When it comes to backyard gardening, nothing beats tomatoes. They’re our most popular homegrown vegetable (although botanically speaking, they’re fruits), and it’s easy to see why. One bite of a ripe, juicy ‘Big Boy’ or ‘Early Girl’ — especially when it’s picked and eaten while you’re standing outside in the fresh air and sunshine — and you’re smitten. Those flavorless orbs from the grocery store just don’t compare.
Tomatoes aren’t hard to grow, although having a few tricks up your sleeve can pay off in a bigger, better harvest. We’ve rounded up some tips to help you grow tasty tomatoes for your salads, sandwiches, soups and sauces.
If you’ve got room in your garden, consider growing some extra plants this year so you can store your bounty in the freezer or on the canning shelf. Properly processed tomatoes hold their nutritional value and delicious flavor for a long time.
1. Don’t rush the season. Tomatoes don’t like chilly weather, so avoid planting until the nighttime temperatures rise to 50 degrees or above. Setting them out too early can stunt your plants’ growth.
2. Give them full sun. Plant your tomatoes in a spot that gets at least six hours of sun a day. For best results, they need eight to 10 hours a day. If you live in a hot climate where the afternoon sun is intense, your tomatoes may develop sunscald, or discolored spots. Protect them by putting shade cloth, straw, or lightweight screens over the developing fruits.
3. Bury the stem. Cover the stem of your plant up to the first set of leaves. New roots will sprout along the buried part, and a strong, well-developed root system will help produce more tomatoes.
4. Pinch off the suckers. Suckers are shoots that grow in the joint between a stem and a branch. They don’t bear fruit, so why let your plant waste energy on them? (Some gardeners disagree about removing all the suckers, and leave a couple on the lower part of their plants to increase the yield. It’s your call.)
5. Water deeply and regularly. Tomatoes need about an inch of water a week. If there’s not enough rain, water with a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. (Garden hoses and sprinklers waste more water, due to run-off on the ground and evaporation in the warm summer air.)
6. Support your plants. When branches flop over or sprawl along the ground, less sun can reach the leaves. Less sun means fewer fruits, so stake the foliage to keep it upright, or use trellises, cages, or other supports.