It’s Memorial Day weekend, and I have officially started planting some 13 varieties of tomatoes in our garden. It will take a few days. Even after giving away some 25 plants through my town’s Facebook gardening page, I still have about…25 left. Yep, Phil (my husband) and I overdid it once again.
We sure do love tomatoes!
What follows is a collection of tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years on how to grow successful tomatoes. I’ll also share the varieties I’m growing this year, with a few comments on each.
- I start by digging a hole. A big hole, about a foot wide and a foot-and-a-half deep. From there, I throw in several handfuls of cow manure, compost, or another fertilizer. I space each hole about two feet apart. That’s a little close for some folks, but it works for me.
- Next: in goes the plant. First, however, I remove some of the lower branches from each plant. At this point, many of those I’ve grown from seed are a bit leggy—some are a foot high—so by the time I’m done “pruning” those lower branches, I often have a tomato with a stem that’s 5-8 inches long before the leaves start.
- Once the plant is in the hole, I bury it to an inch or so before the first set of leaves. Yes, that means that I’ve now buried almost all of that 5-8 inches of stem that I’d stripped leaves from. What’s cool about tomatoes is that they’ll form roots all along that buried stem, which makes them stronger.
- Water. Water. Water.
- Now it’s time to bring out your cutworm collars, little barricades erected around each plant’s stem to prevent little beasties in the soil, otherwise known as cutworms, from nipping the stem off at ground level and killing the plant. No, the collars aren’t expensive, and they’re easy to make. Simply save your toilet-paper rolls. Cut each all the way down the side vertically so that the roll “opens up.” Then, cut the roll in half horizontally. Now you’ve got two collars that can be fitted around a given plant and gently pressed into the soil, leaving about half of the collar above the ground.
|At left I'm holding a cutworm collar made from a toilet-paper roll. At right is one that's in place around a plant.
- LABEL each plant if you grow more than a few varieties. Here’s what I do: most of us, over time, have to replace our plastic window blinds. Save an old one, then cut the slats up for markers. I create small ones about three inches tall for my indoor seedlings, but also create LONG ones (~2 feet) for my outdoor tomatoes. The long ones make it much easier to read the variety once the plants fill out.
- To write your labels, don’t just use a Sharpie. I did that for years, and found that by the end of the season the labels had faded to the point where I could hardly read them. About two years ago, however, I found a great tip in a gardening magazine. Use a special pen with ink that won’t fade over time. I use DecoColor Paint Markers (fine line) and they’re fantastic. Plus, you can reuse your labels the following year.
- Pop a tomato cage over each plant, or drive a stake into the ground about 8 inches from the plant (later, you’ll tie the plant to the stake). Either approach works well for supporting the plants once they are mature and bearing fruit. (Some people let their tomatoes sprawl over the ground with no support. I’ve tried that, but have found that tomatoes on the ground are easily accessed by hungry slugs.)
Here are the tomato varieties I’m growing this year: Sweet Million (a lovely red cherry tomato), Sun Gold (our favorite yellow cherry), Black Cherry (new to us this year), Rose de Berne (a medium red that’s a favorite of a friend in Maine who sent me the seeds), Orange Paruche Hybrid (an extremely sweet medium orange), Red Pear (a large pear-shaped tomato that I started from seeds that were over 10 years old!), Brandywine (the best of the best for taste), Charentaise (an ox heart variety from the area in France where Phil’s family has a property), Orange Slice Hybrid, Big Rainbow (a huge, beautiful variety that’s gold with reddish highlights), Cherokee Purple (one of our all-time favorites because it tastes great, produces a lot, and is almost indestructable), Japanese Black Trifele (new this year), Mountain Gold (also new this year), and Robeson (a dark variety that did well last year).
This year I also tried growing Purple Calabash, which was new to me. I re-seeded three times with zero percent germination. Very weird. The take-away: even those of us who have been doing this for a while have spectacular failures.
Please, please use the comments section, below, to share your own tips and tricks for growing tomatoes. I want to learn from you, too! Gardening With Friends.