Tips for growing tomatoes

Tips for growing tomatoes

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

If there's a jewel of summer, it has to be that ruby-red treat - the homegrown tomato.

Of course, aficionados know tomatoes come in a lot of colors besides red. There's Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Great White and Garden Peach, all of which are heirloom tomatoes. An heirloom is an open pollinated tomato, or non-hybrid, that's been on the market for at least 50 years.

It used to be that the only way to get heirloom tomatoes was to sow your own seed, but now most garden centers have starter plants of the old-fashioned selections. Heirlooms are prized for their superb taste; however, they may be susceptible to diseases, which hybrids may be able to resist.

As a warm season crop, the tomato is very sensitive to cold soil and cool temperatures. Resist the temptation to plant tomatoes outdoors until after the last frost date. To find out the last frost date for your area, visit

For most Midwesterners, the 'mater mantra begins around the middle of May. At that time, you're able to plant seedlings in the garden. For those without a yard, tomatoes are easy to grow in containers. However, it's too late to start tomatoes by seed, a task that takes place indoors mid-March, or six to eight weeks before it's time to transplant outdoors.

In the garden, plant tomato seedlings in well-dug, well-drained soil-rich compost or other organic matter where they will receive full sunlight for up to six hours each day. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that can be planted deeper than they were growing in their plastic packs. Mulch the plants with shredded bark, newspapers, grass clippings or other organic matter. Consider using a high-quality organic fertilizer, but always read and follow the label directions of the product you choose. Avoid fertilizers that are high in nitrogen because they encourage leaf growth at the expense of fruit production.

If you grow tomatoes in a container, select the largest one possible. Consider using a 5-gallon bucket. Clean out the bucket and use a hammer and screwdriver or drill to punch several holes in the bottom to ensure good drainage. Fill the bucket with potting mix. Don't use soil taken from the garden because it may contain insects or diseases that will kill the new growth. Plants in containers need more water than those planted in the ground.

The most important task for good tomato production is consistent moisture. Adequate watering and proper fertilization reduces blossom-end rot, a condition that destroys the fruit. Also, to get the most out of your tomatoes, be sure to stake the plants or grow them in cages. When they're fully grown, you'll be able to appreciate the fruits of your labor all summer.

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a national director of the Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.

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