Mike's Top Tips for Tomato Success
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• To prevent disease issues, plant your tomatoes where they'll get morning sun, so their drama queen leaves dry out promptly.
• Plant your tomatoes where they'll get six to eight hours of sun a day.
• Do NOT plant your tomatoes exactly where tomatoes have grown for the previous several years or they will fall prey to a wilt that is ubiquitous in all soils. You can use a given spot two years in a row, and you can try for three if you're a gambler. After that, the plants must be moved at least three feet away from that spot. The good news is that you can re-use the original spot after three seasons have passed, and that spot should remain safe for another two years.
• Tomatoes grow auxiliary roots along their buried stem and so should be planted deeply. Here's the plan:
o Dig a hole that's about three quarters as deep as the plant is tall.
o Pull off all the bottom leaves.
o Drop the plant into the hole; and adjust as necessary so that three to four inches is above the soil-line-to-be.
o To prevent blossom end rot (which is essentially a calcium deficiency) place the dried, crushed shells of a dozen eggs right over top of the root ball. If you don't have eggshells, add a granulated organic fertilizer designed for use on tomatoes right on top of the root ball. Organic, Tomato-specific fertilizers contain a lot of calcium. Examples include Tomato-Tone from Espoma and Tomatoes Alive! from Gardens Alive!. If you don't provide added calcium, there is a good chance your tomatoes will turn black on the bottom and rot out just as they are ripening up.
o Fill the hole back up with the soil you removed. Other than the calcium, do not improve the soil in the planting hole.
o Spread two inches of compost around the newly-installed plant. Do not touch the stem, but do go out at least a foot all around.
• When fully grown, your widdle bitty baby plant will have a 'footprint' of a circle with a two-foot diameter. Allow for this space and another foot all around for airflow. Cram plants together and a wet summer will ruin your harvest.
Now, what kind of plants do you have?
• "Determinate" varieties are bred to stay compact. They may have a designation like 'patio', 'bush', or 'container', and will have a relatively short 'days to maturity' rating of anywhere from 50 to 70. Often hybrid varieties (but not always) they generally stop growing at about five feet tall, produce their fruits early in the season and are the best choice for small space or container gardens. Determinate varieties can be kept upright with a standard old-school tomato cage or similar structure.
• "Indeterminate" varieties are the opposite of compact. They are true vining plants that grow quickly until frost finally shuts them down. At full maturity, the vines will be anywhere from ten to fourteen feet long and will be laden with forty or more pounds of fruit apiece, meaning they need strong support. These varieties have long 'days to maturity' ratings (typically 80 to 100 days), and may not produce ripe fruits until late August in most regions, but that fruit will be worth waiting for, as these are the big colorful beefsteak-type varieties with the absolute best flavor.
• "Days to Maturity". Most seed packets or plant tags should have a number that they call "days to maturity" or "days to harvest". This number starts ticking when you put healthy six to eight-week-old transplants into warm soil when the nights are reliably in the fifties. So, an 'early' tomato with a DTM of 60 days would produce ripe fruit about two months after planting. A big honkin' heirloom with a DTM of 90 would produce its first ripe fruit about three months after planting.
o To get a continuous supply of tomatoes, plant several varieties with DTMs of 50 to 60 and a few rated 65 to 80. But if you have a long enough season, save space for a few that approach or go past 90 days. These headliners will be the tastiest of the season.
• Tomato cages for indeterminates.
o Go to a home or hardware store or garden center and buy a roll of welded wire fencing. This may be called 'animal wire', 'rabbit wire' or 'turkey wire'; not chicken wire, which is too flimsy. Buy the six-foot-high version if you're tall; five foot if you're not.
o Lay it out in your driveway and use wire cutters to take off sections of six linear feet each, cutting one box in and one box out as you go, so that you have attached metal twist-ties ready to go.
o Form it into a cylinder and center it over your baby plant. Then bang two lengths of rebar through the sides of the cage to give it support. Do not stake the plant; just the cage.
o As the vine grows, it will trail around the inside of the cage rather than grow straight up, so a five or six foot tall cage will be able to contain a twelve-foot long vine!