A Guide For Vegetable Gardeners
Growing tomatoes is one of the most popular vegetable gardener’s challenges. They are delicious, nutritious and gorgeous to look at! The other challenge with growing tomatoes is getting them from the garden to the kitchen safe from pickers. Once in the kitchen, they can be prepared for fresh cooking or preserved in many ways for later enjoyment.
Vegetable Garden Soil
Growing tomatoes is best done in a rich, vegetable garden soil high in organic matter. A slightly acidic soil is best, with some sand content. Sand helps the soil warm up faster during the early months and this leads to faster ripening of the first batch of fruit.
Seeds vs. Plants
Growing tomatoes can be done in two ways: start from seed or buy young plants from the garden centre. Growing tomatoes from seed takes 5-8 weeks before the plants are big enough to go in the ground. Start off the seeds under plastic, and aim for an ideal soil temperature of 15- 21C/ 60-70F. Once the seeds germinate, take off the cover, pinch out the small plants, and fertilize once a week using a weak solution. You can also plant seeds right into your garden beds around the beginning of May, remembering to keep the area free of weeds. Plant out your seedlings (store bought or home grown) in May, once the danger of the last frost has past. Plants are best placed between 1-3 feet apart, depending on the variety.
Fertilizer, in the form of manure, or store bought at a ratio of 5-10-10, will give seedlings a good start. Place the fertilizer in a circle around the base of the plant, about three inches away from the main stem. Once the fruit of your growing tomatoes begin to appear, then apply a fertilizer mix high in nitrogen, again in a circle, twelve inches away from the plant. As the roots spread through the soil, they will seek out the nutrients you have set out for them and in turn help to grow a strong, healthy plant.
Plastic covers can be a great aid in growing tomatoes. Build an arch to go over your plants using heavy gauge wire or PVC pipes for the structure and sheet of poly plastic as a covering. A small opening at the top provides good ventilation for your vegetable plants. Other techniques include building teepees or laying down row covers over direct-seeded plants. They key is to keep temperatures below 32C/ 90F inside the plastic greenhouse. A general rule of growing tomatoes is that it is usually safe to remove the plastic once your plants begin flowering. Remember that by using plastic you are increasing the intensity of the sun by 2-3 times. Avoid having soaring temperatures in your plastic structure for longer than 2-3 days in a row.
Keeping your soil moist is another key to growing tomatoes. Uniformly moist soil, that is! The best way to achieve this is to water for longer periods (20-30 minutes), really allowing water to penetrate your soil deeply. If you apply mulch on top of your soil at the beginning of the season, this also helps retain moisture by reducing the amount of evaporation your soil experiences during hot days. This way, you can water your growing tomatoes every 7-10 days, rather than watering a little bit on a daily basis. Hey, we all need to get away for a least a few days in the summer! When watering, keep the nozzle at the base of the plant and avoid getting foliage, fruit and flowers wet. Once fruit begins to ripen, you can greatly reduce or stop watering altogether.
Providing a support structure for your growing tomatoes is vital to keeping them away from slugs and cutworms as well as preventing rot. Cages are handy at first, but more often than not, plants quickly outgrow their support system. Depending on the varieties you have chosen, install a tall stake, trellis or bamboo teepee structure up to five feet high. This way, the plant is free to grow and you are free from having to prune fruit-bearing branches.
Pests and Disease
If you do end up with pests or diseases attacking your plants, and you choose to apply pesticides or fungicides, remember to protect your skin and eyes from contact. Read the instructions on the packaging, especially as your harvest time approaches. Following the label instructions closely will ensure that you are applying the right amount that will cause the least toxicity to birds, children, pets and the surrounding environment.