8 Tips for Great Tomatoes

By Skip Richter, Contributing Editor

Tomato season is here! Gardeners are once again beginning the annual pursuit of the perfect tomato and a bountiful harvest of the most popular crop in the garden.

Although nature often throws us curves in the way of late frosts, early heat waves and various forms of disease and pest attacks, tomatoes are really not that difficult to grow if you follow a few basic practices.

Here are eight tips to help you fine-tune your tomato patch and enjoy the fruits of your labor.


Tomatoes love the sun. They will grow in shade, but they won’t produce much fruit, and the fruit they do produce will be of lesser quality.

For good results choose a location that receives at least six hours of sun a day. More is better. If you don’t have a sunny spot in the yard, consider growing your tomatoes in a container set in a sunny location on a deck or driveway — whatever it takes to get them in the sun.

Consider the soil drainage, too. If the site tends to stand in water after a rain, you’ll want to choose another site or bring in enough soil to raise the level of the planting beds considerably.

Start with the soil

It is easy to become obsessed over the newest tomato variety or some new growing technique. These are all fine to consider, but success starts with the soilSpend a dollar on your soil before you spend a dollar on your plants.

The best way to start is by mixing several inches of compost into your soil as deeply as is practical. Compost helps sandy soils hold moisture and nutrients, and helps a clay soil form a crumbly structure and drain better.

Build raised planting beds, which drain well during periods of heavy rainfall and also warm up faster in the spring. Warm soil mean faster early growth.

If you don’t have good soil to begin with, you can also just purchase a quality soil mix and use it to fill a raised planting bed to a depth of 12 inches or more. A quality mix has a blend of topsoil, compost and sometimes includes other ingredients, such as manure or expanded shale. It should be weed-free and screened to remove any large chunks of woody materials.

Container-growing is another option. Choose as large a container as you can. A minimum 7-gallon size is needed, but such a small size may need to be watered two or more times a day. For best results choose a container that holds 15 gallons or more. Fill it with a good potting mix or finely screened bed mix.

A superior variety

Not all varieties perform well in your location and some of the more famous names, such as ‘Brandywine,’ may not produce much volume.

The reason is that they take longer from planting-to-harvest, so about the time they would start producing it gets too hot to set fruit.

Here in Texas we have a short spring to early-summer tomato season and therefore need to choose varieties with days-to-harvest intervals of 65 to 70 days (or less) to allow time to set and ripen a bountiful crop.

Another factor to keep in mind is disease resistance. It makes sense to choose resistant varieties to lower the number of potential problems that your tomatoes might face in a given year.

The letters after the variety name indicate its resistance to diseases. For example, “VF1F2NTA” indicates resistance to Verticillium Wilt, two strains of Fusarium wilt, Root Knot Nematodes, Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Alternaria.

There are literally dozens of great varieties for Texas gardeners. A few that have been outstanding producers in recent AgriLife Extension trials include the slicer types ‘Tycoon’ and ‘Tygress,’ and the smaller fruited types ‘Sun Gold’ and ‘BHN 968.’ I like to plant several varieties to hedge my bet against the vagaries of any given season.

Plant early

Since the heat arrives early in our state and tomatoes don’t set fruit as well in the heat, the sooner you plant the better.

While general wisdom says to plant around the last average frost date, you can actually plant a little earlier if you are willing to protect the tomato plants should a frost or freeze threaten them.

I usually plant two to four weeks prior to the last average frost date, but take measures to keep the plants a little warmer.

One technique is to cage the plants at planting and wrap the cages with clear plastic. Leave the tops open during the day to allow heat to escape. Then twist and fold over the tops at night to hold in warmth.

Another technique is to place a row of PVC hoops down the row and cover it with either row-cover fabric or clear plastic. If you use plastic, leave the ends open during the day and close them at night. This technique can get your plants through a moderate freeze.

Along with planting early is the trick of starting with more mature plants.

You can start growing your own transplants extra early, or purchase those really early plants that some garden centers sell when it is actually too early to put plants out in the garden.

Then repot them up in a larger container and grow the plants out giving them daytime sun and nighttime protection indoors. By getting a head start on the season you can have plants that are blooming or even have small fruit when it is time to plant them in the garden!

If your tomato transplant is lanky, lay the root ball and the base of the stem down in a shallow trench and leave 4–6 inches of the stem sticking out. Then cover the stem and water the soil well. Moist roots will form along the stem making for an even more extensive root system.

Provide support

Tomatoes are vining plants and even the bush types benefit from a support of some type.

The two most common techniques for supporting tomatoes are to stake them or cage them. Staking provides larger, earlier fruit while caging provides more overall production. The reason is that when you stake tomatoes you remove all the suckers and tie the central stem to a stake. The clusters that form don’t have the competition of a lot of other shoots and will ripen a large group of tomatoes quite early.

Cage culture involves removing the first few suckers and then allowing the vine to send out side shoots and fill the tomato cage. You get more fruit, but they tend to ripen a little later than staked tomatoes.

Cages can be made of fence wire with large openings or concrete-reinforcing wire formed into cylinders about 18–24 inches in diameter and 4–6 feet tall. Secure the cages by tying them to a stake to avoid having them blow over in the wind.

A third technique, which I prefer, is to use a section of livestock panel leaned against iron fence posts with the base of the panel about 2 feet from the posts. The tomato plants are set between the post row and the base of the panel, and then the growing shoots are trained up through the panels forming a slanted wall of foliage. This technique is fast, easy and makes for quick cleanup and more compact storage than tomato cages.

Good nutrition

I remember (while growing up) that if you over-fertilized tomatoes they would produce lots of vines but little fruit.

While there is still some truth to that concept, newer varieties are racehorses that will produce bountiful crops if pushed along with optimum nutrition.

Start by fertilizing the new transplants at planting by using a soluble fertilizer or fish emulsion and seaweed solution. You can also put a half-cup of slow-release fertilizer (such as Osmocote) or an organic product in a 1-foot diameter ring around the plants and then work into the soil about 4-inches deep so the roots will encounter it quickly.

Repeat the soluble fertilizer application twice more at one-week intervals. When the first fruit forms, give the plants another application of dry fertilizer in a 3-1-2 ratio, applying one cup of synthetic or three cups of organic fertilizer in a circular area, reaching 2 feet out from the plant in all directions. Scratch it into the surface and water it in well. This boost will really pay off in extra production.

Mulch and moisture

If tomatoes dry out or go from wet to dry to wet, they will suffer from blossom-end rot.

Even moisture and adequate calcium in the soil are the best ways to prevent this condition, which tends to primarily affect the earliest fruit of the season.

Maintain moderate moisture by watering regularly, especially when the plants are young and growing. Don’t just spray the surface with a hose but rather provide a good deep soaking. A circular berm of soil around the plant filled with water will ensure a deep soaking.

Another technique is to use milk jugs as drip irrigators. Punch a few small holes in the bottom with an ice pick. Toss a few small stones or some gravel or sand into the jug to provide weight and keep it from blowing over. Set the jugs near the tomato plants. Set the base an inch or two below the soil and fill the milk jug with water. It will slowly soak out into the soil. A bucket can also be used to irrigate the plants in the same way.

Pest and disease control

You are not the only one interested in your tomatoes. There are insects and diseases that would love to do their dirty work on your precious plants.

Aphids, spider mites and caterpillars are the most common pests. Fungal or bacterial wilt diseases and leaf spots may also pose a threat.

Check your plants daily so you can take early action before a problem becomes epidemic. Early treatment with an approved pest or disease-control product will ensure your tomatoes will stay healthy. If you choose disease-resistant tomato plants, you can avoid nematodes and many of the more common diseases.

Birds are another pest to be reckoned with. They seem to enjoy taking a taste out of one tomato and then moving on to another one. Netting is the only good remedy for these pests other than ballistic measures!

No two years are ever alike when it comes to growing tomatoes. Many factors, including weather and pests, interact to keep things interesting. Nevertheless, these tips should help you get off to a great start on the most productive tomato season ever!









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