Looking for some tomato tips?
I do sometimes escape the lab into the outside world and once out of there I can often be found in my vegetable garden looking after my tomatoes. I’ve written many times here on The Niche about gardening including tomatoes and have an occasional series “Scientist in the Garden.”
After a couple of decades growing tomatoes, I have a good sense of how to grow a lot of great tomatoes.
While each gardener’s experience will vary depending on many things including primarily their location and how much sun their garden gets, some tips are nearly universally helpful.
Here are my top 12 tips for growing great tomatoes. If you try some of these, let me know how things go.
- Soil. Work on your garden soil both during and especially outside of tomato-growing season. The most important thing in my view is cover crops that you then till into the soil such as fava beans (my favorite). These guys not only fix nitrogen, but also they literally become part of the soil. You can also add in manure in fall. Think of it this way. Whatever you take out of your garden (tomatoes, cukes, peppers, beans, etc.) you have to put that amount at least back into the soil.
- Sun. Tomatoes are sun worshippers. Do whatever you can to get your tomato garden as much sun as possible. My current garden of 13 years doesn’t get quite enough sun to be ideal for tomatoes, but I make it work. Sun all day is the best.
- Water. Tomatoes are tougher than most garden plants, but even they like plenty of water. It’s better to water deeply and only two or three times a week even here where it can regularly be 100+ in Davis, CA than to water every day (see exception below).
- Prep the new home. I mentioned soil above, but beyond general soil development, I always put some material directly into the hole in the ground where each tomato will live for months. I have had good luck with a product called TomatoTone, but I’m sure other stuff will work.
- Give transplants temporary TLC. Baby your transplants for two weeks after you put them in the garden. Especially if it is warm, water them every other day and if it is downright hot (90+) water them every day during this time. After two weeks, go to a normal, water schedule.
Easy on the fertilizer. If you do #5 above, you really don’t need to fertilize that much. I’d say no more than once a month in summer. Tomatoes are hungry for nutrients, but it’s easy to give them too much. I think fertilizers also change the soil ecosystem sometimes in bad ways. Note that even without much fertilizer, I get big crops most years. See picture at right and note that those are full-grown fairly big tomatoes.
- Be Adventurous. Trying growing some different types of tomatoes, including at least a few new ones each year. Check out my post How to Grow Cool Tomatoes here for some examples of fun, unusual tomatoes to grow that are delicious and beautiful. I love Wild Boar Farms for their amazing tomatoes. Some of my favorites from them include Beauty King, Lucid Gem, Lover’s Lunch, Berkeley Pink Tie-Dye, and Atomic Grape. What’s special about these guys? Beauty king makes big beautiful orange and red tomatoes. Lucid gem makes orange-blue tomatoes with a great fruity flavor and is also relatively problem-free. Lover’s Lunch is similar to Beauty King in appearance, but smaller and more sensitive to fungus and other issues. Berkeley Pink Tie-Dye is gorgeous pink and green; my plants tend to have most fruit ripen within a relative short window and they don’t last long off or on the vine compared to some other varieties. Atomic grape is like a large pear tomato but extra long and has unbelievable colors and flavors (see below).
- Plant sure winners too. As much as I love unusual tomatoes, I always plant many reliable tomatoes including hybrids. Celebrity, Champion, Early Girl, and Better Boy are robust kinds of tomatoes that have good disease resistance, tolerate less than ideal conditions better than most others (e.g. too hot, too cold, not so great soil), and are very productive. Especially in gardens with wilt/fungus problems (mine some years), these tomatoes can save the day. I’ve had years where most of my unusual varieties succumbed to wilts, but these 4 tough types of tomatoes mostly kept on doing their thing as maybe only 10% of plants got wilts. Our family also has other favorites that generally do well including Bull’s Heart (beautiful shape and great texture with few seeds) and Kellogg’s Breakfast (nice orange, meaty tomato). Tomatoes with “VFNT” or some version of these initials on the name are even more disease resistant. I tried these in 2019 and they seemed more robust than others.
- Staking. Every tomato I grow gets tied to stakes: determinate (finite grower) or Indeterminate (grow forever). This keeps them up getting their rays and off the ground so less worry about fungus and pests. My impression is that tomatoes will set more and bigger fruits with staking.
- A word on tying: velcro. It’s a pain to tie tomatoes up to stakes, but it’s important. Tomatoes end up bigger with careful staking and tying. I found in the last couple years that the best product for this is VELCRO plant ties. They are so easy to put on plus gentle on the plants and on hands. Some plant tie products (ones like the supermarket bag ties) can shred your fingers. Love the VELCRO plant ties and they are my favorite relatively new garden product. And no, this post is not sponsored in any way by products that I linked to here and there.
- Suckers. Don’t worry too much about suckers. These are side shoots that tomato plants send up as they get into middle season. On the plus side, suckers form more tomatoes in the end, but if a plant has tons of suckers, it will produce smaller tomatoes. Overall, I think suckers boost total yield per plant. My approach to suckers is to pinch off about a quarter of them on average, depending on the plant. Sometimes I don’t remove any and plants do fine such as this year in 2019. I’m not sure I’ll pinch off suckers again.
- Go for the long haul. Try planting tomatoes year after year (ideally if you have space in different places in the garden), and you’ll find sometimes after a bad year, you’ll have a good one. There are a lot of random factors.
With all these things in mind, hopefully you can have fun and grow amazing tomatoes.