What’s not to love about growing tomatoes? Pizza? Pasta? Eggplant Parmesan? Salsa? A healthy salad with diced tomatoes? OK – maybe I lost a few of you on that last one. Tomatoes are used in so many different recipes and make so many amazingly delicious dishes, that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. So read on to learn some tips on growing tomatoes.
If you plan to make a meal that involves tomatoes, you’re probably going to end up at your local supermarket to pick up some tomatoes. Or perhaps your way of making dinner involves picking up the phone and placing an order at your local pizzeria. No judgment here, I’ve had pizza twice this week.
But maybe you’re one of those people who like to try new things. Maybe you like a challenge. Maybe the extra sweat is worth it to you when you announce to your dinner guests that the tomato sauce they’re inhaling was made from scratch from the tomatoes in your backyard. And you don’t even live on a farm! My fruit and vegetable garden takes up about 100 square feet. That’s only 10×10 feet. And even a 4×4 foot raised bed or a few pots is enough to start getting dangerous and growing tomatoes!
Did you know Thomas Jefferson had a 1,000-foot long garden? He grew 330 different varieties of vegetables in the 1000×80 foot Monticello Garden. He also grew 170 different varieties of fruit. I am fascinated by Thomas Jefferson’s life, and the whole avid gardener thing doesn’t hurt. He was a huge promoter of the tomato, and its popularity in the U.S. can be traced back to him. He was growing tomatoes before most people. Back in the early 1800s, it was believed that the tomato plant was poisonous because other nightshade plants are, but in 1806 he served them to guests at the President’s House.
You can start growing tomatoes today, and all you need is a pot!
10 Tips on Growing Tomatoes:
1. Choose Your Tomato Varieties Wisely
The first of our 10 tips on growing tomatoes is choosing your varieties well. One of the biggest things I learned, and I learned with growing tomatoes, is that varieties matter. Different tomato varieties can handle different environments. Florida is hot. It’s humid. There are multiple varieties that do well here, that can handle our weather. Two that I enjoy growing are the Cherokee Purple and the Brandywine Beefsteak. Both are heirloom tomatoes. Cherokee Purple has more of a smoky taste, and Brandywine has more of a fruity flavor. I always make sure that the seeds I purchase are USDA Organic – this means they’re non-GMO. The local hardware stores near me have a limited number of seasonal organic seed packets so most of my purchases are done online – Botanical Interests has a great selection and you will find organic Brandywine and Cherokee Purple seed packets there.
2. Start Indoors
Not all plants do well starting indoors. Some are particularly sensitive to change. But tomatoes (and all nightshades) do really well when you start them inside. You can actually grow them from seed for 2 months indoors before transplanting them. Just make sure they get plenty of light – either by a window or by using a full-spectrum light.
Why start them inside? 2 reasons: 1) If it’s the summertime, a time when tomatoes don’t do well in Florida, you can get a head start by growing them inside. 2) The plant gets a chance to become stronger before insects start getting at it. Leaf miners, tomato hornworms – you’re not the only one who likes tomatoes. Check out How to Start Seeds Indoors to learn more.
Once you have your pots, fill them with potting soil that you can get at your local hardware store and plant two seeds in each pot about 1/4 inch into the soil. It may take a week or two for them to germinate. After the plants have 4 leaves you’ll want to thin them down to one plant per pot. Keep whichever plant looks healthier to you, and cut the other plant towards the base with scissors – don’t pull it out or you may disturb the roots of the plant you want to keep. These plants can get up to a foot tall before you’ll be planting them outside. Water them daily.
3. Know Your Season
As mentioned in tip #2, summertime is a time when tomatoes don’t do well in Florida. The best season for growing tomatoes here is fall and winter – and that includes growing just about everything. It isn’t hot out and a lot of the bugs are gone (which is especially nice if you grow organically). Once spring comes, so do the bugs. And summer is so hot that barely anything can grow but okra, and who likes okra?! Tomato varieties that grow well in Florida can handle warmer climates – but that doesn’t include our summers. I’ve tried growing tomatoes in the summer (the ones that survived the plague of insects in the spring), only to get tomatoes about an inch in diameter. The heat stunts their growth. Don’t do it. Grow those tomatoes indoors during July and August.
4. Harden Them Off
Before you actually transplant your tomato plant from growing indoors to outside you’re going to need to get the plant acclimated to the changes. Do you keep your house temperate at 90 degrees? No? Then you’re going to need to set aside a week where you place your plants outside every day, increasing the amount of time each day until they are used to being outside during daylight hours before transplanting. This is called hardening off.
Below is an example of how you would harden off your plants:
- Sunday – 2 hours outside, in the shade
- Monday – 4 hours outside, in the shade
- Tuesday – 6 hours outside, in the shade
- Wednesday – 8 hours outside, in the shade
- Thursday – 10 hours outside, in the shade
- Friday – 12 hours outside, direct sunlight for a couple of hours, rest of the time in the shade
- Saturday- 12 hours outside, direct sunlight for a couple of hours, rest of the time in the shade
- Sunday – Transplant
You’ll want to make sure you check on your plants every couple of hours if you can – make sure they get plenty of water. They’re going to wilt a bit, even with water, but after you bring them back inside they’ll perk up after a couple of hours. This is why we’re easing them into it. If you just transplant without doing this there’s a chance the temperature change will be too much for the plant and it won’t make it, or it will suffer from some damage before adjusting.
5. Transplant Properly
Once it’s been two months, or September 1st rolls around (or maybe March 1st) it’s time to transplant your tomato plants (after hardening them off, of course)! You’ll want a much larger pot outside – I believe the posts I use are 16-18″ in diameter. Fill about a third with potting soil and you can add your supplements (see tip #7). There’s a secret to transplanting that will help your tomato plants grow fuller. You might have noticed, if your plants have gotten big enough, that the base of the main stem is fuzzy, it may even have nodules already (little bumps). This part of the stem will root if you plant it underground, so that’s what we’re going to do.
Remove the bottom two or three branches of your tomato plant carefully with scissors and then remove the peat moss pot. You may have to peel parts of the pot off – you don’t want to reuse them anyway, so it’s ok if you pull them apart. It’s easier to do this if you’ve recently watered your plant so that the soil sticks together. Next, you’re going to want to lay the root ball on its side in the larger pot – see the middle row of tomatoes below. The root ball should be on its side, and towards one end of the pot – the tomato plant needs some space to slowly curve upright. You don’t want a 90-degree angle in your stem, or you just killed your plant. Slowly pack the dirt in around your plant.
Once you’re done adding the rest of the potting soil you’ll want to water your plants right away. Even after hardening off your plants, they’re going to look a little droopy the first week outside. Be kind to them and water them a little extra, maybe 3 times a day.
6. Water Consistently
You can get away with forgetting to water other plants. And you can get away with overcompensating and watering other plants too much. You cannot get away with that with your tomato plants once they start to blossom. Here’s the thing – think of the tomato as a water balloon. Think of who you’d like to throw that water balloon at..
Wait, wait, that’s not where I meant to go with this.
When filling a water balloon, the balloon starts to get bigger, right? But what happens when you add too much water? You don’t get to throw that water balloon at your person of choice because it just exploded in your hands.
That’s what happens to tomatoes if you are inconsistent or overzealous with your watering. The inside of the fruit will grow faster than the skin, and the skin with crack. Larger tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes are more susceptible to splitting. You can still eat them if they do, but it makes the tomato more susceptible to bacteria, etc. Usually, if I see a large tomato start to split I’ll harvest it then and let it finish ripening on the kitchen counter.
7. Remove Suckers… Sparingly
There’s some debate on whether or not you should remove suckers. Ultimately, it’s not a big deal either way, but first, you need to know what I’m talking about.
Suckers are little shoots growing between where two larger branches intersect. It’s new growth that’s going to cause your tomato plant to become fuller. Nothing wrong with that. However, once you have tomatoes on your plant they’re going to be competing with new growth for nutrients. Do you want your 84th branch or a bigger tomato? If the sucker is near a branch that you have tomatoes growing on, I say pinch off the sucker. I wouldn’t worry about them before you have tomatoes, and I’d avoid the top of the plant so that you don’t stunt the plant’s growth.
8. Add Supplements
My two go-to supplements for growing tomatoes are blood meal and bone meal. These affect the pH scale of your soil, and how your plant grows.
To lower your soil’s pH (to make it more acidic) you can add blood meal. You’ll want to do this at the beginning because it helps the leaves and stems of the plant to grow fast, strong, and healthy.
I recommend a couple of tablespoons of this every month, and maybe only one tablespoon once tomatoes start growing. The plants below on the left received the monthly supplement of blood meal. The plant on the right received its first blood meal supplement maybe a week before the picture was taken – which is why the top leaves are starting to turn green but the bottom leaves are still yellow. You want to be proactive with blood meal, not reactive, but if your plant starts yellowing it’s ok – just add blood meal, water it consistently, and you should start to see changes occur within a few days.
To raise your soil’s pH (to make it more alkaline) you can add bone meal. You’ll want to do this especially once your plant starts to flower. The bone meal helps with fruiting. Growing tomatoes seem to need this more than anything else I’ve grown, and you’ll know your tomatoes are deficient when they start to get bottom rot.. where they, you guessed it, rot on the bottom. This happened to my San Marzano tomatoes (paste tomatoes) last season when I forgot to add bone meal. I usually put some bone meal in the pot when I first transplant the tomato plant – and then I wait until I see the first bud. Then I add a couple of tablespoons of bone meal around the base of the plant and water it in. I recommend doing this every month as well once the plant starts to flower.
9. Remove Pests
That’s what I say the moment I feel anything brush up against me in my garden, whether a leaf, a blade of grass, my own hair.. on rare occasions is it ever an insect. But I digress…
There are some insects that I’ve noticed that go after tomatoes – leaf miners, caterpillars, and the tomato hornworm (another caterpillar, but he gets his own category).
How do you get rid of these pests if you’re growing your food organically? Well, you have a few options. First of all, the healthier your plants are, the less likely they’ll be harmed by insects. Second, knowing your season (Tip #3) will help. Growing in the fall and winter time here in Florida will help with your insect vegetable consumption because there are fewer insects during this time. Keeping your tomato plants separate (not having the branches touching) can also help so that it’s not as easy for insects to crawl from one plant to the next. These are proactive ways. Inevitably, you’ll need to be reactive as well.
There are organic pesticides – like neem oil that you can use to deter pests. This is the Neem Oil I use. You can get it in a concentrated version and add it to a spray bottle filled with water, or you can purchase the already diluted spray version. Going around once a week and spraying your leaves can help. I try not to spray the blossoms.
Another way, perhaps not for the faint of heart, is to pick off the caterpillars you see munching on your leaves. You can use gloves, or take scissors and snip off the leaf that the caterpillar is on. Bring a baggie or another container to drop the caterpillars into. Then, if you’re humane, relocate them to a different area of your yard with plants you don’t plan on eating, or perhaps to that neighbor’s yard who still hasn’t returned your toolbox. Your call. 🙂
10. Pick ’em (before someone else does)
I always hear that “vine ripe tomatoes” are the best.. the ones that you pick right when they’re ready to eat. Let me tell you something – nothing you buy at the store will taste better than your own organic heirloom tomato that you picked from your backyard, REGARDLESS of if you let it ripe on the vine or pick it green. The longer you wait the better, sure, but your return on investment rapidly decreases the moment a caterpillar takes a bite out of your ripe tomato. Or a bird. Or a raccoon.
Beefsteak tomatoes also have a more likely chance of splitting the longer you leave them on the vine. The tomato below has a split – nothing wrong with it, and it tasted fantastic.
But I can’t tell you how many times I left a tomato to ripen “one more day” just to wake up to a chunk missing, or the entire tomato MIA. Solution? I like to pick my tomatoes once they start to become a lighter green, with maybe a tint of yellow or orange. Tomatoes change colors in a matter of days. The one above went from light green to red in under a week. It takes growing tomatoes about a month to go from flowers to their full size before changing colors. The larger the tomato, the longer it takes. We want the tomato to grow as big as it can, but once it starts to change colors it doesn’t get much bigger, if at all. Once picked, leave them on your counter, somewhere dry, and they should ripen in a week or two depending on when you pick them.
The early bird catches the worm; the early farmer catches the tomato.
I hope you found these tips on growing tomatoes. useful. If you have any questions about growing tomatoes or would like me to do a post on tips for growing a different fruit or vegetable, comment below!
Happy Gardening! 🙂