How to Grow a Tomato Plant
Are you learning to grow your own sweet, juicy tomatoes? Luckily for you, tomato plants can grow almost anywhere that is warm and a little damp. But as with most vegetation that produce a fruit, a little 'tender, loving care' or TLC goes a long way. With adequate sunlight, water, and patience, you'll be greatly rewarded with a six foot tall tomato plant with big (or cherry size), red, or other heirloom colours, juicy tomatoes! Tomatoes take a long time to grow so you must have great patience. That's all you need to do to get your tomato plant growing. Have fun!
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1. Buy small tomato plants from a nearby nursery and transplant them to your garden for the first-time grower. More experienced growers will find it easy enough to start their own tomatoes from seed.
2. Begin to raise your own plants, if you wish, from seed, in a greenhouse or sunny window indoors about a month before you intend to set them out in the garden.
3. Use fluorescent lights or other lighting hanging a couple inches (5cm) above the planting flat and keep raising it as the plants grow--in a not well lighted room. Raise these plants until they are about 6 to 10 inches tall (15 to 25cm) and then transplant them when spring weather is appropriate for your zone.
Don't pay extra to buy the larger plants; there is not much reason, unless you are getting a 'latish' start, to catch up.
4. Get good first-time growers’ varieties including Better Boy, Creole, Big Boy, Early Girl, Brandywine, Celebrity, Lemon Boy, or just about any cherry or grape tomato variety. ~ Plant several varieties rather than all of one type -- this ensures a steady harvest.
5. Grow two plants for each member of the family who will eat lots of tomatoes, as a rule of thumb. If you plan on canning tomatoes or making fresh and canned salsa, use up to four plants per person.
Plants usually cost AU $5 for one 8 inch (20cm) pot, or you can buy 6 small plants in 6 plant packs of 1 & 1/4 inch (3cm) compartmental trays.
1. Choose a sunny spot to place the plants to transplant them. Place tomato plants in a site receiving full sun (7 hours or more daily). Tomatoes need lots of warm sunshine for optimum taste.
Caveat: In hot climates when the nights get to a low temperature of about 75°F (24°C), then most tomatoes 'quit setting new fruit'. The ones already set will grow great. But none will set when nights are very warm through the wee hours really near sunrise.
Don't wait more than a few days late to put them out past the recommended dates for your climate zone, or it may be too late (if there are such early warm/hot weather nights).
2. Prepare the garden bed by adding lots of well rotted -- not green -- compost (5 to 8 pounds per square foot/25 to 40 kilograms per square meter) to the soil. Turn compost into the top 3 inches (6 to 8 cm). Tomatoes demand a growing medium rich in organic matter. If you don't make your own compost, use store-bought compost or composted manure available in the 20kg bags. Compost or Manure is usually less than AU $10 per 20-kg bag.
1. Transplant the tomato deeply. Bury about 50 to 75% of the plant (especially for leggy plants, that became skinny in raising them before transplanting). It’s okay to bury some of its lower leaves. New roots will emerge along the buried stem, giving the plant a developmental boost; a new transplant needs to focus on root production.
2. Give each plant about 1 gallon (about 4 litres) of warm water (about 80 degrees F/ 27 degrees C) within ten minutes of transplanting to avoid transplant shock.
3. Space tomato plants 18 to 36 inches (45 to 90 cm) apart; space them half the suggested distance in warmer climates, especially if using tomato cages. The normal distance recommended is for plants allowed to bush out hugely on the ground, while planting closer together in cages allows the plants to shade each others fruit, helping prevent burn and allowing a sweeter flavor.
Don't forget to leave yourself enough space to get in between the plants to water, weed, and harvest. Those cute, little seedlings may not remain that way for long.
1. Water in the first 7 to 10 days after transplanting at about 16 ounces (about 500 ml) of warm water per plant every day.
2. Wait a week or two after transplanting, and then place a mulch of straw, dried grass, or pine needles to control weeds and keep the soil moist during dry weather. The mulch should be about an inch (2.5 cm) thick and surround at least a circle 12 inches (about 30 cm) in diameter around the stem. Pine needles are especially good for helping raise the acidity of the soil.
Caution: Do 'not keep the soil continuously wet or "soggy". That will kill (smother) the roots and will cause a stem disease (fungus) especially once it is really warm/or hot weather.
3. Drip or soaker hose watering is better than overhead, which can encourage diseases that tomatoes are particularly prone to.
4. Space water out more after 10 days and ensure that plants are receiving 1 to 3 inches (2.5 cm to 7.6 cm) of rain weekly. If not, give each plant about 2 gallons (about 7.5 litres) per plant "per week", beginning by about the end of the second week after transplanting.
Water deeply 2 to 3 times weekly (so, water each plant with about .75 to 1 gallon each time (about 3 to 4 litres), increase water as the plants get larger and when weather is hotter.
It's okay in hot or dry weather to water even more frequently with larger volumes.
1. Consider using a tomato cage or a tall stake to support the tomato vine about 14 days after transplanting.
- A stake should be at least 0.5 x 2 inches (1.3 x 5cm) boards and 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) long. Pound stakes about 12 to 24 inches (30 cm to 60 cm) deep, at least 2 inches (5 cm) away from the plant. Secure the plant to the stake using "loosely knotted double-loops" that won't strangle the plant. Stakes can be made of bamboo, scrap wood, electrical conduit, or iron bar.
- While it is less common, "vining" type tomato plants can be tied onto a trellis or fence, like grapes, beans, squash, and other vining plants. This can produce especially large yields, but vining is less popular because tomato plants grow so large and bulky (some are called "indeterminate" but are not vines, and the third kind are "determinate" type are shrub-like plants).
- A determinate tomato plant grows to a certain (determined), limited size and then stops or at least slows its growth greatly. An indeterminate plant keeps growing and spreading out.
- A cage should be at least 48 inches (1.2 m) tall, even taller if you grow the plant well. Tying plants is unneeded. Some tomato plants can be more than six feet (1.8 m) tall in cages (you may need to stake and tie the cage to the stakes). Cages have a tendency to bend if the plants get heavy, and sometimes collapse in summer storms. Carefully pull leaves and secondary stems inside the cage as the plant grows. Some cages cost less than USD $4 each.
2. Make your own tomato cages, if you like. Get a roll of 4 feet height (1.25 M) "welded-wire" garden fencing 2" X 4" rectangular openings (5cm X 10cm) garden fencing with -- or 4" square openings (10cm) -- and soon you can make it double height, tied to more stakes, so wind will not knock them over as plants climb. Roll it into 18 inch wide (45cm) cylinders to make your own, larger cages. Cut and bend the wire ends around the uncut wires on the opposite end, making a circle. This type of cage needs strong stakes well tied for support.
1. Choose whether to use chemical fertilizers. Do not use lawn fertilizer. The ratio of minerals in lawn fertilizer is for growing stems and leaves. Look for a vegetable fertilizer which is for stimulating fruit. Tomatoes can grow very well organically, provided the soil is well enriched with organic matter. If you do use chemical fertilizers, try using half the recommended concentration per gallon (using package directions), but fertilize twice as often, in order to avoid the stress caused by the feast-famine of the longer fertilization gaps.
Over-fertilization can cause plants to grow too quickly, leaving them more susceptible to disease and insects.
Remember that your goal in growing tomatoes is fruit, not just leaves. Fertilizers, especially when used in excess, or the wrong kind may cause the plant to produce more leaves and foliage than fruit.
2. Shake your plant poles or cages gently once or twice each week for about 5 seconds once flowering begins to promote pollination of the blossoms (from one flower to another). According to the National Gardening Association, shaking the tomato plant increases fruit production by more evenly distributing pollen.
1. Watch for fruit to appear 45 to 90 (about 60) days after transplanting. Tomato plants usually have small, green fruit to start. Wait until the fruit is of good size with a bright, deep coloring: This means that the fruit is ripe and ready to pick. The texture of the fruit can also determine when it is ready to pick. Ripeness is usually determined by a slight softness. Be careful to only "palm the tomatoes"; do not squeeze with the finger tips and bruise the fruit.
Also, be careful of not allowing it to become overly ripe, which results in a very soft tomato.
Realize that birds, possums, raccoons and some dogs will take ripened tomatoes, corn and sweet green peppers, etc.
2. Pick fruit earlier to ripen indoors if you like: Fruit may be picked any time after it starts changing to its ripe color and set on a sunny windowsill. This will reduce the chances of it rotting on the vine or being eaten by a bird or squirrel.
Tomatoes do, however, taste sweeter when ripened on the vine, so you need to balance risk of threats versus taste.
1. Place a "zip-" of "snap-" seal sandwich type of bag over the nearly ripe fruit, very carefully, from the bottom up onto the stem to protect ripening tomatoes from predators.
2. Close the bag from both sides at the top, above the fruit, coming near the stem, leaving about 1/4" (.6cm) on each side for air flow.
3. Cut the lower corner for drainage and air flow. In hot weather, carefully punch more air holes, 1/2 inch slits (1.2cm), or smaller, will work.
Don't be disappointed by losing fruit to the animals; spend the time bagging it!
Another tip is to put red Christmas tree ornaments around the top of the tomato cage. The birds will peck at them, be confused and leave your tomatoes alone.
- If you do decide to sucker (cut back) your "indeterminate" (not shrub type) tomato plants, consider not pinching off the whole sucker, but letting it grow just long enough to produce some leaves, then pinching off its tip. This will keep it from putting much effort into growing a long branch, but lets the first few leaves increase the surface area available to your plant for photosynthesis.
- Cage or stake tomatoes at planting time this will insure no damage to the young roots if staked or caged later.
- While you should avoid pouring too much coffee or fresh grounds into the soil for acidity, the very caffeine which makes this risky is also poisonous to slugs and other pests, which is why coffee plants evolved it. Even more effective than killing these pests is to simply spray the leaves of the plant with coffee. On the leaves, the caffeine is not concentrated enough to harm the plant, but is still enough to repel some pests.
- Use manure tea for fertilizer. If you have access to well rotted manure, you can make your own fertilizer. Put the manure in pantyhose or cheese cloth. Place the "tea bag" in a 5 gallon bucket and fill the bucket with water. Allow the "tea" to steep for a few days. Dilute the tea 1:1 with water and give your plants a drink...They'll love it. If you're near the ocean, you can also use sea kelp for the same effect. Kelp is a good fertilizer for folliar feeding; spraying directly on the leaves, because it contains trace nutrients and hormones which are more easily absorbed through leaf pores, instead of indirectly through the roots.
- Suckers that have been pinched off can also be rooted quite easily in moist soil to produce new tomato plants, but this practice does require a larger sucker, and is somewhat impractical in climates with a short growing season, since these plants will reach maturity later in the season and have less time to yield.
- Put egg shells in hole before putting in tomato plant.
- If the stem or roots of the plant are damaged -- for example your toddler sits down on top of your 18 inch plant, snapping it near its base -- you can often save the plant anyway, by burying much of its above-ground stem and lower branches again, as you did to 75% of the plant when you first placed it in the ground. The little hairs on the stem and branches grow into roots. Since the plant is already in the ground, you accomplish this by piling dirt up around the plant, so that it grows out of a mound. Raised-earth growing is good for tomato plants at any time, because they are more vulnerable to certain ailments, especially fungus, when their hanging leaves and branches are in contact with the earth.
- When planting in the ground, you can place a large coffee can (opened on both ends) over the plant and push it halfway into the ground. When watering, fill the can to the top with water, which will then descend directly to the roots and allow the plant to flourish.
- Check for "suckers" (branches that grow in the joint between the main stem and other branches). There is a myth that suckers do not produce fruit; this is not true, but they do use some of the plant's nutrients as they grow. As a general rule, leaving suckers will produce more fruit, but smaller, while pinching them off will cause the plant to grow larger fruit, but less of it (because there will be fewer branches).
- In order to improve flavor, promote growth, increase harvest, and protect from insects, consider using companion plants with your tomatoes. Planting basil within 18 inches of your tomato plant, for example, improves the flavor of its fruit and repels many insect pests. Carrots increase fruit production, because the tomato plant draws nutrients from the carrots (which may grow smaller as a result). Basil also makes a wonderful addition to tomato-based dishes. Try adding it to your spaghetti sauce or bruschetta.
- You can get started earlier in the year by creating a temporary greenhouse. Make or buy cylindrical tomato cages made of heavy duty fence material. Use vinyl coated welded wire with a 3"x5" mesh, 5 ft. tall and about 1'6" in diameter. Plant the seedling and sink the cage into the dirt 4-6". Then take some sturdy, clear plastic (available in the garden center) and tape it securely to the cage. Moisture is retained and the plants are kept nice and warm. Remove the plastic when the plants emerge from the top of the cage or begin to form fruit, whichever happens first.
- If you have a fish tank, water your tomato plants with your waste fish tank water. The natural based ammonia (Nh3) content in this water will be absorbed directly as nitrogen that tomato plants love when in their vegetative growth stage. Depending on what you feed your fish or what you use to balance the pH levels in your tank there is a fair amount of phosphorus, potassium, calcium (lime stone, sea shells).
- Prior to setting your seedling in the ground, toss a couple handfuls of organic material in the bottom of your planting hole. As the roots grow deeper, they'll hit this layer of nutrients just in time to really boost your fruit output.
- Use a tomato cage or tomato stakes after the plant has been in the ground for six weeks to make harvesting easier.
- You can grow the tomatoes you like by saving seeds in a paper towel. Use paper towel to clean up cutting board and let dry. Plant the paper towel with seeds and thin or transplant as needed. Works well with heirloom tomatoes.
- Purchasing Organic plants from your local farmers market can help ensure that your plant is free of pesticides and other (potentially) harmful chemicals.
- Waste water from a fish tank is a great growth booster for young tomato plants.
- Don't put too much water.
- If temperatures routinely get above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), consider shading the tops of each plant from 11:00 to 15:00 hs to reduce the "burn" caused by the combination of heat and sunlight.
- Tomatoes prefer a soil pH range of 6.0-6.8. Blossom-end rot can be caused by a calcium deficiency and occurs frequently on acid soils or during stress periods on soils with seemingly sufficient calcium.
- To correct a calcium deficiency: bring about one gallon (about 4 litres) of water and a tablespoon (15 ml) of lemon juice to a boil. Add six tablespoons of bone meal to the water, stir well, cook covered for 30 minutes to help dissolve. Allow to cool. Solution may not be completely dissolved, that's okay. Feed each plant at leaves and roots one quart (about 1 liter) of solution. Repeat treatment a second time in three to five days. Bone meal is high in calcium and phosphorus.
- Never sucker (prune the new growths at the base of each fruiting branch) determinate tomato plants. This kind of plant sets its fruit all at once, and all you will accomplish is making your crop much smaller.
- To prevent mold or fungal diseases, water plants in the morning, preferably by using drip irrigation or water furrows. If you spray the entire plant(s) from above, you will increase the chances of mold/fungal spores infecting it/them. Exception; There is a method of fertilizing plants called Folliar Feeding, where you spray the plant's leaves with fertilizer containing trace elements, which will be directly absorbed. This is good for the plant, though it should be done in the evening or morning, when its pores are open.
- Tomatoes need good weather and soil conditions to produce good fruit.
- Only eat the fruit of a tomato plant, never anything else, as tomato vines are in the highly poisonous Nightshade family.
- Seeds of tomato are pretty small and their planting depth should not be too deep. A deep sowing results in less or no emergence and as a result loss of seeds may be attained.It is therefore wise to cautiously follow the planting depth of seeds and this has to be a 0.5-1.5cm.
- As your plants flourish and grow, string, or cord tend to cut into the branches. Instead, try using torn strips of cloth for your garden tying needs, and especially when cinching up tomatoes. Cut-up strips of old hose or stockings work great for tomato ties; they are stretchy and gentle enough to tie vines well. One pair of 99-cent pantyhose in 1/2-inch strips will hold up rows of plants.
- When transplanting, be careful not to disturb the roots. If too many roots are cut or damaged, the plant may die. See "tips" above for how to fix root or stem damage.
- Tomato plants (several different varieties)
- Composted manure. Available in 40-pound bags from nurseries, garden centers, or hardware stores.
- Trowel, small shovel or pickaxe.
- Twine or cloth for tying.
- Tomato stakes (bamboo, iron rebar, wood) or tomato cages.
Wikihow 2014, How to Grow a Tomato Plant, viewed 18 Sep. 2014, http://www.wikihow.com/Grow-a-Tomato-Plant.
All text and photographs in this guide is shared under a Creative Commons License.
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