Handling Tomatoes in the Home Garden

When the tomato was first introduced into cultivation from South America, it was grown only as an ornamental in European and North American gardens under the name “love apple.” Belonging to the nightshade family along with potato, peppers, eggplants plus having several poisonous relatives, the fruit was long regarded with grave suspicion. But, some unbeliever must have eaten one without dire results.

Tomato History From Thomas Jefferson

It is said to have been mentioned first in North America as a vegetable by Thomas Jefferson in 1781, with several references to planting "tamatas" found in his Garden Book. Nevertheless, it was slow to gain popularity. Today the tomato is highly regarded as a very healthy and delicious food grown commercially on a huge scale.

For the home garden, tomatoes are one of the most productive and satisfactory vegetables and are never so delicious as when ripened on the plants

Growing Tomatoes

The tomato, eggplant, and pepper are all warm season vegetables. These plants are highly frost sensitive. In addition, tomato flowers fail to set fruit if temperatures stay below 55 degrees. Too high temperatures can also have a bad effect on fruit setting.

Often gardeners notice poor fruit set when plants are first put out due to low night temperatures. This can be offset by waiting to transplant until the weather is warmer. Fruit setting hormones are helpful in inducing these first blossoms to produce a crop of tomatoes.

A blossom set spray is applied with a hand sprayer directly on the blossom clusters and not on the foliage.

Growing Tomatoes

Growing Tomatoes

Sowing Seeds and Transplanting

To get an early crop, especially in the North, sow seeds about 10 weeks before it is safe to set the plants outside.Those fortunate enough to have a greenhouse can raise sturdy seedlings in a mixture of equal parts soil, peat moss, and vermiculite kept moist and in a 60-70 degree temperature.

It is easy enough to get seedlings started in the house. The problem is to find enough sunny space for the plants when they need to be transplanted.

If you try starting them indoors, put them into flats containing a little heavier soil mixture and spaced 2 inches apart, or place them singly into 3-inch pressed peat moss pots. Since plants in peat pots can be transplanted directly, pots and all, they suffer no setback at that time.

Tomatoes thrive best in a well-drained fertile soil and a sunny location. Work the soil a foot or more deep, mixing in some leafmold or other humus, plus a sprinkling of Epsom salt to get tomato plants off to a good start.

Tomatoes root readily along the stem so leggy plants can be planted deeper than many other plants. But, don't be in a hurry to set them out. The plants make better progress if they are unchecked by cold, even though a covering may be provided against late frosts. See that the plants are well watered when set out to settle the soil.

In the home garden, it pays to train the stems on stakes or trellises rather than to allow them to sprawl over the ground. You’ll save space and enjoy cleaner, unblemished fruits

In general, tomato varieties fit into two categories:

  • The staking or indeterminate varieties
  • The non-staking, determinate or bush varieties

The staking or indeterminate varieties are the most widely planted and respond best to staking and pruning.

Advantages Of Staking and Pruning

These are some of the rewards often gained from staking and pruning:

  • Ripening earlier; and more early ripe fruit
  • Since plants are spaced closer the yield per area is greater
  • Diseases and insects are easier controlled
  • The fruit is cleaner
  • The fruit is easier to find and pick

Disadvantages Of Staking and Pruning

The disadvantages of staking and pruning include:

  • A higher amount of labor involved
  • Smaller total yield per plant
  • Greater susceptibility to blossom-end rot disease
  • More chances of sunburn on fruit
  • More growth-cracked fruits

Methods of Pruning, Staking and Tying Tomato Plants Vary

Plants are usually trained so one vine or main stem develops. Sometimes there is an advantage in training them to two or three main stems, but the single-stem method is most often used.If left unpruned, the plants produce a multiple-stemmed plant. Pruning simply involves removing the new shoots as they emerge that would make the plant multiple-stemmed.

New shoots develop at what are called the axils of the leaf; that is, at the base of the leaf. The new shoot looks like a new young tomato plant. It arises where the leaf joins the main stem.

Pruning Tomato Plants

Pruning Tomato Plants

Plants should be checked every few days to eliminate these shoots. They are simply broken out with the fingers. It is better to break them out by hand than with a knife, as a knife might spread disease.

The important thing is to recognize the difference between these new shoots and the blossom clusters. I have watched new gardeners remove all their blossom clusters unwittingly in the process of pruning their tomato plants.

Provide plants pruned to single stems with stout stakes (1/2- by one-inch) at the time the plants are set out. When using stakes, as needed, tie the single vine to the stakes.

Use a soft string or cloth first making a loop around the stake. and then another loop around the vine in securing the vine to the stake. Make the tie just below a leaf, and do not tie so tightly as to squeeze off the food and water supply through the the stem. Continue tying and pruning through the growing season as needed, to keep the plants in proper shape.

Staking Tomato Plants

Staking Tomato Plants

NOTE: I train mine to a single stem on “tomato cages” set 24-30 inches apart in the row and with 30-42 inches between rows. I like to have 5 to 6 feet of stake above ground. All side shoots are pinched out as they appear.

As plants grow, they are tied promptly. A soft binder twine works well, as do Twist-ems or strips of old sheeting.

When the first cluster of fruit shows, sprinkle a handful of 5-10-5 fertilizer around each plant and water it in. In light soils make another application if the plants seem to show a need for it by slow growth. However, avoid too much nitrogen as it produces lush vegetative growth at the expense of fruit.

When growth is well under way, a mulch of half-rotted leaves, old hay or cut grass can be spread around after a rain and be beneficial in conserving soil moisture and keeping down weeds.

When the plants reach the tops of the supports stop further upward growth by nipping out their tops.

Pests and Disease

Cutworms always seem to be waiting for tasty young tomato plants but their evil work can be thwarted by sprinkling diatomaceous earth around and on the stem at the soil line or spraying neem oil on the plants.

If you see leaves eaten, look for the big tomato hornworm which is fearsome to look at but easy to find and dispose of any way you want. Make wise use of Bacillus thuringiensis bt for control.

Blossom-end rot, which shows as a blackened area opposite the stalk, is a physiological trouble likely to appear during dry spells, especially after periods of lush growth. The remedy is sufficient water at all times.

Mosaic or mottling disease is transmitted from tobacco, so "no smoking" should be the rule when working with tomatoes. Wash your hands thoroughly if you have handled tobacco, before going near your tomato plants.

Learning to grow tomatoes takes time. Over the years I’ve found I get better results growing in plastic buckets instead of growing directly in the ground. However, the same “growing rules” apply.

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Gary Antosh

Gary Antosh

About the Author:

Gary Antosh runs Plant Care Today, where he shares his 30+ years of commercial growing experience to help others learn to grow.​

Handling Tomatoes in the Home Garden
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Lucy M. Clark

Hi there! I’m Lucy, and I’m a self-confessed garden fanatic. Gardening has always been a passion of mine and will always be my favorite pastime. Now that I am married and have one adorable son, I have the time to write and share my personal experiences with other garden enthusiasts like me.

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