Tomato Growing 101

Spacing of tomatoes

(Re-posted from my original blog on Blogger). I have had a lot of questions about tomatoes recently, and have been doing some research on the plants. The main questions I wanted to answer were:

1) Will my tomato plants produce throughout the growing season?
2) How often should I be picking tomatoes?
3) Should I be pulling off stems with yellowing leaves?
4) How often should the plants be watered?
5) How tall will my tomato plants get?

For a couple of weeks I was picking tomatoes every day or every other day, but just recently the plants seemed to stop producing. I wasn’t really sure what to expect with the plants (reminder – I am new to gardening!) so I decided to look up some tid bits of information. I already knew that the tomatoes need to be planted in a spot that gets a lot of sunlight every day (at least 6-8 hours). Where ours are located on the deck is perfect for plants to sunbathe every day. The plants also need to be spaced out slightly to allow for air movement between the plants. This helps to reduce the risk of bacteria and/or fungus growing on the plants. Our tomatoes may be spaced a bit too close together, but since I have been making sure they are supported by a trellis or tomato cage, as well as trimming leaves, I don’t think it has been a problem.

Grouping of tomatoes

I wrote about this earlier in the blog, but just a reminder that these tomato plants were bought at the Farmer’s Market so I knew they were a good variety for the area. When planting sprouts, they should be planted up to the first “true leaves.” This nudges the seedling into producing more roots. I did not do this with my seedlings when I first got them. I did bury them pretty deeply in the soil, but not necessarily up to the first few leaves. Watering is a huge deal with these guys – they shouldn’t get too much water, but too little is also bad. We have the drip irrigation system that works really well.

One thing that I learned early on was to pinch off the shoots that would not be producing fruit. This tells the plant to put more energy into the fruits than growing extra shoots. Now, you’re probably thinking “how do I know that this shoot isn’t going to produce tomatoes?” Typically, these are leaves that are growing from joints of two stems. You’ll want to pinch these leaves off to encourage growth elsewhere on the plant.When leaves start to yellow and wither and they are located on the bottom of the plant, it is best to pinch these shoots/leaves off because they are going to be the oldest. This reduces the risk of disease and the plant can continue to flourish. If this is occurring often, after pruning you can add some fertilizer to help “rescue” the tomato plants.

Indeterminate growth

There are two general types of tomatoes: Determinate and Indeterminate. Those that are determinate reach a set height (predetermined by their genes) and produce fruit all at once. These types are generally used if you like making sauce because you get a large quantity of tomatoes all together. Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing. They continue to grow throughout the season and will produce on a regular basis if the conditions are right. So then, the next question is “how do I know that conditions are right?” Tomatoes grow best if the temperature is between 70 and 85 F during the day. Now, this may be the reason why our tomatoes stopped producing all of a sudden – it was too hot! So, this kind of stinks considering it’s summer time and in NC the temperature get above 85 F all the time! Right now, we have been having what I would call a “cool spell” because the days hover around in the mid to upper 80s. I would imagine that this is why our tomatoes are fruiting again. So, once the tomatoes are fruiting and ripen, it is best to pick them early on so that the plants aren’t putting too much energy in keeping the fruit on the plant. I usually pick my tomatoes when they are red, but not a full deep red color. After picking I leave them on the kitchen counter for a few more days to allow the fruit to fully ripen. This helps the plants by lessening their burden so they can focus on other flowers and fruits.

Support of tomatoes

And of course, the last question of how tall will these guys get? The ones that I am growing (Early Girl and Big Beef) are indeterminate plants, which means they can get up to six feet! I sorely underestimated how tall my tomato plants would get so I have had to change out my 4 foot trellises for 6 foot ones and I also bought a couple of tomato racks that are taller than 6 feet and can be formed around the tomatoes without having to worry about caging them in.

First tomato in the squarefoot garden

I know that I started off with five questions, so I wanted to go back to make sure that I answered each one.

1) Will my tomato plants produce throughout the growing season?
Yes; however, if the temperature is too hot during the day or too cool at night the plant will drop its blossoms until the conditions are right again for growth. The varieties that I chose, Early Girl and Big Beef, are known for growing throughout the season and are very hardy.
2) How often should I be picking tomatoes?
Dependent on variety. The ones that I am growing can be picked as soon as the tomato is ripe. In order to encourage more growth, it is advisable to pick the tomatoes early and often so that the plant isn’t burdened with trying to keep those fruits alive.
3) Should I be pulling off stems with yellowing leaves?
Yes; if it is late in the season and the yellowing leaves are located towards the bottom of the plant. This helps reduce the risk of diseas.
No; if conditions are ideal for growth. Yellowing or withering leaves could mean you are not watering enough or you have a fungus. If this is the case, use a fungicide (although I don’t like to add chemicals to my plants, you may need to if you are desperate for tomatoes).
4) How often should the plants be watered?
Several times a week; this is also dependent on the weather. If you get daily storms like we have been then you won’t need to water at all late in the summer. If it is hot and dry, you want to make sure your tomatoes are well watered, a slow deep water is much better than a quick rinse. The closer that water is to the roots the better. When it was really hot and dry here, I had the drip irrigation water for 20 minutes every other day.
5) How tall will my tomato plants get?
Dependent on variety. Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain size and stop – this is shown on the package. Indeterminate plants can grow upwards of 6 feet. Keep all types of tomato plants caged or leaning on a trellis for support.

I hope this blog post helped answer some questions that you may have regarding growing tomatoes. I know that by researching about tomatoes, I have a better idea of what to expect with my next plants and how to increase their production.

Online Resources:
http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/secrets-tomato-growing-success
http://gardening.about.com/od/growingtips/tp/Tomato_Tips.htm
http://bonnieplants.com/growing/growing-tomatoes/

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