Tomato Talk

By Pat Duncan, Master Gardener, SCMG.

Tomatoes are one of my favourite things to grow in my vegetable garden.  Maybe it’s because they grow taller than any other plants that I grow and the tomato harvest seems to last right into fall.  There’s nothing like plucking a ripe tomato off the vine for dinner.   It’s as fresh as fresh can be – puts the ones you buy at the store to shame.

Growing tomatoes is a little more than digging a hole and planting it.  It requires some basic gardening knowledge, buts it’s definitely worth it.  Here is a list of tips that will help you grow large, productive and healthy tomato plants – your best tomato plants ever.  

Proper watering can make or break your tomato season.  Tomato plants are very water sensitive.  They require consistent watering and should never be allowed to dry out.     

A tomato plant’s preferred watering method is different than most other garden plants. They hate getting sprayed by overhead sprinklers.  There are many diseases which are airborne and adhere to damp foliage.  When possible use a soaker hose or a hand held hose that is directed at the base of the plant.  Tomatoes need deep watering about once a week.  If drip irrigation or soaker hoses are not an option and overhead watering is your only option, be sure to do that during the dew period of early morning hours.  That way, the foliage of your tomato plant will have more time to dry off throughout the day.  

Consistently watering your tomato plants helps to reduce the chance of the fruit developing blossom end rot – a darkening and rotting of the bottom of a tomato.  Blossom end rot is caused by calcium deficiency.  Calcium occurs naturally in the soil and moves through the plant to the fruit via water.  The plants need consistent water in order to take up calcium from the soil.  If the plant is allowed to dry out its ability to move calcium to the fruit is hindered.  

Mulch– a good layer (1-2”) of mulch under your tomato plants provides many benefits.  Most importantly, mulch helps to prevent diseases.  Tomatoes are highly susceptible to soil-borne disease which often are transmitted to the tomato foliage by splashing up from the soil. When mulch is in place the disease is trapped underneath and it less likely to affect your plant.   Mulch also helps to protect the soil and feeder roots from drying out and helps to prevent weeds from becoming established.  

Proper Support – Most varieties of tomato require some form of support.  Those tiny tomato cages they sell at the store usually aren’t big enough.   You will need bigger tomato cages to keep your plants from flopping over especially once the heavy fruit begins to develop.  

There are two different kinds of tomato plants; determinateand indeterminate.  Indeterminatevarieties are actually vines and will continue to grow and put on fruit until they are killed by frost.  This variety can grow as tall as 8 feet tall.    Determinatevarieties remain smaller (about 3’ tall) but they set all of their fruit in a short period which means they can be weighed down by a lot of fruit on the plant at one time.  

Supporting your tomato plant not only keeps the plant from breaking off or becoming damaged, it also keeps foliage elevated ensuring less chance of getting disease from the soil.  Keeping the plants elevated also protects the plant from slugs, rabbits and other garden invaders. 

So what’s the best method for support?  I build my tomato cages using cattle panels or using a roll of wire fencing.   Staking and trellis is another option, but not one that I recommend.        

Pruning– It is a common belief that removing the suckers of a tomato plant will allow the plant to focus its energy on fruit production.  That isn’t true.  Removing the suckers is primarily about managing the growth of the plant.  

Suckers (side shoots) are fruiting stems that grow between the main stem and a branch. Suckers will also produce fruit, which means if left to grow they will become a stem with branches, flowers, fruit and more suckers of their own.  So removing suckers from your tomato plants is actually thinning the plant.  Thinning allows for better air circulation and allows the sun to reach the inner area of the plant.  It is really a personal choice as to how many suckers you chose to remove from your tomato plant.  It is recommended to remove some suckers, but be careful not to remove too much foliage. The plant needs its leaves to photosynthesize to produce a good yield of fruit and fruit that has better flavor.  

What do you need to feed your tomatoes? Tomato plants are very heavy feeders – meaning they take up a high quantity of nutrients from your soil through their roots.  They often grow faster than any other plant in your garden.  In addition to planting your tomatoes in quality soil that has plenty of organic matter as a natural source of nutrients, the plants will require supplemental feeding.  I recommend fish emulsion fertilizer a couple times during the season.  Tomato plants grown in containers require more regular feedings (once a week).   

Monitor your garden – Tomatoes are more prone to disease than most other edibles in your garden. Take time to regularly look over your plants for early warning signs of trouble.  Watch for yellowing, leaf curling stippling or other discoloration. Remove any leaves that look troublesome. Remove the lower leaves from the stem to limit the possibility of disease splashing up from the soil.

Whew! Who knew growing tomatoes could be so complex, right?  Actually, it’s this complexity that keeps us on our toes in the garden and keeps things interesting and challenging.