Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable. People grow tomatoes to obtain good taste, save money and enjoy gardening. Garden-grown tomatoes have a flavor that cannot be duplicated. Our Garden Center experts field a lot of questions about growing these summer delicacies, and have compiled a list of tips for you.
1. Choose the sunniest site available. Tomatoes require lots of light, so full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours/day) is important. You can grow them in partial sun, but yields and flavor will not be as good.
2. Build good soil. Add compost and other sources of organic matter. This is the key to soil quality. Organic matter supplies nutrients, increases moisture holding capacity, improves tilth, encourages diversity of soil life and can reduce plant disease. Compost makes good mulch for tomatoes.
3. The only way to be sure of what your garden needs is to have your soil tested every two or three years. The idea is to maintain nutrients at high (optimum) levels; potassium and calcium should be at the upper end of this range. If you just add fertilizer or other amendments, you may end up with nutrient excess or imbalances.
4. Maintain proper soil pH. This is important for optimum nutrient availability and health of many beneficial soil organisms. Lime is used to raise soil pH (reduce acidity). It also supplies calcium and magnesium. However, most limestone sold is dolomite, which is high in magnesium. Repeated use of dolomitic lime results in soils with high magnesium and low calcium. If you can find calcite lime, use it about every other time you apply lime. Another way to supply calcium is to use gypsum in addition to dolomitic lime.
5. Use a balanced fertilizer program. First of all, organic matter can supply much, and sometimes all of the nutrient needs of tomatoes. Don't over fertilize. Tomatoes are relatively heavy feeders, but excess fertility can reduce yields and cause other problems such as blossom end rot. Look at your plants. Leaves should be green without any hint of yellowing, but a very dark and almost bluish green color indicates excess nitrogen. For good yield and fruit quality, tomatoes need an ample supply of potassium (potash), which can be supplied with fertilizer, wood ashes, and organic matter.
6. Choose flavorful varieties. Flavor is an individual preference, but most gardeners prefer varieties developed for the northeast. You probably will not be happy with the hard, bland shipping varieties that, in my opinion, are more appropriate for playing baseball with than eating. Try some new varieties every year. Heirloom varieties offer a lot of interesting possibilities. One disadvantage of heirlooms is that they don't usually have disease resistance. To avoid Verticillium or Fusarium wilt, be sure to plant them in soil that has not had tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, brambles or strawberries for a few years.
We highly recommend these varieties as they are among the most disease resistant and typically flourish here:
Celebrity – Blight tolerant, tasty, medium sized
Arkansas Traveler --- a medium size pink tomato known for producing tomatoes well in hot weather
Super Sweet 100 --- a cherry tomato bursting with sugary flavor. Produces until frost!
Roma --- if you are a fan of fresh tomato sauce, Roma is your tomato!
Big Rainbow --- A gorgeous heirloom tomato which sets fruit weighing up to two pounds!
7. Start with good transplants. Buy plants that are stocky with a thick stem. They should be about as wide as they are tall. Tall, spindly plants are not a good choice. They should have a good green color and show no sign of disease or insect problems. Actively growing plants are the best choice whereas hardened plants may take a while to start growing again. Ideally, choose a large plant (four inch pot) that is actively growing, but it is better to have a small, actively growing plant than a large hardened plant that has stopped growing.
8. Use good watering techniques. Avoid dry-wet cycles. Water evenly as required to maintain ample soil moisture, but don't over-do it. Over-watering leaches nutrients out of the root zone, damages roots, and encourages disease. Dig down a few inches and grab a handful of soil. It should be moist enough to form a ball that does not crumble easily, but should not be dripping wet. When watering, try to keep the foliage dry. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation work well for this. If you have patience, use a hand held hose to wet the soil without wetting the foliage. If you do use a sprinkler, water in the morning on a sunny day so the foliage will dry quickly. Mulching helps conserve soil moisture. Plastic mulch works especially well for this.
9. Use an appropriate growing system. Staking or trellising systems require that you prune the plants to a single stem. Indeterminate varieties are plants that keep growing as the season wears on. They are essentially vines that produce fruit on the new growth until the frost kills the plant. Also indeterminate tomato plants are the best suited to a staking method. Determinate varieties are varieties that set their fruit at all one time. You may choose this type of tomato if your goal is to preserve your crop. They are bushier and not suited to pruning to a single stem. Also they can be grown on the ground, but also in cages or using the basket weave system to keep the fruit off the soil. Plant tags, point of sale information, or seed catalogs should indicate the growth habit of each variety.
10. Let the fruit ripen on the vine. Tomatoes will ripen if they are picked after they start to turn pink. If picked early and brought inside to ripen, they will taste almost as good as if they ripened on the vine - but not quite. However, temperature is important. When outdoor night temperatures become cool, (below 60oF) in late summer and fall, tomatoes will taste better if picked early and ripened at room temperature. They do not need to be on a window sill.