Whether you are growing tomatoes for salads, or to preserve into canned tomato sauce and salsa, these tips will help you improve your tomato harvest.
Tomatoes are one of the most popular crops to grow in a home vegetable garden. They are often eaten raw in salads, sandwiches, and salsas. Tomatoes also can be simmered into sauces, soups, stews, and chilies.
There are hundreds tomato varieties to choose from to grow in your garden. Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes, including cherry and grape, slicing, and oblong paste varieties. Their diverse flavors range from sweet to acidic and bold and earthy. Colors can range from the traditional red to pink, yellow, purple, green, and striped.
Indeterminate tomato varieties grow and produce fruit all season until killed by frost or disease. The vines can grow up to 8 feet. While determinate varieties are bred to grow compact plants, about 2-4 feet tall and ripen all their fruit around the same time.
In addition, tomatoes also have different days to maturity, as well as resistance to diseases. It is a good idea to choose several varieties to grow so you can explore distinct flavors and growth patterns.
10 Tips to Improve Your Tomato Harvest
Tomatoes are pretty easy to grow and will likely produce a crop even when the growing conditions are not ideal. A few tips will improve the vigor of your plants and the amount of tomatoes it will produce:
Begin with Healthy Tomato Plants
Grow your own: Growing tomato plants from seeds under lights is a great way to explore varieties that are not available in the garden centers. Plus nurturing and raising your own tomato seedlings is fun.
Growing transplants is also a frugal way to get an abundance of tomato plants for your garden. A package of seeds will grow numerous tomato plants over several years and costs about the same as a 6-pack of tomato transplants at your local garden center.
Start tomato seeds about 6-8 weeks before your last frost date (look yours up: PlantMaps.com).
Purchase quality seedlings: If you do purchase seedlings, make sure they come from a quality source. Your local nursery greenhouse will have a supply of the most popular tomato varieties that grow well in your area.
Look for small, sturdy tomato plants that are healthy. Smaller plants adapt to transplanting more easily than larger plants. Aim for about 4-8-inch tall plants with sturdy stems and healthy foliage.
Check leaves for insects and disease. Healthy foliage will be evenly green. Avoid plants with leaves that are yellow, spotted, wilted, or curled. These plants are stressed and may not adapt well when transplanted.
Choose the Ideal Growing Location for your Tomatoes
Select an area that receives full sun: Choose a bright and sunny spot in your vegetable garden to grow tomato plants. Tomatoes thrive with at least 6-8 hours of full sunlight.
Rotate planting beds: Choose a garden bed that did not grow tomatoes or their family members last season. Plants that belong to the same family are often susceptible to similar pests and diseases. Tomato plants are vulnerable to a number of soil-borne pathogens.
Rotating your tomato crop to different areas that have not grown tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes helps to reduce the build-up of pathogens. It also helps prevent pests from finding your plants early in the season.
Consider how you will support your plants: When you consider the area where you will be growing tomatoes, plan on space for the plants plus tomato supports. You can find out how much space your tomato plants need and how tall the plants will grow by referencing the seed package, or looking up your tomato variety online.
Harden Off Your Tomato Seedlings Before Planting
Tomatoes are a warm season crop and should not be transplanted into the garden until nights are warm and all danger of frost is past. Look up your last expected frost date at PlantMaps.com. Keep in mind that this date is only an estimate.
To avoid shocking your plants, allow your seedlings to adjust to outside conditions gradually before transplanting to the garden.
Once the daytime temperatures warm to about 60˚F, begin hardening off your tomato plants outside in a sheltered location, and progressively increase exposure a little at a time. Eventually, allow your tomato transplants to stay outside overnight as long as the nighttime temperatures are at least 50˚F.
Wait to transplant your hardened off tomato seedling until after your last frost date and when the air temperature is above 50 degrees at night.
If an unexpected overnight frost is predicted, cover your plants with old blankets, sheets, row covers, buckets, or nursery pots to protect them. Remove the covering in the morning.
Plant Your Tomato Seedlings Deep
Tomato plants have the ability to form roots along parts of the stem if it is buried under the soil. This helps your plants develop a stronger root system. A healthy root system helps your plant absorb nutrients, minerals, and moisture. Sturdy roots will also help anchor your plants so they can withstand winds and heavy rain.
Prepare your garden beds ahead of time by removing weeds and adding a generous amount of finished compost. Compost will add organic matter, nutrients, and help the soil retain moisture.
If the weather has been dry, water the bed thoroughly the day before you plant. Choose a calm, cloudy day to transplant your tomato seedlings.
Dig the planting holes deep enough to bury your tomato seedlings up to the second set of leaves from the bottom of the plant. Mix in some organic plant fertilizer that is formulated for tomatoes (such as Tomato Tone) into the hole. Follow the directions on the package. Water the planting hole well and let it drain.
Transplant your tomato seedlings and water again after planting.
Support the Growing Tomato Vines
Add support at planting time while the tomato seedling is young. Your tomato plants will grow healthier if they are offered support to keep the vines upright.
The type of support you will need for your tomato plants depends on the variety you are growing. Some plants are shorter and can be easily supported with stakes or tomato cages. Others can grow up to 8-10 feet and need stronger and taller structure to support the vines and fruit.
Water Tomatoes Consistently
Tomatoes need consistent moisture to grow foliage, and produce and ripen fruit. The plant can become stressed if it doesn’t receive enough water. This can leave the plant vulnerable to diseases and unable to absorb and use nutrients sufficiently.
Uneven watering also affects the fruit. Tomatoes may crack if the plant doesn’t have enough moisture. If it rains after a dry period, the fruit may split from the extra shot of moisture. Alternatively, overwatering your tomato plants will lead to saturated soil that suffocates your plants.
The goal is to try to keep the soil evenly moist. Water your tomatoes when the soil feels dry an inch or two below the surface. Water deeply, at the base of the plant, so the moisture soaks into the soil and reaches the roots.
Mulch the Soil Surface Around the Tomato Plants
A generous layer of organic mulch helps protect the soil from erosion, blocks weeds from sprouting, and moderates soil temperature. In addition, mulching is particularly helpful for tomato plants because it:
Helps Retain Moisture: Mulch helps keep the soil evenly damp by preventing moisture from evaporating from the soil surface.
Prevents Soil Splash: A layer of mulch stops soil from splashing onto the leaves when the tomato plants are watered. This helps prevent soil borne diseases. Instead, the water trickles down and is absorbed into the soil.
After the soil has warmed and your tomato seedlings have been planted, add a generous layer of mulch on the soil surface. Keep the mulch about 3-4-inches away from the stems of your plants to prevent smothering.
Prune Your Tomato Plants
Removing the bottom branches and any foliage that touches the ground is beneficial for all types of tomato plants. The branches at the bottom of the plant are the oldest and usually the first to show signs of disease if the plant becomes stressed.
Also, because this foliage is close to the ground, it is susceptible to being splashed with soil when it rains or when the plant is watered leaving the plant vulnerable to soil borne and fungal diseases.
Removing the bottom branches helps improve airflow, reduces soil splash, and reduces areas where pests can hide.
Should you Prune Tomato Suckers?
Tomato suckers are additional branches that sprout at the crotch between the main stem and branches of the tomato plant. The suckers turn into branches, and go on to produce tomatoes.
There are two schools of thought in dealing with tomato suckers: One is to let them be. The new branches will generate more tomatoes and give you more fruit to harvest. The other is to prune out extra branches so the plant can concentrate its energy and grow bigger tomatoes.
The way you prune your tomato suckers will depend on the type of tomatoes you are growing:
Determinate tomato varieties, also called “bush” tomatoes, are bred to grow compact plants that are about 2-4 feet tall. Suckers are not really an issue with determinant varieties. However, it is beneficial to remove bottom shoots to improve airflow.
For determinant types, prune the suckers and branches from the bottom of the plant, up to the first flower cluster.
Indeterminate tomato plants continue to grow and produce fruit all season until killed by frost or disease. The vines can reach 8-10 feet tall.
Indeterminate tomato plants can benefit from pruning some of the suckers. Eliminating some of the branches will allow the plant to focus its energy on ripening and growing tomatoes, instead of focusing on producing more foliage.
If you want a lot of tomatoes, leave the majority of the suckers and let them grow and produce more fruit. Just be sure to provide the plant with good support, moisture, and nutrients.
If you are aiming for sizable tomatoes, go ahead and prune out the majority of the tomato suckers so your plant can concentrate its energy on growing and ripening large fruit instead of more foliage.
Prune the suckers starting at the bottom of the plant, up to at least the second flower cluster. You may need to prune suckers several times during the growing season.
Scout Your Tomato Plants for Pests and Disease
At least once a week, walk through your garden and examine your tomato plants. Check the foliage, especially the lower leaves for leaf spots and holes. Look over the fruit for damage, soft spots, or cracks.
One of the most common pests you may encounter is the tomato hornworm. Hornworms are large green caterpillars that feed on tomato foliage and fruit. Their droppings are easier to spot than the worm. When you see the droppings, check the branches above, and you will likely spot the hornworm. Hand pick the worms, and drop them into a jar of soapy water.
Tomato plants are susceptible to many bacteria, fungus, and viral diseases. Some are in the soil, waiting to appear when the conditions are right. Some diseases blow in from the wind or are transferred to the plant by insects.
Diseases on the foliage appear as spots, mottling, or yellowing leaves. Others diseases can cause lesions to form on the fruit or stems. Diseases can spread from one plant to the next by wind, water, insects, and on gardening tools.
Some plants can survive while infected with a plant disease. Some diseases will kill your plants.
Scout your plants often, and remove yellow or brown foliage and any rotten or damaged fruit.
Harvest Your Tomatoes Frequently
Harvest tomatoes frequently so the plant can redirect energy to growing and ripening more fruit. Once your tomatoes begin ripening, check the plants each day and pick those that are almost ready, and let them ripen fully indoors.
We dream of vine-ripened tomatoes, but the reality is, the longer the fruit remains on the vine, the more susceptible it is to pest damage and spoiling. Luckily, tomatoes continue to mature off the vine and will have the same flavor as one that ripens on the plant.
It’s better to pick the fruit before peak ripeness to reduce the chances of loosing the fruit altogether. Some reasons for harvesting tomatoes when partially ripe include:
Avoid Pest Damage: A ripe tomato is attractive to many pests. The sweet fragrance and bright colors of ripe tomatoes is appealing to insects, birds, chipmunks, and other animals.
Prevent Splitting: The skin of a ripe tomato may split if the plant receives too much rain in a short amount of time. Once the skin has split, the fruit is defenseless against rot, mold, and insects. If you are expecting a rainy period, harvest your ripe tomatoes.
Stop Rotting in Hot Weather: Tomatoes stop ripening when temperatures are above 85ºF (29°C). Tomatoes that are nearly ripe may start rotting during a period of hot temperatures. If you are expecting several hot days in a row, harvest all your almost ripe tomatoes and bring them indoors to finish ripening.
As a tomato ripens, it changes from green to a yellow green, and then to its final color. The color deepens further as the fruit matures. A completely ripe tomato will feel firm, but slightly soft. Harvest your tomatoes when they look almost ripe.
Take care not to damage the tomato plant when harvesting. Almost ripe tomatoes will come off the vine with a simple twist, or you can use clippers or a sharp knife.
Bring the tomatoes inside and store at room temperature on a kitchen counter or any location away from direct sunlight. Your tomatoes should fully ripen in 2-4 days. Once ripe, use the tomatoes within a few days.
Growing tomatoes can be a challenge, but the reward is worth the effort.
Good planning is key to a successful vegetable garden
Whether you are new to growing your own food or have been growing a vegetable garden for years, you will benefit from some planning each year. You will find everything you need to organize and plan your vegetable garden in my PDF eBook, Grow a Good Life Guide to Planning Your Vegetable Garden.