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Growing Tomatoes
August 7, 2018

Cluster of Earlirouge tomatoes
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Two buckets of ripe tomatoes
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Tomatoes are often what get folks into gardening. Homegrown tomatoes are delicious, a great source of vitamins and minerals, and are relatively easy to grow. The popularity of growing tomatoes may be reflected by the many whole books written on the subject. Almost every garden plot you see will have at least a few tomato plants. And many times, folks won't have a true garden, but will make space somewhere in their yard for a tomato plant or two. For our purposes here, I'll mostly tell how we grow and have grown good tomatoes. Later, I'll briefly touch on other methods.

For several years, we settled on growing less than a dozen caged tomato plants each summer. That number of plants actually produced far more tomatoes than my wife and I could eat fresh, use for canning, and share with family, neighbors, and our local food bank. Growing tomatoes for seed production and sharing, and after building twenty-three new tomato cages, we're now growing lots more tomato plants to support all the tomato varieties I want to try. With our many early varieties that actually produce well all season, we find folks very happy to receive our excess early and late in the season. Mid-season, we can most of the tomatoes we harvest.

Like most vegetable requirements, tomatoes grow best in fertile, well-drained soil in an area that receives full sunlight (at least six or more hours of direct sunlight a day). Our best tomatoes always come from those grown in our raised garden beds with their improved soil. We also grow some pretty good tomatoes on the lesser soil of our large East Garden plot and some outlying isolation plots. The East Garden is located in what was once a burnt out, abandoned farm field. With a little localized soil improvement, one can often grow fair to good tomatoes in rather poor soil.

In addition to good soil, tomatoes should always be grown on "clean ground." That's ground that hasn't had tomatoes or any related crops (potatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.) growing on it for at least a full year, with two or more years being better. Sadly, tomatoes are prone to all sorts of diseases that can persist in the ground for years. Starting with disease free transplants going into clean ground helps avoid some of these problems (which I'll discuss later).

Earlirouge tomato transplantsWe usually seed our tomato transplants sometime in March, six to eight weeks before we anticipate transplanting them into our garden. That yields ideal sized plants when the ground has warmed enough in May to support strong tomato plant growth. Tomatoes planted into ground colder than 50° F seem to just wait for the ground to warm up before putting on any vigorous growth.

Deep sixpack and fourpack inserts side-by-sideI now start our tomato plants in something called deep inserts. Inserts are those plastic containers, usually with four to six cells each, that fit in a standard seed flat for producing all sorts of transplants. We switched to deep inserts over the cheaper, shallower ones a few years ago because they give our tomato plants more room to put on healthy roots, important for those times when transplanting gets delayed.

I fill the inserts with sterile potting mix. Since our mix contains a good bit of peat moss which doesn't readily absorb cold water, I water the soil before seeding with very warm water, letting the soil cool a bit before seeding. Then I make a very shallow indentation in the soil in the center of each cell with my finger and drop in a seed. I cover the seed with an eighth to a quarter of an inch of sterile potting mix, as tomatoes germinate best in total darkness.

Then the tomatoes go to a relatively warm spot to germinate. For us, that's in a plant tray covered with a clear humidity dome over a soil heating mat. The thermostat for the heating mat is set at 75° F. And the tray is under plant lights so that when the plants emerge, they'll immediately get some light.

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One really doesn't need a soil heating mat. A warm area of the house, possibly near a forced air register, did the job for us for years. Covering the inserts, pots, or whatever the tomato seed is planted in helps hold in soil moisture.

On occasion when starting seed of known poor germination rates, I'll seed a four inch pot with lots of seed, later moving what tomato plants I get to individual cells or pots. The last time I did this, it was with some tomato seed I'd had in the freezer and not grown out for twenty-five years. The seed germinated well, surprising me, but also making for some tricky transplanting later on. Note that I've had much younger stored tomato seed similarly stored turn out to be well and truly dead.

Recently germinated tomato plantsOnce our tomato seed has germinated, the plants go under our plant lights for several weeks. I use fluorescent shop lights over the plants, keeping the bulbs several inches above the tallest leaves. Since I start the tomatoes in regular potting soil, there's no need to fertilize the plants at this stage. The potting mix has all the nutrients the plants will need until they're transplanted into our garden.

When the plants are about five weeks old, they go outside under our cold frame to harden off. Hardening off is a process of gradually exposing plants to outdoor conditions of strong sunlight, UV radiation, wind, and rain. We open the frame for gradually longer periods of time each day, letting the tomato plants' stems thicken and get stronger. An area on a porch protected from wind and full sun can serve as well for those without a cold frame.

Our last frost date here in west central Indiana is April 14, but we usually wait until around May 1 to begin transplanting tomatoes. As we fill out our garden plots, we continue transplanting tomatoes into our large East Garden plot and several isolation plots around our grounds into early June. The later transplants often supply some really nice fall tomatoes after many of our other plants have worn out.

To transplant tomatoes into good ground, I dig a hole as deep as I can with a garden trowel in previously turned soil. Then I work a little balanced fertilizer, some lime and/or ground egg shells into the soil. I water the hole with a solution of dilute (about half strength) Quick Start starter fertilizer, Maxicrop Soluble Seaweed, and Serenade biofugicide. The lime or egg shells provide calcium to the plants to help ward off blossom end rot. The Maxicrop provides trace soil elements, while the Serenade is a precautionary application to help ward off tomato diseases.

When transplanting tomatoes into the challenged soil of our East Garden, I follow a practice somewhat similar to the deluxe holes we create for our melon transplants. I dig out a hole about a foot in depth and diameter and add peat moss (compost when available), a bit of lime and ground egg shell, and a half handful of balanced fertilizer to the hole. Using a shovel or garden fork, I work the soil amendments as deeply as possible into the hole and its edges. The dug soil, retained in a wheelbarrow or garden cart, gets the same soil amendments worked into it. The hole gets watered with transplant solution before some of the amended dug soil goes back into it. I use the rest of the dug soil to form a shallow trough around the planting to hold in water. Then I water the hole again before squishing a tomato transplant into the ground. If my tomato transplants have gotten a bit tall, I'm not shy about pushing them well into the ground until the final planting has a transplant that only extends about eight inches above the soil surface.

If you've previously had problems with cutworms, cutworm collars or mats may be called for. Cutworms live in the soil and attack tender young plants, often cutting them off just above ground level. Since our tomato transplants usually have fairly tough stems when we transplant them, we don't use any cutworm protection for them. But we do make extensive use of cutworm collars around our broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers.

Welded Wiire (remesh) Tomato CagesSince weeding is an anathema to me and watering is problematic with our puny main well, I mulch our tomato transplants with grass clipping mulch as soon after transplanting as possible. The mulch holds in soil moisture and also slows weed growth. I add a homemade wire tomato cage made of welded wire reinforcing mesh around the plants at transplanting. While the tomatoes won't be climbing the cage for a month or so, the cage helps discourage area deer who seem willing to eat almost anything in our garden plots. Since we live in an unusually windy area, our tomato cages get anchored to T-posts driven into the ground between pairs of tomato cages. That prevents the plants being blown over and uprooted when top heavy with fruit.

Tomatoes don't require a lot of care as they grow if one uses tomato cages. Since we mainly grow determinate and semi-determinate varieties, we don't have to mess with suckering our tomato vines as one would with indeterminate tomatoes tied to a tall stake. Indeterminates may need to have small, new growth at the axis of the plant stem and side stems removed to prevent excess growth. But with our tomato cages, we don't even mess with that with indeterminates.

I spray our tomato plants with Serenade or a stronger fungicide from time to time, as we've had problems with tomato diseases in the past. A bit of fertilizer, either liquid or solid worked into the soil at blossoming time, helps the plants along. Avoid fertilizers heavy on nitrogen, though, as it encourages rampant vegetative growth instead of growing tomatoes. One does have to keep an eye on tomato plants, as there are diseases and bugs that can spoil ones crop. And of course, periodic watering as the plants get started and later in dry periods improves ones harvest.

Diseases

Even when growing tomatoes on clean ground, tomato diseases can blow in on the wind and infect ones plants. We've dealt with blight (early and late), bacterial speck and spot, and anthracnose in our current garden plots. Serenade as a spray and/or as a soil drench helps, but we still lose fruit and sometimes whole plants to disease from time to time. Growing from clean stock and on clean ground are ones best precautions against tomato diseases. Thorough cleanup of the ground each year also helps, as tomato diseases can overwinter in the ground or on garden trash (leaves and stems) left on the soil.

Whole volumes have been written on tomato diseases and pests. For the most part, I'll simply refer readers to the links below:

Blossom End Rot

All too often, the first tomatoes ripening in a season will begin to rot at the bottom of the fruit. The effects seem to lessen as the season wears on.

In writing this how-to, I ran across an excellent University of California Cooperative Extension Service article by Cindy Fake, Managing Blossom End Rot in Tomatoes and Peppers. It explains in layman's terms that blossom end rot is not only a calcium deficiency problem, but also a problem caused by variable soil moisture conditions. If you grow tomatoes and peppers and fight blossom end rot each season, this article may have some answers for you about controlling the disorder.

I also ran across something online several years ago that may or may not help with blossom end rot. I read of folks using egg shells around their tomato plants to supply calcium to the plants. Since egg shells in our compost piles seem to decay very, very slowly, I began saving, drying, and grinding the egg shells to a powder and using them around our tomato plants. The grinding part comes from our farming days when we dried egg shells and stripped out the albumin before either crushing or grinding them to mix with the chickens' feed. We use an extra coffee grinder to powder the shells. The ground egg shells in the soil definitely seem to diminish blossom end rot on our tomatoes, but not so much with peppers.

Pests

HornwormParasitized hornwormHornworms, either tomato or tobacco, are one of the most common insect invasions one will see on tomato plants. Hornworms eat the tomato leaves, skeletonizing the plant if not controlled. Since hornworms are pretty big insects (several inches long), picking them off and squishing them is a really effective, if somewhat yucky, control. But if you see a hornworm with small, white nodules along its body, leave it alone. That hornworm has been parasitized by a wasp laying its eggs in or on it that will eat the hornworm to death. The larvae will then hatch, producing more egg laying wasps to protect your tomatoes.

Denied their preferred vegetables, there are many other bugs that will gladly feast on tomatoes. Spotted and striped cucumber beetles occasionally attack our tomato plants. Late in the season, squash bugs appear. And Japanese Beetles seem to like every vegetable. Organic products such as Neem Oil, Insecticidal Soap and Pyrethrin may all be effective in controlling these insects. When organic controls are ineffective, we move to stronger pesticides, but then have to carefully observe days between spraying and safe harvest of our tomatoes. Fortunately, we get by most years with just picking off hornworms.

One problem we've fought is white spots in the tomato flesh under the skin. Most articles on the subject point to stink bugs and/or leaf-footed bugs as the cause. They apparently inject a toxin (not harmful to humans) into the tomato when feeding that causes the flesh to die and turn white. Affected tomatoes can still be used, but may have an off flavor. For canning, we just cut out the white spots.

Picking off the stink bugs is often recommended, but is a little impracticable for large plantings. Neem oil has worked well for us in preventing insect feeding. On occasion, I've mixed a bit of pyrethrin in with the neem oil, just to let the bugs know I care. One can also mix a biofungicide such as Serenade with the neem oil for spraying, a combo I often use on our tomato and pepper plants when bug populations swell.

The most helpful article on the subject I've found online appears on the Alabama Cooperative Extension System site, White Spots under Tomato Skin by Tony Glover.

 

Harvest

We wait until our tomatoes are fully ripe on the vine before picking them. Since tomatoes ripen from the inside out, a visibly really red tomato is ready to pick and enjoy. Since most of the tomato varieties we grow are determinates, we get bunches of tomatoes ripening at the same time. That's great for canning and sharing, but possibly not-so-good for someone wanting an occasional tomato for a salad or a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.

Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwichOne of our summer treats is the first ripe tomato of the season. My wife, Annie, and I always celebrate the occasion by feasting on BLT sandwiches that day.

Tomatoes picked several days early will ripen, but with somewhat decreased flavor. Early picking can be advantageous before a frost or during a severe bug infestation.

Other Ways to Grow Tomatoes

We've standardized on growing our tomatoes in some dandy, homemade tomato cages. We get less rot, fewer weed problems, and cleaner fruit that way. But there are other ways many folks grow good tomatoes.

Commercial tomato crops are often grown as bedding plants. Long sheets of black plastic are laid over the ground with the tomatoes transplanted through holes cut in the plastic mulch. The plastic mulch denies weed seed the light and moisture it needs to germinate and grow and also warms the soil. But one will need some type of watering system for the tomatoes when using plastic mulch.

I've done it in the past, but am not a big fan of using plastic over ones soil, as the plastic may decay and leave chemicals in the ground. Plastic also has to be laid early in the season and then taken up in the fall (and probably eventually ends up in a landfill). There are black fabrics that can be used to mulch plants. They have the advantages of preventing weed growth, allowing moisture to penetrate into the soil, and warming the soil. And, they aren't plastic. Again, I'm not a big fan of fabric mulch for vegetables, although it can be quite useful and effective in flower gardens. I still have a large, mostly unused roll of it somewhere in my garage.

Leaves or grass clippings can be used as mulch for bedding tomatoes. They're organic, so they break down in time and need to be replaced several times over a growing season. For bedding tomatoes, organic mulch may allow weeds to emerge and also can lead to rot when the mulch remains wet. Having said that, we make extensive use of grass clipping mulch under our caged tomatoes and in many other areas of our garden plots.

Staking tomatoes is the time honored predecessor of caging tomatoes. One only has to remember the scene from The Godfather of Vito Corleone walking through his carefully staked tomato plants. Staking takes a lot of time. I've torn up a lot of old, ratty T-shirts in the past to tie up tomato branches. But the system works if you can control rampant vegetative growth by suckering the plants. Unfortunately, many of today's large hybrid tomatoes are pretty hard to stake due to the weight of their fruit.

Other Sources on Caging, Staking, and Trellising Tomato Plants

With a little work, folks can also grow tomatoes in large containers. A large, deep planter or commercial soil bags can grow good staked tomatoes on a porch, patio, or back yard. Smaller tomato varieties are easier to work with. Careful staking and pruning are necessary.

Tomato Varieties

Most gardeners are incredibly loyal to their favorite tomato varieties. Since there are thousands of them to choose from, there's a lot of variance in what folks might recommend. There are hybrids with improved disease resistance (and sometimes decreased flavor), heirloom varieties, open pollinated varieties not old enough to be called heirlooms, grape and cherry tomatoes, and on and on.

Finding tomato varieties that you like and grow well on your ground should be the prime consideration. We've found a number of hybrids and open pollinated varieties that grow really well for us and deliver true tomato flavor. For years, I grew Better Boy and Wonder Boy hybrid tomatoes for our main crop. In the last ten years, we've moved to Bella Rosa and Mountain Fresh Plus as our favorite hybrid varieties. Amongst the myriad of open pollinated varieties, we somehow chanced upon a series of early tomatoes developed in Canada that provide most of our slicing and canning tomatoes. The Earlirouge, Moira, and Quinte tomato varieties developed by Jack Metcalf at the Agriculture Canada Smithfield Experimental Farm, in Trenton, Ontario, in the 1980's have become our favorite tomato varieties for their incredible flavor and deep red interiors. Since nearly no one else grows these varieties anymore, we work very hard to produce and share seed from them.

If you're just starting out growing tomatoes, ask a local gardener what varieties grow well for them that have good flavor. You'll find most gardeners (me included) will talk your ear off about their favorite tomatoes.

Note that while hardness for shipping, disease resistance, and concentrated harvest are critical for commercial tomato growers, taste should be the driving factor for home gardeners.

Hybrid grape tomato seed has become incredibly expensive over the last few years. We try and grow whatever variety we can afford each year. But in 2016, I hadn't grown or transplanted any grape tomatoes. A couple of volunteer grape tomato plants emerged from the compost I'd added to one of our asparagus patches that year. I'm not sure the tomato plants helped our asparagus much, and their emergence says nothing good about the maintenance of our compost piles (which didn't heat up enough to kill the tomato seeds), but they also kept us in wonderful grape tomatoes all summer long, actually lasting well into fall. (Duh! I should have saved seed from them!) I'm just guessing, but I suspect the wonderful, volunteer grape tomatoes came from either the Red Pearl open pollinated or Honey Bunch hybrid grape tomato varieties we grew in 2014.

I used to plant a grape tomato plant or two at the edge of our garden plots for grandkids to feast upon. When our oldest granddaughter moved on to preferring whole tomatoes, I quit growing grape tomatoes for a few years. The volunteer grape tomatoes we got from our asparagus patch in 2016 convinced me that I really like the sweet little tomatoes and needed to start putting a few out each season, even if our granddaughter is now too old to enjoy them. Walking by, picking, and eating a sweet grape tomato off a plant is a true summer treat.

Tomatoes also come in many colors. While red tomatoes are the most common, there are also yellow, pink, black(ish), and multi-colored tomato varieties. Looking through product photos of some heirloom seed sites can almost overwhelm one with the different kinds of tomatoes.

Determinate, Semi-Determinate, and Indeterminate Tomato Plants

Tomato plants are often described in seed catalogs as either determinate or indeterminates. To confuse things a bit more, there are semi-determinate varieties.

Determinate tomato plants, also known as bedding or bush tomatoes, put on lush growth pushing towards a single, concentrated heavy harvest. For commercial growers, such plants are ideal for a compressed picking time before shipping to market or a canner. Determinates generally put on more compact growth than indeterminates and can easily be grown on the ground (over mulch usually).

Indeterminate tomato plants put on lots of growth, making them great candidates for staking or caging. Some varieties will grow to five to six feet tall in a normal growing season. Most of today's hybrids are indeterminates. When staked, they may require suckering, removing small new growth at the axes of plant stems and branches to redirect the plant's energy into developing tomatoes.

Semi-determinate tomato plants have some characteristics of both determinates and indeterminates. The plants put on an initial concentration of tomatoes ripening fairly close together, but often will continue producing good fruit throughout a growing season. Semi-determinates usually aren't as tall as indeterminates (although ours often fill and somewhat overflow our five foot tall tomato cages by fall).

Beyond the determinate and indeterminate classifications of tomatoes, the plants also come in regular and potato leaved varieties. That one isn't a real biggie, as you just grow what you like and grows well for you.

Other

I'm going to leave out tricks for getting really early tomatoes, other than recommending early varieties. One can blow a lot of bucks on devices to get that first, earliest tomato on the block.

I will give you a link on how we save open pollinated tomato seed from year-to-year. Most of our best tomatoes each year come from open pollinated plants we've saved seed from and adapted to our growing conditions over the years.

Earlirouge tomatoes

Me writing about how to grow tomatoes seems to me to be a bit presumptuous and arrogant. There are so many ways to grow good tomatoes that I've pretty much restricted this story to how we grow them. And I'm still working on this page. I still need to capture a few more images. And, there seems to be so much more that needs to be added. But at least, I've covered the basics.

I'm a retired, old guy with absolutely no degrees in agriculture, horticulture, or any other special training. At 70 years old, I've grown great tomatoes for many years, but am still happily learning, so there could be tragic errors in the information above. It's just what has worked for us. I hope this piece adds to your joy in growing and consuming great tomatoes.

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From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening

 

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