A Tomato Crash Course for Beginners

I think it is safe to say that tomatoes are one of the most common features in gardens across the globe. In fact, there are people who designate their entire garden and gardening career to mastering the art and science of growing exquisite varieties of this household staple. I am going to provide a basic guide for the novice gardener but I encourage any of the experts amongst the gardening community to contribute their favorite tips and tricks in the comments below! Tomatoes are incredible yet particular plants. They have properties that will make you think, “no way!” However, they also have growth condition requirements and vulnerabilities that will frustrate you. I personally have struggled with a few of those here in the Mid-Atlantic and I’m still trying new things every year because I think they’re 100% worth the heartache. My garden just wouldn’t be my garden without tomatoes.

First, let’s talk about varieties, vulnerabilities and growth habits. Cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, Beefsteak tomatoes; the list goes on and on. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for fresh salad tomatoes, sweet tomatoes to make a rich pasta sauce or you want a nice meaty tomato to dice up for a spicy pico de gallo, there is a variety to meet every need. There are also varieties that have been developed to resist fungal pests such as Fusarium wilt. You see, tomatoes thrive in hot, humid environments and unfortunately so do a number of pathogens that will leave your plant vulnerable and/or lead to early death. [sigh] Fortunately, experts have spent decades working to develop hybrid varieties that are less susceptible to undesirable pests. I am growing one such variety myself, this year, called “Defiant”. Climate is key. For example, my family grows tomatoes in Northern New York and has never had issues with the blight, but here in Maryland it runs rampant. Your environment may not require these hardy varieties but they are available to you. There are also two different growth styles known as determinate and indeterminate. Simply put, determinate varieties will grow to a specific size and then the majority of the fruit will ripen simultaneously; these varieties should not be pruned. Indeterminate varieties can grow to towering heights, thrive when pruned properly and are prolific, with fruit ripening throughout the course of the season. Choose wisely.

If you intend to purchase your tomato plants you’ll want to skip over the next section.

Seed-starting overview: I start my tomatoes inside about 4 months before their forecasted transplant date. Once they have their first set of “true leaves” (not the ones that first pop out of the ground, the next set) I transplant them into 2-3″ pots and plant them deep so that the only thing showing above the soil is the leaves. Seedlings require at least 8 hours of direct sunlight per day, otherwise they become “leggy” aka they develop long thin stems that lean toward the sun with very few leaves. You want nice sturdy stems and lots of healthy green leaves. Additionally, tomatoes are temperamental about water. DO NOT keep their soil saturated!! General rule – if the soil is dry give them drink, if it is damp leave them alone. About two weeks before I intend to transplant them to their summer home, I begin the hardening process. I start with a couple hours outside one day and then the next day I leave them out a little longer and so on until they’re spending entire days out in the elements. Once nighttime low temperatures are above 50F I leave them out overnight. After your plants have been hardened they’re ready for transplanting.

Tomato seedlings with first set of true leaves

Transplanting: This is where things get cool. Tomatoes have the ability to produce roots along their stem. To capitalize on this super power, when transplanting, I clip off the bottom sets of leaves and plant my tomato plants on their side (deep works too) so that only the top leaves are above the soil. The stem that has been planted will shoot roots and help to provide a much stronger and more efficient base for your plant. To give you an idea I have included photos from a mishap that happened earlier this season. I accidentally snapped the top off one of my plants whilst relocating it in my greenhouse. In a desperate attempt to salvage my poor plant I put the top in a cup of water. A week later I had a cup full of brand new roots and the bottom half, which I had left in the sun, started to grow new leaves. I gave both of these plants to a friend and they are happily growing in her garden as two separate tomato plants. In other words – AWESOMENESS.

Snapped tomato top rescued and producing roots along stem
Snapped bottom growing new leaves

Growth requirements: Tomatoes are full-sun plants that require well-drained, slightly acidic (pH 6.0-6.8) soil and regular watering. They’ll need a container with adequate drainage if you’re not planting them in the ground. Tip – If your leaves start to yellow then you are likely over-watering your plants. If you intend to amend your soil consider this; nitrogen is necessary for foliage growth, which you will want in the beginning to develop a nice strong plant to hold your fruit, phosphorus is necessary for flower and fruit development, aka making your delicious tomatoes, and potassium, magnesium and calcium are all required for maintaining overall health and metabolic function. In other words, if you give them a nitrogen rich fertilizer late in the season you’re likely to get a lot of vegetation but few tomatoes, timing is important. Just something to keep in mind as you start playing with fertilizers and exploring ways to maximize your crop.

Pruning: Speaking of maximizing your crop, let’s talk about pruning. If you’ve opted to grow an indeterminate variety then you’ll want to clip off “suckers” and “king flowers” to improve yields. Suckers are the branches and leaves that start growing in between a mature branch and the main stem. (see photo, indicated in pink) These secondary growths draw on your plant’s available energy and inhibit the development of your fruit. Basically, if the suckers are taking all the energy then your plant doesn’t have as much to devote to the growing tomatoes and they will be small and less flavorful. King flowers have a similar effect. When your plant produces a cluster of flowers (your future tomatoes) the one closest to the main stem will likely be larger than the others. This is the king flower and you should pinch it off. I know it seems silly to sacrifice the tomatoes that you have worked so hard for but there is only so much nutrients to go around and if you prune down to 3-5 blossoms per cluster then you’ll get more consistent fruit sizing and a better flavor profile. If you don’t pinch off the king flower then it will draw nutrients away from the other blossoms and their tomato growth will be limited.

Sucker growing between mature leaf and main stem

Final notes: Tomatoes are big plants that bear heavy fruit so you will want to provide them with some support. There are several versions of tomato cages commercially available or stakes and twine will do. Either way, keeping your plants off the ground will help reduce the spread of disease and rotting of fruit. Tomatoes are easily one of my favorites in the garden, they’re fast growing and deliciously rewarding. I hope this guide helps you start your own tomato journey but don’t be discouraged if things don’t go according to plan. Challenges make you a better gardener. Cheers, friends!

May 15th 2019
May 25th 2019

It’s amazing what a difference 10 days can make!

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