How do you know when you're a good gardener? Probably when you grow edible produce. But how do you know when you're a great gardener? IMHO, when you can successfully grow organic tomatoes. They can be tricky to grow, but the reward is oh-so-scrumptious. Let me drop some knowledge that I've learned over years of trial and error for growing tomatoes.
Seed or seedling? Should you be growing tomatoes from seed?
The first decision you need to make as a tomato gardener is whether you're going to start them from seed or buy seedlings. Broadly speaking, starting from seed is more work, but you have greater options in terms of what you grow. Buying seedlings is a bit easier but limits your options. For a more complete discussion of this topic check out this post.
5 Tips for buying seedlings
1. Think green! Both the leaves and stem of the seedling should be a vibrant, true green. Steer clear of yellow or brown leaves and leaves with spots (that may signal disease).
2. Not too big, not too small. Choose a seedling that is approximately 4-8 inches tall. A plant that's smaller may not be growing properly. A plant that's much taller may not develop a healthy root system when transplanted into your garden.
3. Choose a seedling that's as wide as it is tall. If the plant is 8 inches tall then it should be approximately 8 inches wide.
4. Gardeners in chillier climates should choose early season varieties. These varieties have a shorter growing season with some bearing fruit within 60 days.
5. Check out the soil. A seedling that's been well cared for in the nursery will have moist, dark soil.
How to plant tomatoes in 8 super-easy steps
1. Choose a sunny spot. Tomatoes require full sun (6 or more hours per day) in order to grow and produce fruit.
2. Think about making soil great--not just good. Tomato plants want well-drained soil that is tilled to a one foot depth. Organic compost and manure help good soil become great soil, so apply liberally.
3. Harden off seedlings. Hardening off means slowly acclimating young seedlings to outdoor conditions. If you bought your seedlings from a nursery then they're probably already hardened off. If you started your seedlings indoors from seed, then you need to introduce them to the outdoors a little bit each day.
Starting with as few as 15 minutes each day, put your seedlings outdoors. Every day increase the time they're outdoors so that they're eventually able to be outdoors for a full day (and night).
4. Plant when frost is not a risk. Tomato plants will not survive frost. Check out this guide to know when your area is no longer at risk of frost.
5. Place cages or stakes. Tomato plants need either a cage or stake to support their growth. Get these in the ground as soon as you plant seedlings outdoors because placing them later can be challenging and damage plants.
6. Plant two feet apart. Tomato plants need elbow room--specifically, two feet.
7. Deeper is better. Plant your seedling so that its lowest leaves are just above the soil line. When in doubt, plant deeper than your instinct tells you.
8. Water well! Tomato plants want to be moist throughout the growing season, but especially when then initially go in the ground. Fill the hole you dig with water and allow it to drain before your put the plant in the hole. Then, water again once it's planted.
5 tips on how to grow tomatoes in pots
Do you have limited outdoor space? No worries! Tomatoes grow very well in containers, which take up little space.
1. Go big! Choose a large pot. I use one that is more than two feet across, and it's just big enough.
2. Compost, compost and then more compost. You will need to feed your tomatoes grown in containers more than those growing in a garden plot.
3. Drainage is important. Just like tomatoes planted in the garden, those grown in containers need well-drained soil. Line the bottom of the container with a few inches of rocks to aid the drainage.
4. Not too hot. Tomatoes will set fruit when the temperature is between 55-85 degrees. So, if you live in an arid region you need to pay attention to the soil's moisture and water regularly. Also, gardeners in arid regions want to keep tomatoes away from surfaces that heat up quickly like driveways.
5. Cage 'em. Tomatoes grown in containers need a stake or cage to support their growth.
Disease prevention tips for growing tomatoes
The biggest deterrent for disease is healthy, organic soil. Mulching the soil around the plant helps.
Air flow is also important for plant health. Make sure that plants aren't packed too close together. Also, trim any branches that are touching the ground to improve air flow near the soil.
Tomatoes are susceptible to tomato blight. This is also the same blight that affects potatoes. If you've had the blight in tomatoes or potatoes, then don't grow tomatoes in that soil for five years. (Consider container gardening.)
Don't let bugs bug you (too much)
If I ever need a great name for a villain in a story I'm writing, I'm going to name him Horn Worm. Doesn't that just sound awful?
As many tomato growers know, the tomato horn worm is a true pest. They reach their (relatively) gigantic size by eating your precious plants. Physically removing them from the plant is the best eradication method for organic gardeners.
Hint: Wear gardening gloves if the thought of touching the pests creeps you out. Another hint: If you still can't stomach the idea of touching the pests, then pay a neighborhood kiddo to do it for you. What's the going rate for that service? My son picks the creepy-crawlies off my squeamish neighbor's plants for the price of a swim in her pool.
Once removed, get those horn worms far away from you garden. I put mine in a container with a lid and deposit in my curbside trash (not compost).
A few aphids on your tomato plants isn't anything to worry about. Live and let live! But if they become overwhelming, remove the leaves where they're congregating. As a last resort, consider applying an insecticidal soap.
Placing collars around seedlings can help prevent cutworms. PlanetNatural.com says, "You can make these of paper, cardboard, aluminum foil, or an aluminum pie plate about ten inches long and four high, bent to form a circle or cylinder and stapled. Sink the collars about an inch into soil around individual seedlings, letting three inches show above the ground to deter high-climbers."
Harvesting your tomatoes
You were successful and now it's time to harvest the gorgeous fruits of your labor. Tomatoes are ready to harvest when they are a uniform color (i.e. a red tomato will be all red--no green bottoms). Harvest before any spits in the flesh appear. Although still edible, a split fruit is considered overripe.
Why are people so crazy about heirlooms?
Heirloom varieties are like finding a funky vintage dress in your grandmother's attic--they're gorgeous old-fashioned fruits. Those of us who are a bit bored with the usual beefsteak varieties commonly found at the garden center love the variety that heirlooms offer. Try Chocolate Stripes, Blondkoptchen, and Black Krim for variety in size, color, and taste.
How to store your tomatoes
Store tomatoes in a cool, dark place. They won't last for more than a few days, and any fruit with an open wound should be eaten immediately. Whether or not to refrigerate tomatoes is hotly debated. Personally, I fall on the side of not refrigerating fresh garden tomatoes unless I'm fighting fruit flies.
Know the benefits of organic tomatoes
You know the benefits of an organic lifestyle. When it comes to tomatoes, there's plenty of research to back up the organic is better argument.
According to National Public Radio, "A farming experiment at the University of California, Davis, has found that organically grown tomatoes are richer in certain kinds of flavonoids than conventionally grown tomatoes."
The Daily Mail concurs, "Organic tomatoes really are healthier than their conventionally grown counterparts...Despite being smaller, they are packed with higher amounts of vitamin C and compounds that may combat chronic diseases."
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