The Simple Garden Guide to Fantastic Tomatoes

The Altamont Farms garden runs constantly and we grow a wide variety of fresh produce enjoyed throughout the year, at the time of harvest or in preserved form. I have to say that if forced to pick just one vegetable to focus the garden on, it would be tomatoes, which are a fruit.

I organize a good portion of the year around the schedule for sowing, planting, and harvesting tomatoes. There are few things in any garden like that of a fresh tomato picked from the vine and cut to serve within minutes. The smell and bright flavor of a garden tomato simply cannot be surpassed by anything in the produce section of a market.

Tomato vines are sugar producing machines and the fruit on the vine will continue to grow and saturate as long as they are on the vine. Good soil, sunshine, and management of the vines all come together and ignoring any one element will diminish your tomato crop. This post is a simple guide for everything you need to know to grow tomatoes in your garden.

Let’s break it down, starting with picking the right varieties for your climate and conditions. I grow four primary varieties and experiment with others each year. My favorites are:

Black Krim: This is a Ukranian variety of tomato that has the appearance of the typical heirloom you will see for $5 a pound in your market. Hardy with rich flavor and consistent sizing, the Black Krim is a wonderful all-purpose tomato but note that in sauces is will release a lot of liquid. This variety has a tendency to split open the fruit if left on the vine after the fruit begins to ripen. I pick these early let them continue to ripen on the counter (never refrigerate a tomato, it kills the flavor.)
Chocolate Stripes: This is a beautiful tomato but were it not for the flavor it packs, it would just be a nice tomato. This is a flavor powerhouse that is great on its own and in sandwiches and salads.
Amana Orange: This variety is my all-time favorite, an heirloom beefsteak variety from Iowa. I have yet to see a tomato variety that produces as much fruit per plant as this one, and even more impressive is how large the fruit will grow to. The fruit is fleshy and rich, with few seeds.
San Marzano: A classic Italian plum variety used for pastes and sauces, these vines will be abundant with fruit. You cannot go wrong with San Marzano and I plant an entire raised bed with this variety, each plant capable of producing 7-10 pounds of plum tomatoes. Better tasting that the popular Roma with the same thick walls, low seed count, and limited moisture. My only complaint with San Marzano is that the fruit has a tendency to drop off the vines with the slightest touch or disturbance, and as a result, you have to regularly police the ground around the plants to pick up the fallen fruit.

Other varieties that consistently produce a good fruit load are the Brandywine, Beefsteak, Roma, and cherry tomato varieties. Online catalogs offer a bewildering array of varieties, so experiment and pick the ones that work with your climate and appeal to your taste and aesthetics.

Soil: The Dirt Matters

Soil conditions are critical for good tomatoes; blemishes and pests will flourish and crop yield reduced by poor soil. Tomatoes need calcium, lots of it, and everything in the garden needs nitrogen.

I’m not a fan of commercialize fertilizers, which do nothing more than compensate for soil deficiencies. To improve my soil I do two fundamental things, and the first is a year round activity. Composting and mulching will increase the organic material in the soil, improving water retention and pH levels as well as stimulating nitrogen replenishment. To make compost even more beneficial to the tomatoes you need calcium and that is why I never throw out an eggshell. Composting eggshells is a phenomenal way to add calcium to the soil. I also work in bone meal when I am planting seedlings, which will be taken up by the plants over the growing season. Calcium will not take up into the plant immediately so supplement it year round to build up healthy soil for when it is most needed.

Nitrogen is an essential soil nutrient and in addition to composting and mulching, I grow nitrogen fixing crops in the winter. Fava beans, also known as Italian beans, are nitrogen-fixing machines, and after harvesting the beans, you can till the plants right into the soil where they will continue to do their work depositing nitrogen. Known as a green compost, this is a great way to grow a winter crop that also benefits your summer crop.

I do not use any other fertilizers or supplements. Commercial fertilizers are not an ideological issue for me and if fertilizers accomplished something I could not do with soil management I would use them.

Planting: Temperature is Key

A general rule of thumb is that you should plant tomatoes in the first week of May. This is helpful and generally accurate but what is really at work here is not an arbitrary calendar date but rather soil temperature. Tomatoes want to grow in soil that is at least 55 degrees and accelerate in soil that is 60 degrees or warmer.

I keep a log and have recorded the difference in crop yields planting mid-April versus mid-May and the results are startling. If you plant according to soil temperature, which you can eyeball based on your weather conditions over an average night temperature over a week, you will produce more tomatoes.

Seedlings from the nursery will produce excellent tomatoes but in my experience sowing your seeds directly and acclimating before planting will produce stronger plants with deeper roots that yield more fruit. I sow seeds in the last week of February and stagger series a week apart for four weeks. Sequential planting ensures that the garden will not dump all of the tomato load in one short period but will produce fruit over a 6-8 week period.

I start my seedlings indoors, and when they hit 2-3 inches in height, I begin moving them outside to acclimate them. I have a portable greenhouse that I use and at some point would like to have a permanent greenhouse, but first I need to build a larger chicken coop.

Gardening outlets feature a range of garden aids, from insulating jackets for the plants to ultraviolet filtering plastic that you lay on the soil around the plants. They all work but honestly they do nothing more than allow you to plant earlier. I have not experienced an improvement in my tomato plants or crop yield with them, and you can still be at risk of adverse spring weather that wipes our your seedlings if you plant early, so now I focus exclusively on soil temperature to guide my planting schedule.

Sun and Water: Ying and Yang

You can grow tomatoes in almost any climate, but they do want direct sunlight most of the day. There is no compensating for this other than selecting varieties that will produce in less desirable conditions.

Unlike many garden plants, tomatoes will do well in containers, and if your location does not allow for constant sun exposure, movable containers will work providing you move them as the sun travels through your yard.

I’ve read a lot of commentary on how much water tomatoes require and in my experience they benefit from daily watering at the base. Monitor soil moisture levels, moist but not saturated. Always water at the base and never at night, either of which can introduce fungus, blight, and encourage damage from pests. My drip irrigation system comes on at 6 am. As the plants grow the soil becomes shaded, and while the vines will consume more water, you will lose less to evaporation so cutting back the amount of watering is a judgment call you can make.

Tomatoes are resilient to pests but susceptible to damage from worms and slugs if the fruit is allowed to rest on the ground (more on staking plants in the next section). Grubs in the soil are another pest, and I had an extensive problem with grubs this last spring. The problem with grubs is twofold; they attack the roots of the plants, but the bigger problem is raccoons and possums that smell the grubs and will dig your garden to destruction looking for them. I solved my grub problem with nematodes, a beneficial organism that attacks the grubs and is otherwise benign.

Pruning and Staking: Tomatoes are Vines

tomato-diagram-2_crop_webTomato vines will continue to grow through the season, and new growth occurs at the tips as the vines expand but also at the base of the intersection of existing vines. These growths are called suckers. Later in summer as the vines hit optimal size it is important to pinch off these suckers to slow down the growth of the vine and focus more of the sugar flowing through the vines to the fruit rather than using it for new growth.

xtomato-sucker-3-jpg-pagespeed-ic-ea6gn0jb-lCalled Missouri Pruning, this technique controls the sucker growth and will result in plants that produce more fruit. The suckers will start sequentially at the base of the plant and move up and outward as the plants grow. Simply get into a ritual of managing them with the pinching technique.
Staking and securing a tomato is critical and vines should not be allowed to fall over. These are hardy plants that will grow in spite of bent and pinched vines, but when allowed to fall over you will find a the plant responds by shooting off new growth vertically.

The tomato plant itself will get quite top heavy with fruit and each year I additional square cages rather than the more common round cages sold in the big box home improvement stores. The round cages fall over, the square ones do not… it’s that simple. I also like the fact that the square cages fold down flat for storage in the winter.

If you have an acceptable location to grow tomatoes and follow the simple guidelines for soil management, watering, pruning, and staking, you will enjoy a bumper crop in late summer. There is no magic or exotic techniques for growing tomatoes, they are some of the easiest plants to grow in the garden and with proper harvesting, preparation and preserving you can enjoy tomatoes year round.