Red, ripe homegrown tomatoes are the crown jewel in many a vegetable garden. Let this be the year that you can say the same, with luscious fruit grown in your backyard garden, patio or balcony. Follow these tips for the best tomatoes ever.
1. More sun equals more fruit. Choose your sunniest garden spot, because tomatoes soak up sunshine just like water. Aim for seven hours of sunshine a day. Give them room to grow, too, planting seedlings 30 to 48 inches apart, with rows set 48 inches apart. This will let light into the lower portions of the mature plants and improve air flow.
2. Beef up the soil. Tomatoes thrive in rich, well-draining, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. To determine pH, pick up a soil tester from the Garden Center or your local Cooperative Extension Service. If soil is too acidic, add dolomite lime. If it’s too alkaline, add sulfur or composted organic matter.
3. Timing is everything. Whether you start your own seedlings or pick them up from the Garden Center, tomatoes like warmth. Wait until soil temps are consistently over 60 degrees before planting outside. If the weather is still iffy, protect tender seedlings from cold with row covers or plant protectors.
4. Plant deeply. Here’s a neat trick: Tomatoes will root along their stems. With leggy transplants, dig a trench and lay the stem sideways, bending gently upward. Snip or pinch off the lower branches and cover with soil up to the first set of leaves. This extra root growth will produce a stronger, more robust plant.
5. Invite friends to the party. Basil, garlic and onions are a tomato’s best friends in the kitchen, and in the garden, too. Grown together, they repel pests such as nematodes.
6. Water deeply and mulch, mulch, mulch. Juicy jumbo tomatoes need water, about an inch a week. A blanket of mulch — anything from shredded pine bark to grass clippings and composted leaves — will keep the water from evaporating in summer’s heat. A soaker hose is an efficient solution; just position the hose in the garden and pile mulch up and over the hose.
7. Offer a cup of (compost) tea. Add the benefits of nutrient-rich compost to keep heavy-feeding tomato plants happy. Soak one part organic compost in one part water, let sit for 24 hours, filter the “tea” and use to nourish plants.
8. Pruning is for suckers. Tomato plants send out suckers — leaves that shoot out from the main stem. “Suckering” tomato plants, or removing the suckers, makes sense because it promotes air circulation, keeps down disease, and focuses the plant’s energy on growing fruit. Small leaves and tender stems can be pinched off with your fingers; pruning snips give a clean cut to thicker stems.
9. Stake or cage. Keep in mind that there are two main types of tomato plants: determinate, the compact plants that fruit all at once, and indeterminate plants that produce throughout the season. Neat, self-contained determinate bushes keep to themselves, but don’t even think about not supporting indeterminate plants. They will grow uncontrolled, with fruit grazing the ground. Cage or stake plants early, before they get out of hand.
10. Forget the windowsill. The lush color that signifies a ripe tomato comes from warmth, not light. If summer’s temps are too cool, go ahead and pick fruit that’s red-orange and bring it inside to ripen. The time-honored tradition of lining up your garden’s best fruit along a sunny windowsill isn’t the speediest way to ripen it. Putting unripened tomatoes in a loosely closed paper bag is a better solution.