Tomato Plant Care – Despite the unusually cold spring, our cool weather crops are maturing, and we’ve been setting out seedlings of vegetables that thrive in summer heat. For many in hardiness zone 5, planting tomatoes in April or May led to some aggravation this season: frost hit well into May, and we were out in our small kitchen gardens repeatedly, covering our plants with tarps, bed sheets, buckets, flower pots, cloches, or mulch to protect them from the cold. If you were cautious, you might not yet have planted summer crops. That’s OK. There is still plenty of good growing season to come, and now is a great time to finish up your planting.
When to Plant Tomatoes
If you haven’t planted tomatoes, do it as soon as you possibly can. Many varieties of tomatoes require as many as 100 days to mature—from the time you set seedlings in the garden. But I am talking about seedlings. By this I mean plants that are growing in small pots or flats, that are about four to six weeks old, and that haven’t started to flower or grow suckers.
In late spring, nurseries might offer older, more developed plants that may be flowering or setting fruit. You can start these in the garden and expect production many weeks earlier than you’ll see with seedlings.
- If you’re buying seedlings, select ones with short, thick stems. In late spring, your only choices may have skinny, tall stems, but don’t be discouraged; you can compensate for the “legginess.”
- This late in the spring (unless you have very long summers), select varieties that mature quickly. Many varieties list 65 or 75 days to maturity; they’ll have more days to provide fruit than varieties needing 100 or more days to mature.
- Have you selected determinate or indeterminate varieties? The answer may influence whether you stake your plants, use cages, or let your plants free-range (grow along the ground as they choose). If the tag that comes with the tomato plant doesn’t identify it as determinate or indeterminate, the person selling it should be able to tell you.
- Consider how you’ll manage your plants. If they’ll grow “free-range,” they’ll need a lot of ground space; a tomato plant might stretch eight or nine feet along the ground, and spread four-to-eight feet from side-to-side. Indeterminate tomatoes lend themselves well to staking. Determinate varieties might do best in cages. Will you tie them to stakes? Will you support them with strings that dangle from overhead wires, pipes, or other trellises? Will you surround them with cages?
- Let your tomatoes free-range only as a last resort. A free-range tomato plant requires virtually no attention to do well. However, fruits on free-range plants are especially vulnerable. In dry summers, rodents may snack on tomatoes that are close to the ground. And, a tomato resting on the ground invites insects and disease; you’ll get much healthier fruit if you stake or cage your plants to keep the fruits off the ground. I let only my cherry tomatoes and my “volunteers” (plants that grow from seed left in random places by last year’s crop) free-range.
- Tomato plants are a lot like weeds: it’s very hard to destroy them by accident. I once accidentally bent a young tomato stem so it broke about half way through. I tied the plant against a tomato stake, and it grew to maturity, matching its neighboring uninjured plants.
- Tomato plants root easily at any point along their stems. So, if your plant hangs down onto the soil, it may put down roots. More importantly: if a seedling is “leggy” you can get it under control by planting most of its stem underground. When you plant younger seedlings, leave only the top three leaves above the surface. The photos in the post demonstrate how to plant a leggy tomato plant without having to dig a deep hole.
- Tomato plants are heavy drinkers. They shouldn’t live in soaking wet soil, but they welcome daily deep watering.
- Tomato plants do not require daily deep watering. In fact, they grow very well even in arid situations. However, when tomatoes are developing, they’ll come out best when your plants receive regular watering: daily, every other day, every third day… whatever you can handle as long as it’s consistent.
- Tomato enthusiasts promote all kinds of watering schemes; they’re all good. I know a grower who punched holes in #10-sized cans, and buried a can next to each tomato he planted… buried it with the can’s open top at soil level. Each day, he filled the can to the top with water; it was “The perfect amount of water for a tomato.” Poke around on the web, and I’m sure you’ll find other such watering schemes. Photo captions in this post explain my very simple watering scheme; a fine solution for a lazy garden.
- Vine-ripened, shmine-ripened! Ancient farmers have told me, “A farmer can tell whether a tomato ripened on the vine.” Without scientific investigation, I can authoritatively report: HOGWASH. I’ve harvested tomatoes this way for ten years, and am still awed at how consistently better they are than vine-ripened tomatoes.