What garden is complete unless it has America’s favorite vegetable crop the tomato? Beautiful shades of red, maroon, yellow, green and even striped tomatoes find their way into my kitchen (if they make it that far) starting as early as mid-June. With a little TLC you will be well on your way to the succulent, sun-kissed taste you look forward to all year.
Soil Matters! Tomatoes like a rich well-drained loamy soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. I add plenty of compost early spring along with phosphorous in the form of Soft Rock Phosphate and potassium in the form of Greensand. If you have a problem with blossom end rot you can add lime if your pH is low and oyster shell if it is high. I always use organic fertilizers in my garden to build up the soil to create a healthy environment for my veggies. It truly makes a big difference in flavor too! I just makes sense!
Tomatoes love sunshine, with a minimum of 6 hours of full, bright sunshine to soak in the rays. Where I live in Southern Utah, however, tomatoes benefit from some afternoon shade. The sun is intense and we will even use floating row cover that lets in 85% light to help protect our plants throughout the day starting late spring. Without it, we have less production and more sun-scald.
Once the days are longer and soil temperature in your garden reaches 60-65 degrees, it’s time to plant! Make sure your little babies have been hardened off and always plant in the evening time or on cloudy non-windy days. All tomato varieties will be happy and produce better if they have some kind of support, whether it be stakes, cages or trellises. I space my tomato plants very close together. Determinate varieties get planted 1 foot apart and indeterminate varieties are planted 2 foot apart. Bio-intensive gardening baby! Our area is very arid, so the problem of molds and mildews are rare and there is plenty of wind so we get ample air circulation. If you live in a humid area, planting 3-4 apart is recommended. By planting this close, it helps keep the roots cooler, helps prevent weeds and I can have a bigger variety in a small space. Plant them deep! If your plants are tall and spindly, plant them deep. Others can be planted an inch or two deeper than the pot they are in. Roots form along the buried portion of the them, giving better growth and they have less plant injury from to weak of a stem. I’m not afraid to buy a tall skinny tomato plant as long as it’s healthy. Press the soil around they transplants with a slight depression, this way you can give it a drink without the water running off. At this time I like to feed with liquid kelp to help strengthen the plant and help with stress of transplanting. A weekly foliar feeding of kelp will really give your plants a boost. I have used the ‘red mulch’ and I am giving it a try again this year. It’s just a red plastic you place right over the soil and make slits to pop your transplants in. It’s said to increase yields and make healthier plants. I can say my plants do look really great this year and have plenty of blossoms, but so do the ones a few beds over! Experimentation! Priceless!
Water will depend on your area, soil and climate. You can use mulch to help keep the soil moist. I like to apply it a couple of times a growing season. Allow the soil to slightly dry out between watering. A steady supply will keep your tomatoes from cracking and getting blossom end rot, but too much water will cause your tomatoes flavor to be washed out. Fertilizing should be done every 3-4 weeks with a good balanced fertilizer. Carefully work it in around the base of each plant without disturbing the roots.
I love planting heirloom tomatoes! Some big, scalloped, lobed, stripped and some…..down right ugly like the Black Elephant! But that is what is so fun about heirlooms. I always add a few new varieties just to see how they perform. Brandywine is a very popular tomato and many people ask for it, but it does not perform well in hot climates. Potato leaf and the wispy fern-like leaf tomatoes do not perform well in my hot dry area, but 15 miles east they do just fine. It’s just a trial and error to find the perfect heirloom tomato for your area. Not all heirloom are created equal! This year my new varieties that look outstanding so far and have many tomatoes on already are Orange Giraffe, Koralik, Orange Purple Smudge and Sub-Arctic. Sub-Arctic is a variety that is good for cool regions, opposite of me, but because it is an early variety and I planted it out rather early (with some protection) and it already has many golf ball sized tomatoes. And this is the beginning of May! Even though I love heirlooms, I will always plant a few hybrid tomatoes, kind of as a back up plan. NOT GMO tomatoes though! Hybrids perform well in the heat and are more disease resistant then the heirlooms. A couple of old-time favorites of my is Better Bush and Mountain Delight, both determinate. Ask seasoned gardeners in your area which varieties have preformed well for them.
If you are in to saving seeds from these heirloom beauties, you will find that some varieties will adapt to your area and start to produce better and become more hardy. Truly amazing plants!