It’s tomato planting season! We have been busy putting early season tomato plants in our greenhouses, and gearing up our bedding plants to be sold at markets and stands. Some of our most popular garden plants are our juicy, colorful tomatoes. While it can be fun and simple to grow your own tomatoes, they do have their quirks. We thought we’d share some of our tomato planting tips with you, the home gardener!
Start with Good Soil
To begin, it’s important to know that soil quality is key for growing healthy tomato plants. They are most happy where they can get full sunlight in fertile, nutrient rich soil. Spreading compost is a very effective way to give your tomato plants a healthy environment. You can buy it at garden centers, or make your own at home.
If you’d like to test your soil to find out the pH and how you are doing for nutrients, Umass offers soil tests. Their “Routine Soil Analysis” for Home Grounds and Gardens, currently $15, is a great basic test for home gardens and will give you recommended rates for how much fertilizer and lime to apply.
Compost in the making
Timing Your Planting
In Massachusetts, it is usually safe to plant your tomatoes outdoors towards the middle or end of May, keeping an eye out for frost to protect them as needed. Memorial Day weekend is the classic time for planting tomatoes. Tomato plants can be transplanted as late as the end of June and still have time to ripen their fruits before fall cold arrives.
How to Plant
When you are ready to plant your tomatoes, dig a hole in the ground, deep enough to cover the base of the plant and all its roots. You can mix compost into the hole, or fertilize the whole area. Settle the plant in, fill in the hole around the plant, and pick off any leaves towards the bottom of the plant that are touching the ground. If your plants have a “leggy” look (their stems are overgrown), you can plant them on their side in a trench with just the top point and a few leaves above ground (remove any leaves that will be underground). Tomato plants grow roots from anywhere along their stem, so they will straighten themselves upright a few days after planting. Place tomato plants 18’’-36’’ apart from each other. If you have had problems with cutworms in your garden, you can try protecting your tomatoes using a collar around the base of the plant such as a paper cup or toilet paper roll. Once your plant is nestled in the soil bed, pat down the soil, and water it in to secure its placement.
Tomato plants grow wildly; they would sprawl all over the ground if you let them. You can let them do this, however, it is often preferable to give them some standing support, so the tomato fruits do not end up compressed on the ground or scalded by sun. If you only have a few plants, you may want to buy cages like these that you can place around each plant, or make some out of concrete reinforcement wire.
Stake & Weave Method – sandwiching the plants between string
Another option is to use a stake & weave method, which is what we use for our tomatoes. Secure wooden stakes deeply in the ground (roughly the height of your future plants) about every three plants in your row of tomatoes. Using a thick string that will last the season, go down the row at the level of the current growth, looping the string tightly around each stake, and then go back down the other side, effectively sandwiching the plants between a string on each side. We find it effective to string a row along the bottom of the plants, another one along the middle, and a final one along the top, as they grow. The string should be pulled tight to provide a stable structure for the plants to stand within.
To Prune or Not to Prune
As your plants grow, you will notice them growing “suckers”. These are new growing points that grow in the “v” between the main stem and lateral branches. Suckers will eventually grow and produce fruit. You can pinch suckers off to prevent your plants from getting top heavy, and to focus the plant’s energy on the main stem. Pinching the suckers will mean fewer, but larger fruits. We only do this for our greenhouse tomatoes, and don’t find it necessary in the field. If you are going to prune, only prune indeterminate varieties of tomatoes (most types, see labels at the stands or look up your variety online). Determinate varieties grow only so long and set their fruit all at once – some paste tomatoes, for example, are determinate – so you will prune away part of your total yields if you remove suckers.
Diseases and Late Blight Resistant Tomatoes
Late Blight – the scourge of 2009, seems to return every year now
Tomatoes are fairly vulnerable plants in our climate. There are many diseases to watch out for, some you can prevent, and others you just have to cross your fingers and hope you don’t get. Early Blight and Septoria Leaf Spot are common problems that many tomato farmers in the area experience every year. These two diseases slowly kill the foliage of the plants. Early Blight is a disease that overwinters in the soil, so rotating the tomato placement in your garden each year can help.
Late Blight now seems to come every year to our area towards the latter part of tomato season, and when it arrives makes quick work of the foliage and the fruits of the plants.
We sell quite a few Late Blight resistant tomato plants that we recommend mixing into your garden plot to add variety and prevent against the loss of all of your tomato fruits, should blight happen to find a home in your garden.
Our Late Blight Resistant tomato plant varieties are:
- Mountain Magic Cherry
- Iron Lady – also resistant to Early Blight and Septoria Leaf Spot. Which basically means you should grow this tomato.
- Plum Regal Paste
- Matt’s Wild Cherry
Look for them at our farm stands over the next few weeks as you begin your planting. Each one is its own unique variety with its own unique fruit. Matt’s Wild, for example, has little red fruits that have excellent tomato flavor and cherry tomato sweetness, often a contest winner!
Blossom-end Rot is another common problem. This is caused by low calcium intake due to uneven moisture or to low levels of calcium in the soil.
Be sure to water your tomato plants regularly if nature isn’t keeping up, but allow the soil to dry out between waterings. You want to provide your plants with constant water, yet not create a soggy soil. Try not to water from above; aim your sprinkler at the base of the plant to keep the leaves dry. Airborne diseases are more likely to infect wet leaves.
Some tomatoes will have a split skin or begin to crack. This can happen when there is a sudden change in moisture (after a period of extended dry weather), or when the fruit is overripe. Not to worry though, split skin tomatoes are still perfectly healthy and delicious to eat if you get to them quickly.
If you see a disease or problem on your plant and would like to identify it, a great resource is the Vegetable MD page at Cornell.
As your plants bear fruit, harvest the tomatoes when they are in their expected full color and size. Then onto culinary feats! Tomatoes can be used in all sorts of ways in the kitchen. Some are delectable sliced raw into salads, while others are designed for making sauces. Check out our recipes to find unusual ways of cooking with tomatoes. Do note that tomatoes lose flavor when refrigerated, so keep them on your counter instead!
More About Variety Selection
We typically grow 150 varieties of tomatoes, many of which have won awards! From slicing, heirloom, cherry to paste, our tomatoes come in all sorts of shades, and have all sorts of flavors.
Our recommendations for a good red slicing tomato are Jet Star and Big Beef. For heirlooms and specialty tomatoes, try a mix of colors and types. Brandywine and Wapsipinicon Peach both have won awards for flavor at our farm. If you’re looking to make sauce, choose a paste tomato variety, bred to cook down quicker with less juice and more meat; Federle is a great heirloom, and San Marzano is very productive. For a simple snacking tomato, we love Sungold Cherry Tomatoes. Having a mix in the garden is the most fun.
If seeking low-acid tomatoes, try Pork Chop- a yellow tomato, Jet Star – a red slicer, San Marzano – a paste tomato, or Sungolds for nice golden yellow cherries.
If you like tomato salads, growing a selection of tomatoes with different colors can make a stunning salad. Try Green Zebra, Black Prince, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, and Gary Ibsen’s Gold.
These and many more varieties – that we have taste-tested and field-tested at our farm – can be found at either of our farmstands in Granby and Montague as well as at our summer farmers’ markets, Tuesdays in Springfield, Northampton and Boston, and Thursdays in Stoneham.
May you have a bountiful harvest!