Tomatoes are without a doubt one of the most desirable vegetables to grow in the home garden, and for good reason. Homegrown tomatoes are highly nutritious and much more flavorful than those purchased at a supermarket. Although some so-called experts claim there are numerous mysterious and elaborate secrets to producing the perfect tomato crop, growing tomatoes doesn’t have to be rocket science. Tomato plants will produce an abundance of fruit for the home gardener if they are properly planted and cared for.
Growing tomatoes requires a fairly long growing season, and for this reason, the seeds are typically planted indoors about six to eight weeks before the seedlings can be planted in the garden. To begin growing tomatoes, sow the seeds about a quarter inch deep in small pots or flats in a soilless mix or sterilized potting soil. It takes 7-14 days for the seeds to germinate at a temperature of 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. The planting medium should be kept moist at all times but should never become soggy. Placing plastic wrap loosely over the pots or flats will help maintain the humidity levels necessary for germination, but once the seedlings begin to sprout the plastic wrap must be removed.
Bottom heat helps to speed the germination process when growing tomatoes. Garden centers and catalogs sell heating cables that are made just for this purpose, but you may also set the pots or flats on top of your water heater to take advantage of its warmth for germination.
As soon as the tomato seedlings emerge, they should be moved to an area where they’ll receive full light, such as near a sunny window or under grow lights. The seedlings should have light on them for about twelve hours a day and should be kept at a temperature of 70-80 degrees. Fertilize the seedlings with a water-soluble fertilizer when they’re about three to four weeks old, but dilute the fertilizer to half the strength recommended on the label.
To begin growing tomatoes that are picture-perfect, the seedlings need to be introduced slowly to outdoor conditions. The little tomato plants will be accustomed to fairly steady and warm temperatures while they’re growing indoors, and planting them out directly in outside temperatures could come as quite a shock to them, especially while nighttime temperatures are still cool. If the soil is still cool when the seedlings are planted, the first sets of ripening tomatoes may also have deformities that make them ugly or inedible.
About a week before it’s time to begin growing tomatoes in the garden, begin to gradually introduce the seedlings to outdoor conditions. This is called hardening off, and it simply involves moving the plants gradually to the conditions they’ll experience in the garden.
Start hardening off the little plants by moving them to an enclosed porch or another sheltered area for a day or two, then move them to a sunny spot outdoors that is protected from the wind. If the temperature threatens to take a drastic downward dip, bring the plants back indoors until it warms up again outside.
Tomatoes were originally found growing only in very warm climates. They don’t like to be cold and should not be planted outside until the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up. That’s typically late May or even early June here in northern Ohio.
The sooner a gardener can begin growing tomatoes outside though, the sooner they will begin to produce ripe fruit. There are a few tricks that make it possible to plant tomatoes in the garden a bit earlier than is normally recommended.
Garden soil may be warmed up by covering the area with clear or white plastic for a few days prior to planting. The little tomato plants will be much happier with their roots in cozy warm soil. Once the plants are in the garden, their foliage can be protected from a light frost by covering the plants with plastic gallon jugs that have their bottoms removed, or with plastic or fabric sheets placed over the plants. Floating row covers are also useful for protecting young, growing tomatoes. Suspend fabric, plastic or floating row covers over the plants using wire hoops so it doesn’t touch the foliage. For more information on protecting plants with floating row covers, go to https://earthwildgardens.com/how-to-protect-plants-with-floating-row-covers/
When you are ready to transplant your tomato seedlings into the garden, be sure to choose a spot for them that gets full sun for at least eight hours a day. Dig a hole for each plant that is large enough to easily accommodate all of the roots. Before transplanting, water the plants well while they are still in their pots. This not only helps prevent transplant shock, but it also makes it easier to slip the rootball from the pot.
There are tricks to growing tomatoes that don’t apply to other garden plants. Tomato plants will grow roots from any part of the stem that is buried beneath the soil, so the plants will benefit from being planted deeply, up to the first set of leaves. Some gardeners even go so far as to remove the lowest set of leaves so their tomato plants can be buried even more deeply. If the plants have spent too much time in their pots and have become leggy, they may be planted in furrows with their too-long stems laid in the furrow and gently buried with soil. This will help the plants develop a strong root system while preventing the long stem from breaking in a breeze.
Next, fill the planting hole with soil, pressing the soil in firmly to eliminate any air pockets around the roots. Then give the plants a good drink of water, thoroughly soaking the soil around them.
If you plan on growing tomatoes on stakes or trellises, the plants may be placed about two to three feet apart in the row. Plants that will be allowed to sprawl on the ground will need more space between them and should be planted four to six feet apart.
If the soil still feels a bit cool when planting the tomato plants, your white or clear plastic may be recycled by placing it on the ground beneath the plants to warm the soil. Once warmer temperatures have settled in, this plastic should be removed to avoid burning the plants’ foliage with reflective heat.
While growing tomatoes, it is important to keep the plants’ leaves up off the soil to prevent soil-borne diseases from attacking the plants. This can easily be done by applying straw mulch around the plants. But straw mulch should only be applied once the soil has warmed up above 70 degrees. If the mulch is laid down while the soil is still cool, it will keep the soil from warming up as it should and your tomato plants will suffer from cold feet and could end up with blossom end rot. For more information on blossom end rot, go to https://earthwildgardens.com/common-tomato-problems-and-blossom-end-rot/
Planting tomato plants properly is an important step toward a bountiful harvest of sweet, juicy fruit. With careful planting, adequate moisture and proper care, you too can grow the perfect tomato crop.