Your tomatoes are planted, they are starting to grow and you can’t wait to taste those first amazing globes of garden goodness!
Lately, we have been getting an abundance of emails and comments about how we grow and maintain our tomatoes once planted. Besides making sure they have at least 1″ of water each week (via rain or watering) – here are some steps we take to make sure we get the most out of our tomato crop.
Yes, pruning can be an important part of keeping your tomatoes healthy, and can also create larger and sweeter fruits on the vine. Just a little work now can pay off huge in a month or so when harvest time begins.
As each tomato plant starts to grow strong – we like to prune off the bottom 6 to 8″ of stems from the main stock of the plant for several helpful reasons. For one – it allows for good air flow and easy watering of the plant – both of which help the plant to grow stronger and speed along the ripening process later. Second, and maybe even of more importance – it will help to reduce the chances for disease and bug infestation. By clearing out the area around the bottom of each plant – you are reducing the ability for plant feeding insects to find their way up onto the plants, and the improved circulation helps cut down on the chance for fungus to develop on the plants. Last but not least – by trimming off the bottom area – you allow the nutrients to go to building stronger stems and larger tomatoes on top.
There are those that prune even more aggressively by thinning out some of the top growth – but we’ve had great success in just making sure the bottom of our plants are pruned. It takes only a few seconds per plant – and makes a big difference.
No matter if you use a stake, a cage, panel fencing or whatever – give those tomatoes some support! Tomatoes can easily become weak and more prone to disease when you allowing them to just sprawl around the ground. It’s also an open invitation to pests and bugs to climb aboard and go to town. The close contact to the ground also is an invitation for damaging mildew, mold and fungus to develop on the leaves. So give them some support! (See: How To Make Your Own Stake-A-Cages Cheap!)
As for what to tie them up with – use materials that will hold up but still provide some elasticity for the plants to grow. Old t-shirts cut up into strips and old pantyhose work well. We use a big spool of thick cotton yarn to tie ours up – buying a few old rolls in the bargain bin each year.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders – and even with the best of soil – they can certainly benefit from a little added nutrition. We use an application of our compost tea liquid fertilizer (See: How To Make Compost Tea) to give a good feeding to the plants. We apply our first application after the plants have been in the ground a couple of weeks, and then about every 10 days for a total of 3 applications. That seems to be the perfect amount for our plants – boosting their growth in the beginning to get them off to a good start. Remember, if you apply too much of any fertilizer, your tomatoes will spend all of their energy on growing foliage – and not fruit.
Finally, mulch the area around your tomatoes to help keep in the moisture and keep the soil at a moderate temperature. We like to use our compost to mulch about a 6″ diameter around each stalk – this also provides nutrients for the plant as the compost breaks down and is watered into the soil. You can also use grass clippings, straw or shredded leaves.
Here is an extra little secret we use: Add a little coffee grounds and crushed egg shells to the mulching area right around each plant. Crush up about 3 to 4 shells per plant – and sprinkle the coffee grounds (about 1 filters worth) into the mulch you have around each plant. The added nutrients really help your tomatoes take off – and the crushed egg shells can help to prevent black rot. (We add a few to each planting hole when we plant as well).
DON’T COMPACT YOUR ROOTS:
Finally – be careful as you work around your tomatoes and their root zones. One of the reasons we really prefer raised beds or raised row beds are they keep foot traffic around plants to a minimum. But even if you use a traditional flat garden – make sure to stay off the area directly around plants.
The root zone of your tomato plants that lie just below the soil’s surface are the life blood of the plants above ground. Those roots are responsible for sucking up the water and nutrients the plants need to grow strong and produce healthy and abundant fruit. Loose, uncompacted soil is a key component to their growth – and the more you step in and around them – the more compacted the soil becomes and the less root growth will develop. We try hard to never ever step within 12″ of the ground right around each plant – and it pays off in good root structure. When we pull our plants at the end of each year – it is amazing to see the 12 to 18″ of deep roots that each plant has developed by being allowed to grow freely without compaction.
So there you have it – how we care for our tomatoes through the summer months. It’s hard to believe in about another 45 days – fresh tomatoes and canning season will be here!
Mary and Jim