Victory Garden Series: Nothing Beats a Homegrown Tomato!

By HF&G Horticulturist Dawn Gerlica

One of the most common reasons people decide to start home vegetable gardens is to get good tomatoes. Science has developed tomatoes for grocery stores that are easier to transport across the country without becoming mush, but those little golf ball mimics are missing the taste and texture of a homegrown tomato.

Tomatoes originally came from Central and South America where the seasons are long and warm –conditions tomatoes love. In Ohio, we have to start the seeds indoors a few months before the last frost to get the long season and then we hope for a warm summer. Cooler summers will produce some fruits, but the plants will not be as happy and won’t produce as well as a good warm season.

How to Plant

When planting tomato seedlings in the garden, it’s important to remember that they are one of the few plants that actually react well to being planted deep. Most plants prefer to be transplanted to the same depth they had been growing. Tomatoes will grow roots along the stem and if you plant a bit more of the stem under the soil every time it is transplanted, the root system will increase and strengthen the whole plant.

Maintenance

As the plants grow, they produce side shoots where the leaf meets the stem. These side shoots are sometimes referred to as suckers. In the wild, tomato vines were ramblers that covered everything. If allowed to grow, the side shoots will quickly cause the plant to become wide and unruly. Although more tomatoes may be produced, they will be smaller and could overwhelm the plant. Removing side shoots while they are small produces a stronger plant that is more in control. Remove shoots every one to two weeks by bending them back and forth to break them off  or use a knife for larger stems. If you grow determinate varieties, these plants will stay smaller so pruning is less necessary.

Shot of tomato stem, flowers, and side shoot.

After removal of side shoot.

Because tomato plants are actually vines, there is a bit of maintenance required to keep them in a garden. Instead of allowing them to scramble across the ground, the plants should be trained and tied up with stakes or supports. Keeping the plants up off the ground keeps the fruit cleaner and limits soil borne pathogens. Another technique to limit disease is to remove the bottom leaves after the plant gets about three feet tall. The bottom leaves get splashed with soil and fungal spores that can spread to the rest of the plant so removing a bottom leaf or two will allow more air movement through the plant and help prevent fungus from getting started.

Watering and Fertilizing Tips

Although tomatoes do like warm temperatures, they do not like to dry out. A dry spell followed by water can cause tomato fruits to crack. Watering should be done deeply, meaning it should be given to the roots, not the leaves, and slowly so it really sinks in and doesn’t run off. If there is no rain, it should be done at least twice a week in warm temperatures, but keep an eye on the plants and water if they look stressed.

Tomato plants are heavy feeders which means they really want to be fertilized throughout the season. Fertilize when planting into the garden and then again after fruits have set. The plants really would like to have a light fertilizing every two weeks after that until frost. You can side dress the plants with compost to achieve this, but if using chemical fertilizers, try to keep it six inches away from the stem to avoid potential chemical burns to the plant.