Planning for a Tomato BedTo grow the perfect tomato, you need a sunny location with at least 6-8 hours of direct sun a day. Be sure there is good air circulation and well-drained soil. Once you’ve chosen your location, choose what kind of tomatoes you would like to grow. Opt for more than one variety, partly to experiment, but also to buffer against a crop failure. If your cherry tomatoes don’t do well, maybe your beefsteaks will make up for it. Choose varieties that suit your growing season. If you have 90 frost free days, you will need a short season variety. Frost kills tomatoes, so you need to grow within that window of warm weather. Know your zone and average frost dates!
Choosing Seed or StartsTo grow from seed, buy from a reputable seed company that states they do not sell GMO seed. This information is in the catalog, on their website, and on the packaging. Start your seeds 6-8 weeks before your average last frost date in a sterile, soilless mix. Keep well-watered until the seeds germinate, then give them plenty of light and heat. Transplant them into the next larger size container to keep them flourishing and not getting root bound. If you prefer to buy starts, go to a reputable nursery where the staff is knowledgeable about gardening. Know which varieties you want or at least which characteristics you’d like. They will not have as diverse a selection as a seed catalog will. The plant should be completely green. Yellow leaves are a sign of stress or disease. Knock a plant out of its pot, and make sure the roots are not tightly spiraling around the root ball. You also do not want the soil ball to fall apart! A healthy root system will hold the soil in place, but not show too many roots.
Transplanting OutsideBefore you transplant to the garden, harden off your starts. This is a gradual process to acclimate them to the outdoors. Put them outside a little bit each day increasing the hours every day. Finally leave them out overnight, and they will not suffer a setback after being planted in the ground. While you harden off your plants, prepare the bed. Add 3-4” of compost on top, and turn it into the top 6” of soil. Rake it smooth and level, removing stones. When the plants are ready, mark off planting holes 18-24” apart. You can bury the stem of a tomato plant, and it will grow roots for extra support. Remove the bottom most leaves, up to the first flowers, if it is flowering, or the top most growing point, and bury the entire plant. You need to dig a hole as deep as necessary. Another method is to dig a shallow trench, and lay the plant in it. Make one end a little deeper to accommodate the root ball. Remove the lower leaves, and bury the stem up to the first flowers or top most leaves. This looks weird, but by morning, the top of the plant will be upright! Water your plants in well. At this point, put in trellises or cages for support and to keep the fruits clean and disease free. Install drip irrigation to soak from below, and add 4-6” of mulch once the soil is warm in a couple of weeks. Give your tomatoes at least an inch of water each week. As the plants grow, pinch the suckers in the leaf axils on indeterminate types. Leave two or three growing stems, and secure them to the trellis with soft cloth. Do not trim determinate plants, but do support them in a cage. When you see flowers, fertilize with organic 5-10-5 fertilizer according to directions. Continue until the weather cools off in late summer.
Disease and PestsNotorious tomato problems are hornworms, blossom end rot, late blight, and mosaic virus. Hand pick and drown or squish hornworms as soon as you see them. They will decimate your crop overnight. Blossom end rot is either from overwatering or a calcium deficiency. Late blight is caused by cool, rainy weather. Buy disease resistant plants or seed to reduce the likelihood of blight. Mosaic virus is spread by insects, and can’t be controlled once it’s begun. Again, buy disease resistant plants or seed. At the end of the season, throw away diseased or insect infested plants instead of composting them. Also toss out the mulch around these plants. You need to remove anything that would continue the cycle. You can also reduce insects and disease by planting tomatoes in a different spot each year.
HarvestThe best tomato should be firm, full of color, and slightly under ripe. Do not refrigerate them! Leave them in a bowl on the counter, out of direct sun. Use them before they get soft. If frost threatens, pick the green tomatoes, and put them in a box or paper bag in a cool dark room, such as the garage. They will ripen gradually and completely, and you will have fresh tomatoes long after frost has knocked down your whole garden! You just grew beautiful, luscious tomatoes! If you want to save seed from your heirloom varieties for next year, watch this video from Seed Savers Exchange. And start the cycle all over again next year!
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