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Tomato Growing: Simple Secrets for Success

Tomato seed
Tomato seed

What is the surest way to get a good harvest to tomatoes? Here’s a simple checklist to keep handy when growing tomatoes.

Good Seed

  • Use seeds of a good variety. Use fresh seed.

Good Soil

  • Plant tomatoes in loose, well-drained soil. But almost any garden soil will grow tomatoes.
  • Sandy loam is best for early tomatoes.
  • Heavy clay loam is ideal for late tomatoes.
  • Amend the soil with aged compost or commercial organic planting mix before planting.
  • Tomatoes prefer a soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0, just below neutral in acidity.

Sunlight

  • Tomatoes require a minimum of 8 hours of continuous sunlight each day. More is better.
Tomato seedlings in garden
Set 8 to 10-week old tomato seedlings in the garden two weeks after the last frost in spring.

Right Temperature

  • Tomatoes need 3 to 4 months of warm, clear, fairly dry weather to produce best.
  • Set 8 to 10-week old tomato seedlings in the garden two weeks after the last frost in spring. If transplanted sooner, tomatoes must be protected from cold temperatures with hot caps or plastic tunnels.
  • Tomatoes need consistent night temperatures between 55°F and 75°F to set fruit. (A few varieties will set fruit at lower or higher temperatures.)
  • Later in the season, the fruit will not color properly when night temperatures stay above 85°F, and plants will quit growing when temperatures go above 95°F.

Continuous Even Watering

  • Keep the soil evenly moist–not too wet and not too dry. Too much water will drown the plants; too little water will stop fruit production.
  • Test soil moisture by sticking your finger into the soil–if it comes out dry, it’s time to water; if it comes out wet, hold off.
  • During periods of drought deep-water tomatoes once a week and slow soil moisture evaporation by mulching with aged compost or straw.
  • A constant, even supply of water can prevent blossom end rot, but too much water will cause it.

Continuous Feeding

  • Prepare the tomato-growing bed with well-rotted garden compost and a trowelful of aged manure added to the soil where each plant will grow.
  • Add a trowelful of bone meal into the bottom of each hole–the extra phosphorus will speed ripening.
  • Too much nitrogen will give you abundant foliage but delay ripening.
  • Sprinkle additional nitrogen around each plant when the top leaves turn yellow or the stem turns deep purple.
Mulch tomatoes
Mulch with straw to protect tomato roots from heat.

Protect Roots, Leaves, and Fruit

  • Protect tomato plants from extremes of temperature–cold and hot, strong winds, weeds, pests, and diseases.
  • Place tomatoes in the garden where they will be protected from drying winds.
  • Protect plants from cutworms with a paper collar set in the soil at transplanting.
  • Protect roots by adding aged compost around each plant; aged compost will feed roots and protect them from the hot summer sun.
  • Examine plants often to be rid of tomato hornworms and other pests early.
  • Avoid fungal and bacterial diseases by watering at the base of plants and rotating tomatoes to new beds each year.
  • Where summer temperatures exceed 95°F, shade cloth protection will protect leaves and fruit.

Also of interest:

How to Grow Tomatoes

Companion Planting and Tomatoes

Fertilizers for Tomatoes

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21 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting such informative and insightful articles. This is the first time I have ever planted a garden. I live just south of Dallas, Tx and currently have 10 boxes 3.5′ x 3.5′ x 12-28″ deep.

    I have planted radishes, pole beans, green bell peppers, arugula; red leaf and oak leaf lettuces, cucumbers, and various flowers in 2 of the boxes so far.

    My goal is to help provide good organic foods for my 5 children while saving some money.

    I do have a Kumquat tree my wife bought me last winter; it’s still sitting in it’s “pot” that it came in, but is doing real well. I am going to transplant it into one of the boxes this weekend hopefully.

    Any recommendations on veggies or fruits I should grow? We have a ton of sun and shade here. We plan on canning, drying, and freezing; donating the overflow produce.

    Great article!

    Eric

    • I would encourage you to grow the vegetables and fruits that your family enjoys eating. Each child can pick a vegetable to help grow–one that he or she really likes eating. This is a great way to encourage them to both grow and eat vegetables. Your list of crops you have planted is a very good start–they are all easy-to-grow crops. You might want to add a tomato or two to the list: Celebrity and Sweet 100 are two tasty and easy to grow tomatoes. Strawberries might be another good choice for your garden. Check out the topic index for Quick-Maturing crops–these are fun crops for kids.

      • Beefstake, Grape, and Black Prince are also great varieties to grow for a first time gardener. Also you should try service berries, blackberries, and raspberries(all thornless of course). They are easy to grow and have wonderful tasting berries.

        • Awesome advice. I’m a little cautious about putting my tomato seedlings in the ground when temps are still 47-50F night. Patiently waiting; will work on amending the soil in the meantime in Santa Clara County, Ca.

          • In Santa Clara County, CA, you have a long growing season–more than 250 days. There is no need to rush your tomato seedlings into the garden. If you have seedlings that are growing large, pot them up into the next largest container while you wait for nighttime temperatures to warm. If you do want to put your tomatoes in the garden before nighttime temperatures moderate, place a cage around each plant and wrap it with clear plastic to create a mini-greenhouse. Leave the top open during the day.

    • Insufficient pollination can fruit to be small–give each blossom a jiggle so that the flowers self-pollinate. Lack of direct sunlight or insufficient light may also cause fruit to be small as can too little moisture or nutrients.

  2. Great article. I have a question: why are the blossoms of my tomatoes falling off before any chance of pollination? The plant is green and vigorous, and appear to be doing well. I don’t see any pests. But all of my plants have blossoms “coming up”, then they just drop off. I have no idea why….thank you.

    • Tomato blossom drop usually occurs as a result of environmental factors. Here are a few: (1) temperatures too chilly (below 55F) or too warm (above 85F)–wait for temperatures to moderate; (2) soil too dry or too wet–keep the soil just moist; (3) too much nitrogen in the soil–add aged compost or commercial planting mix to the soil; (4) wind; (5) insufficient pollination. When flowers clusters appear, gently shake the stem of the cluster. Tomatoes are self-pollinating.

    • Tomato seeds are commonly started indoors where the temperature can be kept near 70F–the optimal temperature for germination. (Outside soil temperatures are usually too cool early in the season except in tropical and semi-tropical regions). Once seedlings are about 4 to 6 inches tall they can be set in the garden if the soil temperature is 60-70F. If the soil temperature is cool, or if you are unable to shield plants from cool temperatures, then growers will “pot up” seedlings as they grow and as the gardener waits for outdoor temperatures to warm.

    • You can protect tomatoes by placing a frame over the plants and covering the frame with clear plastic seeing; this will protect plants from heavy rain and cool temperatures.

  3. I live in the foothills of Colorado at about 5000 feet. I’ve had problems with my plants dying mid-season. Typically it is some of my best healthiest looking plants. All of the sudden they just die. It appears to get getting worse each year. I have a fairly large established garden. I compost my grass clippings and leaves right in the soil each year by tilling them into the soil, preferably in the late fall. I don’t use any chemicals on my grass that may have residuals in it. I typically plant in large reused plastic planter pots with the bottoms cut out and cleaned from the previous year. This does a nice job of focusing the water to the roots. I rotate my planting locations yearly. The plants always start out nice and right as they start really growing fast as the nightly temperature starts to rise, it’s like their roots die. The plants get a slightly off color and they just die and eventually turn brown. I’ve tried fungicides. I’m wondering if my soil is too rich from all the compost. I have not tried lime. What do you advise?

    • The grass clippings will be high in nitrogen. You might try composting the clippings for several months along with other plant debris and then use the compost as a side-dressing, rather than as a wholesale soil amendment. Of course, there may be other factors. The sun will be intense at your elevation, might the young plants need protection from the midday sun? Do you harden off the plants before setting them in the garden; could night temperatures be too chilly? To what depth is the soil well-drained? Could the roots grow into hardpan that is not well-drained? Have you done a soil test? A soil test can tell you the pH–which may need adjusting and can also tell you if there is a lack of minor nutrients such as boron or magnesium. Consider planting part of the crop in raised or mounded beds.

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