stem up to the first set of leaves.  This will encourage a strong plant above the soil surface and an extensive root system that will hold strong in the soil and nourish the plant.

Slowly soak the soil around the new plants until it is moistened deep, and repeat a deep soaking each week for at least the first few weeks.  Monitor closely if it becomes unusually hot or windy, you should not allow the soil to dry out when they plants are young.

Determinate tomatoes will need plant supports, cages if you will, and indeterminate tomatoes generally require tall stake supports.  The supports will keep fruit and branches from sagging to the ground, encouraging disease and rot.  Supports and stakes will also allow you to keep the branches nicely spread and tied if necessary.  This will help with good air circulation and allow sunshine to reach inner branches, not to mention making harvest easier.

An interesting note about opening up a plant so sunshine can reach the inner leaves, and note that I said inner leaves.  The plant itself needs the sunlight to produce fruit, but the fruit does not need sunlight to ripen.  So don’t worry when several tomatoes are buried deep in the plant late in the season, they will ripen just fine as they would on your kitchen counter when you pick green tomatoes.

Tomatoes enjoy lots of heat has well as sun.  As a general rule, a big beefsteak tomato will need more of both than a little cherry tomato.  Where summer is short and cooler in the north, that is something to keep in mind when selecting tomatoes to grow.

A mulch layer of newspaper or straw should be applied to cover the soil around your plants.  This will eliminate soil splash which reduces fungus diseases.  It will also keep your fruits cleaner.

How and when you water your plants is pretty important.  Overhead watering can cause soil splash that can potentially spread disease from the soil to your plants.  Soak the soil instead with a seeping hose snaked through your garden.  Soak deeply and regularly but allow the soil to dry out between soaking, usually weekly is about right.  Inconsistent watering can cause your tomatoes to crack.Prune tomato suckers

Pruning tomato plants is a subject long debated by gardeners.  But one thing is certain, do not prune determinate plants, it will only reduce your harvest.  Pruning indeterminate plants is what is so hotly debated.  Different varieties will respond differently to pruning, so I will say that this should be a personal experiment for a moderately experienced gardener.  You can decide for yourself, but I only prune the varieties that grow overwhelmingly large and bushy.  The one exception I think we all agree on is pruning out suckers.

Gardeners of every experience level worry incessantly about their tomatoes.  One big worry is always when they just don’t seem to be ripening.  As is usually the case, be patient and wait for the weather to change.  The ideal temperature for tomatoes to ripen is from 68 to 77 degrees F.  Unusual heat or cool weather can slow or stop the process.  Be patient, the best flavor is achieved at ideal ripeness.

And last but not least, your tomatoes will need plenty of nutrition to produce delicious tomatoes.  I did not say fertilizer, using the common liquid fertilizer will produce lovely leafy plants, but won’t do so much to produce delicious abundant fruits.  Organic fertilizers are becoming widely available at reasonable prices now, so just go for it.  Diluted liquid fish fertilizer used as a foliar spray and a granular scattered on the soil around the base of the plant every few weeks would be ideal.  Hopefully you also started with good soil full of good compost.

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