If you’re among the many people who put in tomato plants over Memorial Day weekend, a few simple suggestions will help you achieve a delectable crop (Although the moment you begin to grow any food crop, you begin to realize how difficult it is, and you develop a great respect for farmers). So using proper cultural practices certainly will help, but it won’t ensure a great crop. If we get 22 inches of rain in August like we did a couple of years ago, your tomatoes will crack on the vine.
1. Tomatoes are subject to many, many pests and diseases, so start with plants that are resistant. For example, the letters “VFN” after the name of a tomato variety means that it’s resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes, three of the most common problems. Read the label carefully. However, “resistant” doesn’t mean immune. Your plants can still get diseases, so it’s always important to use proper cultural practices.
2. Plant in a place with full sun and soil rich in organic matter. This is the place to use your compost. It also makes sense to try to grow your tomatoes in a different part of your garden each year.
3. Give the plants plenty of room. When planting, most people underestimate the size of a mature tomato plant. It’s understandable–you look at those tiny seedlings and stick them in the ground, perhaps a foot apart. Then you carefully place a 4′ stake or 3′ high tomato cage and look forward to coming back in six weeks or so for tomatoes. Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.
By August, that tiny seedling can easily be 8′ tall and full of side branches. Most likely, it will pull down that puny support and lie sprawling on the ground. Tomato plants are vines, not shrubs. They keep growing all season, and they keep putting out side branches, or suckers. The plant gets immensely crowded, the sun can’t reach most of the leaves, and air can’t circulate. Diseases take hold, and fruit production suffers. So space your plants at least 2′ apart–3′ is better–and use stakes that are at least 8′ high.
4. Tie and stake your tomato plants properly. As the plant grows, be vigilant about removing suckers (side branches), and keeping the new growth tied to the support.
5. Water and feed wisely. Tomato plants are fussy about how much water they need, especially when they’re producing fruit.
A third post from last year summarizes the most important rules. Good luck. Notice there are no pictures in this post? That’s because I’m not growing tomatoes this year.