Tomatoes are undoubtedly one of the most popular vegetables (or fruits, depending on who you ask) to grow in home gardens. Not only are they versatile in the kitchen, but they also provide an abundant harvest with a little effort. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a novice with a green thumb, this comprehensive guide to growing tomatoes will take you through the journey of growing tomatoes from seed to harvest.
Choosing the Right Tomato Varieties:
The first step in growing tomatoes is selecting the right variety for your garden. There are numerous options available, including heirloom, hybrid, and cherry tomatoes. Consider factors like taste preferences, disease resistance, and growth habits when making your choice. Also, try to get a few different varieties that grow early (like Early Girl) and those that grow later so you have a harvest through the entire summer/fall. Additionally, consider your climate and the time you have available for cultivation (In Ontario, we plant right after our May long weekend to make sure that we are safe from frost).
Growing Tomatoes from Seeds:
If I’m organized, I will start tomatoes from seeds, because it allows a wider range of varieties to choose from (my mom will often take seeds from an unusual tomato variety and grow it from seed!!). Begin by planting seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before the last frost (for us, that is some time in March). Use a seed-starting mix, sow the seeds in trays or pots, and provide adequate warmth and moisture (you have to be diligent with the watering – misting lightly every day!).
As the seedlings grow, ensure they receive plenty of light, either from a sunny window or using grow lights. And, remember, that if you start too soon the plants will grow too quickly and become “leggy”, meaning they will be tall and scraggly and not grow as heartily as if they were shorter.
Once the danger of frost has passed and the seedlings have developed their true leaves, it’s time to transplant them into larger containers or directly into the garden. Choose a sunny spot in your garden with well-draining soil. Prepare the soil by adding organic matter and compost to ensure optimal growth. Carefully transplant the seedlings, burying them deep to promote root development.
Providing the Right Growing Conditions and Encouraging More Fruit:
Tomatoes thrive in warm and sunny conditions. Ensure they receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily. Water regularly (I like to water first thing in the morning before it gets too hot or after the sunsets for a few minutes), keeping the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Mulching around the plants helps retain moisture and suppresses weed growth.
Consider using a stake or tomato cage to support the plants as they grow, preventing branches from snapping under the weight of the fruit (use something soft to tie the tomato plants to the stake – like yarn or even old panty hose. This video is a great tutorial). And if you’d like to encourage more tomatoes, give your flowers (your future tomatoes) a little tickle which mimics the pollinators wings and gives the pollination a bit of a head start!
Fertilizing and Pruning:
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and benefit from regular fertilization. Use a balanced organic fertilizer or compost tea every few weeks to provide essential nutrients. When it comes to pruning, remove suckers (the small shoots that emerge in the crotch between the main stem and branches – see photo below) to encourage better air circulation and prevent overcrowding. Pruning also directs more energy towards fruit production.
Pest and Disease Management:
Tomatoes are susceptible to various pests and diseases, including aphids, hornworms, and fungal infections. Regularly inspect your plants for signs of infestation or disease. Encourage beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings, which prey on pests. Use organic pest control methods such as neem oil or insecticidal soap to combat any issues (I have even read that sprinkling the plants with baking soda to prevent “bottom rot” in tomatoes but I’ve never tried it).
Proper spacing, good air circulation, and avoiding overhead watering can help prevent diseases. You can even use crushed eggshells the the base of your tomatoes – they are said to reduce the amount of slugs and insets that might make their way up the stalk (this post explains this in greater detail).
Harvesting and Enjoying Your Tomatoes:
The reward for your efforts comes when you can finally harvest your ripe, juicy tomatoes. Harvesting time varies depending on the variety, but generally, tomatoes are ready to pick when they have reached their full color and are firm to the touch. Gently twist or cut the fruit from the vine, leaving a small stem attached. If tomatoes are not fully ripe, they can be left on the counter to ripen further. You can also use the tomatoes leaves if you hate waste (look at this post to see how you can use the leaves to make fresh pasta – amazing!!)
Here are a few other dishes to make the most of you tomatoes:
Growing tomatoes is a rewarding and fulfilling experience for any gardener. With the right variety selection, proper care, and attention to detail, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest of delicious tomatoes throughout the season. Remember to choose the right tomato varieties for your needs, start from seeds or transplants, provide optimal growing conditions, and manage pests and diseases effectively. The journey from seed to harvest may require some effort, but the taste of those sun-ripened, homegrown tomatoes will make it all worthwhile. Happy gardening!