America's favorite vegetable is fairly easy to grow and will produce a bumper crop with proper care. Its uses are numerous, however, tomato plants are susceptible to pests and diseases so proper plant care is important.
Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable?
Though we technically eat the fruit of the tomato plant, the tomato is typically treated as a vegetable in eating and cooking and, thus, commonly categorized as such.
WHEN TO PLANT TOMATOES
If you're starting tomatoes from seed (versus transplants), you'll want to start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the average last spring frost date.
Transplant seedlings after the last spring frost when the soil has warmed.
Selecting and Preparing a Planting Site
- Select a site with full sun and well-drained soil. For northern regions, it is VERY important that your site receives at least 6 hours of daily sunlight. For southern regions, light afternoon shade will help tomatoes survive and thrive.
- Two weeks before transplanting tomato plants outdoors, dig soil to about 1 foot deep and mix in aged manure or compost.
- Some sort of support system is recommended, but sprawling plants can also produce fine crops if you have the space and if the weather cooperates.
HOW TO PLANT TOMATOES
- Harden off seedlings or transplants for a week before planting in the garden. Set young plants outdoors in the shade for a couple of hours the first day, gradually increasing the amount of time the plants are outside each day to include some direct sunlight.
- Plant transplants about 2 feet apart.
- Place tomato stakes or cages in the soil at the time of planting to avoid damaging roots later on. Staking keeps developing tomato fruit off the ground, while caging lets the plant hold itself upright.
- Pinch off a few of the lower branches on transplants, and plant the root ball deep enough so that the remaining lowest leaves are just above the surface of the soil.
- If your transplants are leggy, you can remedy this by burying up to ⅔ of the plant, including the lower sets of leaves. Tomato stems have the ability to grow roots from the buried stems.
- Water well to reduce shock to the roots.
GROWING TOMATOES IN CONTAINERS
- Use a large pot or container with drainage holes in the bottom.
- Use loose, well-draining soil. We recommend a good potting mix with added organic matter.
- Plant one tomato plant per pot. Choose from bush or dwarf varieties; many cherry tomatoes grow well in pots.
- Taller varieties may need to be staked.
- Place the pot in a sunny spot with 6 to 8 hours of full sun a day.
- Keep soil moist. Containers will dry out more quickly than the garden soil, so check daily and provide extra water during a heat wave.
TOMATO PLANT CARE
- Water generously the first few days.
- Water well throughout the growing season, about 2 inches per week during the summer. Water deeply for a strong root system.
- Water in the early morning. This gives plant the moisture it needs to make it through a hot day. Avoid watering late afternoon or evening.
- Mulch five weeks after transplanting to retain moisture and to control weeds. Mulch also keeps soil from splashing the lower tomato leaves.
- To help tomatoes through periods of drought, find some flat rocks and place one next to each plant. The rocks prevent water from evaporating from the soil.
- Side dress plants with fertilizer or compost every two weeks starting when the tomato fruits are about 1 inch in diameter.
- If using stakes, prune plants by pinching off suckers (side stems) so that only a couple of branches are growing from each plant. The suckers grow between the branch and the main stem.
- Tie growing stems to stakes with twine or soft string.
- As the plants grow, trim all the lower leaves off the bottom 12 inches of the stem. This helps to keep diseases from spreading from the soil to foliage.
- Practice crop rotation from year to year to prevent diseases that may have overwintered.
Tomatoes are susceptible to insect pests, especially tomato hornworms and whiteflies.
- Late Blight is a fungal disease that can strike during any part of the growing season. It will cause grey, moldy spots on leaves and fruit which later turn brown. The disease is spread and supported by persistent damp weather. This disease will overwinter, so all infected plants should be destroyed.
- Mosaic Virus creates distorted leaves and causes young growth to be narrow and twisted, and the leaves become mottled with yellow. Unfortunately, infected plants should be destroyed (but don't put them in your compost pile).
- Cracking: When fruit growth is too rapid, the skin will crack. This usually occurs due to uneven watering or uneven moisture from weather conditions (very rainy periods mixed with dry periods). Keep moisture levels constant with consistent watering and mulching.
HOW TO HARVEST AND STORE TOMATOES
- Leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible. If any fall off before they appear ripe, place them in a paper bag with the stem up and store them in a cool, dark place.
- Never place tomatoes on a sunny windowsill to ripen; they may rot before they are ripe!
- The perfect tomato for picking will be firm and very red in color, regardless of size, with perhaps some yellow remaining around the stem. If you grow orange, yellow or any other color tomato, wait for the tomato to turn the correct color.
- If your tomato plant still has fruit when the first hard frost threatens, pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in the basement or garage. Pick tomatoes as they ripen.
- Never refrigerate fresh tomatoes. Doing so spoils the flavor and texture that make up that garden tomato taste.
- To freeze, core fresh unblemished tomatoes and place them whole in freezer bags or containers. Seal, label, and freeze. The skins will slip off when they defrost.
- You can harvest seeds from some tomato varieties.