Tomatoes are probably the most commonly grown backyard vegetable (or are they a fruit?). There is nothing better than a sun warmed, fresh from the vine tomato – the taste and texture blows away anything that comes from the grocery store! Additionally there are SO MANY varieties of tomatoes that you simply can not find in stores. Tomatoes are also fairly easy to grow – put them in a sunny spot, water deeply every couple days, and away they go. Want to really kick your tomato harvest into high gear this year? Read on for our 8 simple tips for a huge tomato harvest and then start researching canning recipes for your delicious bumper tomato harvest!
1) Get your tomato seeds started early. Aim for 7-8 weeks before your area’s last frost date to get your tomato seeds started indoors. This is especially true if you live in the north where the growing season is shorter and every week counts! I recommend growing tomatoes from seed, they are easy to grow, you get a huge variety and you know harmful chemicals have not been added to the plant to get them to grow unnaturally fast. Explore the colorful purple or black heirlooms, grow some cherry tomatoes for snacking, get some thick walled paste tomatoes for making sauce, and some slicing tomatoes for your burgers & sandwiches. The varieties are almost endless! If you are going to buy your tomato plants, carefully inspect them before buying. It’s tempting to buy the huge bushy plants, but those ones are often root bound and will take longer to acclimate to planting. You are better off with smaller plants (about a foot tall) with healthy green leaves and no flowers or fruit yet.
2) Choose the right location. Tomatoes ideally need 6-7 hours of sunlight and prefer not to be crowded. Leave plenty of room around the plants so air can circulate to prevent fungal & bacterial diseases. Tomatoes prefer rich soil. A week or so before transplant, till some aged manure or compost into the soil.
3) When transplanting, dig a long, deep trench not a hole. Lay the plant in the trench horizontally so that only the top part (where the first true leaves are) is sticking out of the ground. The tomato plant will grow roots all along the buried stem. The bigger and healthier the root structure, the bigger & healthier your plant can grow! It might seem disheartening to see your foot long plant reduced to a couple inches sticking out of the ground, but believe me it won’t be long before your plant takes off!
4) Put a whole egg in the trench with the plant. “Planting” an egg (or crushed eggshells) with your plant provides an excellent source of calcium & sulfur – essential nutrients to prevent blossom end rot & for growing large tomatoes.
5) Add a fish. Many gardeners swear by adding a whole fish or fish heads just underneath your tomato trench (be sure to bury deep enough so they won’t be dug up by local wildlife!). Fish have been used for centuries as a natural fertilizer. Folklore holds this is a tip the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims when they first arrived in America. As the fish decays, nitrogen, phosphorus and other minerals are leeched into the soil, feeding the plant. A call to your local fish market will likely yield you a bag full of fish heads for free. I am a bit squeamish about the fish eyes staring up at me, so I opt for liquid fish fertilizer. Not as cheap or as good as the real thing, but easier for me! Simply follow the instruction for dilution on the bottle and water after planting. Not just for tomatoes, your entire vegetable garden will love this natural fertilizer!
5) Water deeply a few times per week. It is better to have a deep watering a few times per week over a light watering daily. In the heat of summer, a deep soaking 3-4 times per week is perfect. If possible, water directly to the roots, avoiding getting the leaves wet (wet leaves can encourage bacterial growth). Soaker hoses are ideal for tomatoes because they deliver water right to the roots without throwing water around. Be consistent with your watering. Most tomato issues are stemmed from watering habits. Blossom end rot (black rotting marks on the bottom of fruit), cracks/splits in the skin, stunted fruit size and root rot can all be traced back to over, under, or inconsistent watering.
6) Provide the right fertilizer at the right times. Tomato plants are fast growers so they really can benefit from the added nutrients of fertilizer. Once a week when they are young, I give my tomatoes nitrogen rich homemade chicken manure compost tea (click here to learn how to make it). Any nitrogen rich fertilizer will do though. This will encourage a healthy root system, large stable stems & healthy foliage. Once the plant is starting to put out blossoms, you know it is time to stop the nitrogen fertilizer. At this point, you want the plant to focus more on producing fruit rather than growing leaves. Now it is time to provide an extra calcium boost. Take the shells of several eggs and grind them up in a food processor. Scratch them into the dirt at the base of your tomato plant. In the picture above, these tomato plants are both the same variety and both about 7 weeks old. At 5 weeks, the top plant received some chicken manure compost tea, and the bottom one did not. You can see what a difference just one application of fertilizer has made!
6) Prune the suckers. A “sucker”, or side shoot, is a shoot the grows out of the joint where a branch meets the main stem. I don’t go crazy pruning these off, but if I notice them I do pinch them off. It’s easiest to do this when they are only an inch or two long. If they get bigger than that I just leave them. If left on its own, a sucker will develop into a new branch with its own leaves & fruit. What is wrong with that you might ask? This new branch will be competing for nutrients as it grows larger and puts out leaves & blossoms, taking away from fruit that is already developing. In the end you might end up with more tomatoes, but they will be smaller and of lesser quality. If you are growing determinate tomatoes (certain varieties that will only grow to a certain size, usually ones grown in containers), pruning suckers is not needed as the plant will only put out what it can support.
7) Provide support. There are numerous types of support systems for tomatoes from cages to whole row supports. Pick one that works for you and set it up when you plant to avoid disturbing the roots once the plant is larger. Tomato plants need support or else they will bend and break under the weight of the maturing fruit. If left to their own devices, they will grow along the ground (as they would in the wild), but keeping them off the damp soil will decrease the likelihood of diseases and pests.
8) Pick when ripe. For best flavor, allow your tomatoes to fully ripen on the vine. A ripe tomato will be firm and very red in color. Ripe tomatoes should be not be stored in the refrigerator, it causes their flavor & texture to deteriorate rapidly. If they fall off the vine before they are fully ripen, you can place them in a paper bag and store in a cool, dry location until ripened.