Gardeners and would-be gardeners are obsessed with tomatoes, and with good reason. There’s nothing like a just-picked, vine-ripened tomato. The big tomatoes in my garden aren’t ripe yet, and yesterday a fellow gardener gave me one huge Beefmaster, so big that I could eat only half at a sitting, and it was fabulous. The kind of tomato that you eat by itself with only the tiniest sprinkle of salt. Yum.
But tomatoes are hard to grow. They are subject to all kinds of pests and diseases, they set fruit only within a narrow temperature window, the fruits crack or turn black with too much or too little water. The vines grow huge and are hard to control, and they continually put out suckers. Yet we go on year after year, buying plants or seeds, obsessing all winter and spring, enjoying those first few tomatoes but then seeing the harvest ruined by blight or overcrowding or too much rain. We’re all subject to climate and weather, but there are some things you can do to reduce the other problems that plague tomato plants.
Right now I am harvesting a dozen or so small tomatoes every day (yellow and red grapes), plus an occasional medium-size yellow tomato, and waiting impatiently for the vines with the large heirlooms to start producing (they got a late start). I’ve learned quite a bit from past mistakes–in the past, I’ve planted too many vines too close together and haven’t been sufficiently vigilant about pruning out suckers, so the vines succumbed early to fungal diseases. Two years ago we got so much rain in the August that, after a great July harvest, the fruit cracked on the vine. Last year I overcompensated, didn’t water enough, and the fruit started to develop blossom end rot (later amended by proper watering.) Tomatoes are hard to grow. We should all stick to eggplant and zucchini, but we won’t.
This year things are going well, however. I have been scrupulous about removing suckers and tying the plants to stakes every few days. Here’s a picture of my vegetable garden taken a couple of days ago:
The tall plant in the center is a single tomato vine (small yellow grape tomatoes). Because there’s plenty of room around this plant, I allowed it to have two main stems, each tied to its own stake (the two stakes in the center). These stakes are 8′ tall, and the vines have already reached the top. The other stakes in the picture are supporting eggplants.)
Based on my two and a half years’ experience growing tomatoes, plus my horticultural training, I would suggest that there are a few simple rules that will help you get a good harvest (but not ensure it):
1. Space the plants widely, at least 2-3′ apart, and be ruthless about pruning suckers.
2. Use tall, strong supports, such as 8′ stakes, and tie the plants frequently. They grow very fast.
3. Make sure the soil is loose and well drained and high in organic matter. Enrich with compost, and avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers.
4. Provide 1-2″ of water per week early in the season, 1″ per week once fruit has begun to set. Water deeply every 5-7 days rather than giving a little sprinkle every day.
5. Water early in the day, never in the evening. You want to make sure the leaves are dry before nightfall.
6. The vines will not set fruit during very hot or very cool weather, so don’t be alarmed if you see some incomplete fruit clusters.
7. Although tomatoes are subject to pests, fungal diseases such as verticillium and anthracnose are far more common. The reasons for rules #1, 2, and 5 are to prevent fungal diseases from taking hold.
I wish you all good fruit set, not too much rain in August, and lots of delicious tomatoes throughout the summer and early fall.