How To Grow Delicious Tomatoes, Part 2

How To Grow Delicious Tomatoes, Part 2


When planting tomatoes one of the first considerations is how far apart should I put my plants. Spacing will be determined by the plant variety you choose.  The smaller ones can be planted closer together.  Those that get pretty big need room to grow.  If you are staking the plants, then you can bring them closer together. General guidelines are about eighteen inches to two feet apart in the rows and about three to five feet apart between rows.  It really depends on the variety.  If using raised beds that are not walked on, then you can reduce the spacing.  

tomato seedlings

Seedlings, Hardening-off 

Seedlings are really essential in almost all parts of the US, as the growing season is not long enough for the plants to fully develop.  Seedlings should be started 6 to 8 weeks before you can place them outside.  The temperature outside needs to be warm enough, as I stated earlier.   When using seedlings it’s important to harden them off by gradually placing them outside and reducing their watering and fertilization and not allowing them to get exposed to cold temperatures in the evening.  Covering or sheltering them in the night is very important, as you don’t want seedlings to be exposed to temperatures lower than 60°F.  This way, they slowly adapt to the winds and hot sun of the outdoors.  Once they have gone through about four or five days of this adaptation, then go ahead and plant them.

If the soil is not warm enough, then place black plastic on the bed to warm it up during the time you are hardening off the tomatoes. 

Transplants have been grown in 70° weather.  Therefore, putting them in temperatures that are much colder than this is not a good idea, as they tend to develop catfacing (indentations and scars around the blossom end of the fruit versus the stem end.  These scars can develop deep inside the fruit.  It allows for disease and animals to move in and makes the fruit look really ugly.)  Therefore, keep the plants above the temperature in which they are normally grown or very close to it, especially at night, by providing protection until the temperatures outside get into the 70°s F. 

tomato transplant

Transplanting and Liming Tomatoes

Tomato plants are one of the only plants where you should plant deeper than the soil (3) line in which the seedlings are grown.  The transplant should be less than a foot tall.  You can dig a trench about four to six inches deep and carefully bend the stem of the plant so the root is at an angle and the actual stem is partially planted, allowing only two or three sets of its true leaves above the soil.  The stem will develop roots and establish itself and make the plant stronger.

Before you plant, add about a ¼ cup of lime to the soil where the tomato plants will go.  Incorporating this additional lime will help prevent blossom end rot.  Use powdered lime, as lime takes time to dissolve and incorporate into the soil.  The powdered version will dissolve quicker than the pelletized version. Do this for each plant hole or area right before planting.  

Water well once you have finished planting and immediately place the cage or stake into the ground.  The stake should be around six foot tall, and placed no more than a foot away from the plant. Do a small application of organic fertilizer or compost tea.  Do not over fertilize.


Regular watering is a must with tomatoes.  A good inch or two per week is acceptable, depending on the type of soil.  If it’s sandy, then two inches of water is good, during the hot summer days and if it’s a more clay type, then one inch will suffice.  The main thing is to keep it evenly moist and not to allow it to dry out.  Mulching with straw, partial compost, or shredded leaves is really key, as this will prevent the roots from drying out.  Tomato roots are near the surface and can easily be impacted by drought, after which they would immediately begin to develop blossom end rot.  

During the hot summer months, it is best to water deeply twice a week or between one to two inches per week in two separate intervals. 

Why Do Huge Plants Bear No Fruit or Very little?

The main reason for this is over fertilization.  Once the plants are planted in good organic soil and lightly fertilized, it is best to not fertilize again until the plant starts flowering.  The reason is that, in the beginning, the plant is in the growth phase.  If you fertilize early on, then it stays in this phase.  You will get a huge plant but no fruit.  Therefore, wait until you see flowering and then give it a side dressing.  This makes sure that the plant has moved into a reproductive stage.  

Disease and Insects

blossom end rot

Blossoom End Rot

This is damage to tomatoes in the blossom end of the fruit.  The fruit forms a tan or flat black spot, and then secondary bacteria or fungi enter and cause further damage.  Usually, this occurs in hot dry spells.

The cause is a lack of calcium as the fruit develops.  This doesn’t mean there is no calcium in the soil but rather it is not available to the plant.  Some causes of this are uneven watering; as a result of water fluctuation, the calcium becomes less available to the plants. Excessive fertilization causes the plant to go into a fast growth spur, especially if using non-organic fertilizers that are heavy on salts.  Weeding done too close to the plants can damage too many surface roots, and this will stress the plant and not allow it to take up as much water.  

The best solution is keeping the moisture even, mulching, avoiding weeding with a hoe or tool at least a foot from the plant, but rather hand weeding.  

Growth cracks – the fruit grows very quickly and literary cracks open. 

This occurs if you get heavy rains and hot temperatures or if, after having gone through a drought period, all of a sudden you get a lot of water and the growth occurs very rapidly.  The cracks are not a problem, as the fruit forms a film and quickly heals itself.  The problem is that sometimes bacteria and fungi attack the fruit and cause it to rot.  

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It is best to keep the plant evenly watered, to use mulch, and to use varieties that are less susceptible to cracking.  Some good hybrids have been produced.  

When using mulch, use straw or any of the others mentioned earlier.  If using dried grass clippings, make sure they are not treated in any way with any type of chemicals.  Tomatoes are very susceptible to chemicals used on lawns.  If plants are exposed, they will grow distorted, or they can twist or just get stunted.  

tomato diseases

Fusarium wilt, Verticillium wilt, Early blight and Tobacco mosaic virus

These diseases cause the plant to suddenly wilt and die quickly. They may look different but the result is early death. I feel that, if you grow resistant varieties, it’s the best thing.  But if you do grow some heirlooms, there are some varieties that are more susceptible than others, and this is the chance you take.  

Keeping the garden free of debris by, cleaning up old plants from the prior year, using a three-year crop rotation, not smoking in the garden and washing your hands after smoking before touching the plants, and disposing of any plants that get infected – versus composting them.  The disease resistant varieties are labelled when grown and for the seeds sold.

tomato pruning 1

Pruning of Tomatoes

Intermediate and indeterminate tomatoes are the ones that need pruning due to the vast amount of suckers they send out.  The suckers can be from the base of the plant or in between the main stem and the leaves.  These suckers develop into full-fledged plants that bloom and produce tomatoes.  So why prune them at all?

Many studies have been made to determine the value of pruning.  The results are very consistent in showing that pruning will increase your yield, as the tomato plants tend to send so many suckers.  These suckers take up a lot of the plant energy by producing lots of leaves and a whole new plant.  Therefore, less energy is going into fruit production; instead, it’s all going into making leaves.  So, if all the energy is going to produce leaves, there will be less fruit.  So many leaves increase the potential for disease due to decrease in circulation and aeration.  

tomato pruning 02

But the pruning has to be done right versus just any old way.  Otherwise, the yields will be less.  Many people think it’s the top that gets pruned, and the tips.  This is not the case at all.  When you see suckers coming up from the roots or the base of the soil, prune these away. There is one sucker that does not get pruned.  You must look for the first flowers to appear.

Once this flower appears, there will be one sucker right below it, no exceptions.  This particular sucker does not get pruned. All other suckers between the main stem and the leaf get removed at the junction, except that one right below the first flower.

Why don’t we prune away the one sucker right below the first flower? There have been several studies that found the additional growth hormones that come into play as the plant goes from a growing stage to a fruiting stage are found in great numbers right by the first flower.  As a result, they positively influence this sucker, resulting in a very large productive plant that produces lots of fruits.  The yield is just as high as the main plant.  Proportionally, the fruit ratio is higher than the leaf ratio.  Unlike the rest of the suckers, which produce a lot of leaves and less fruit by comparison.

tomato plant

If you observe closely, you will notice that the suckers below this particular first flower – sucker you are leaving behind will be larger than those below it.  Despite the fact the other suckers lower in the plant are older and came out maybe a week or two before.  

You will then remove all the other suckers growing between the stem and the leaves.  You will also remove any suckers from the one sucker that you have allowed to develop, as all suckers behave in the same way as a regular plant. The end result is a two-plant system developing with one root stock.  When you stake the main plant, also have a second stake for the extra plant you will allow to develop.  

Happy growing!

All photos are copyright protected. Photos 1-4 by Patricia. Photos 5-8 by Marleny.

How To Grow Delicious Organic Tomatoes, Part 1

How To Grow Delicious Organic Tomatoes, Part 1

Summer is right around the corner. Without a doubt, everyone wants to grow tomatoes. They are a delicious addition to any meal.

Tomatoes are easy to grow, even if you neglect them a bit. They are originally from the Andes Mountains in South America, where they have hundreds of varieties and can even be considered a weed. They are part of the nightshade family, as are peppers and eggplants.

A very important reason to grow them is they are on the list of the Environmental Working Group. This group compiles a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. Cherry tomatoes are on the top dirty dozen list. Therefore, either you should grow your own or buy organic.

They are easy to grow and, even if neglected, you will still get a harvest, though it may not be the largest harvest crop. But imagine if a little care is given? Well, then you’ll get a bumper crop and delicious-tasting tomatoes.

Growing Requirements

Tomatoes need a lot of sun!

They are a warm season crop that can’t be put outside until the soil has warmed up to at least 55° and the night temperatures don’t fall lower than 45°F; if the temperatures fall below this, they should be protected with cloths, sheets or garden blankets. Otherwise, they can easily get shriveled up and frost burned. Many times, I see the transplants being sold early in the season at nurseries; people quickly snatch them up on a nice warm day, forgetting that at night it could easily drop to high 30°F.

Tomatoes need lots of sun with a minimum of eight hours. They require well-drained soil, ideally with lots of organic matter. They will not tolerate wet feet, as the plant will rot. I have observed that, the richer the soil in organic matter, the larger production they yield and the tastier they are. The highest yields usually come from loam and clay soil. If you have sandy soil receiving southern exposure, these will produce the earliest tomatoes in the season, as they will drain quickly, and the soil will warm up early.

Tomatoes are very tolerant of slightly acid soils and will do fine with a low pH of 5.5. Higher pH will facilitate more minerals and nutrients to be readily available for absorption by the plant, so it is best to keep the pH at 6.5. Tomatoes also do well on slopes, provided they get consistent moisture; otherwise, they will develop blossom end rot.

Types of Tomatoes

Before you plant, it’s important to decide what type of tomato you like.
They come in various sizes, shapes and colors.

What are your favorite kinds of tomatoes?

Do you like the large tomatoes, called beefsteak, which tend to be more watery, less meaty and grow round or oblong and are larger? (It’s clear a meat-eating person named them this way). I will call them large juicy tomatoes from now on. Upon slicing them, they can easily spread across your sandwich. These tend to weigh around a pound or more. The larger the fruit gets, the more prone to cracks. These are the varieties that take the longest to ripen.

Do you prefer those that have more pulp, are pear-shaped, have very little seeds and are often used to make sauce? These are called plum tomatoes. Used a lot in sauces, they have less juice and are usually mid-summer producing.

There are also more recent varieties, called grape tomatoes, which are more flavorful than cherry tomatoes.

They come in yellow, pink, red, orange, and various other colors that are definitely worth trying. The advantage for home gardeners is that the many varieties out there can be tried, even if one per season. The best is to grow several varieties that ripen at different times from early to late season.

Or is your preference to use the small cherry tomatoes, with no fuss, and for which you can avoid all those pesticides?

Another factor that will influence your decision is the space available to you. The height of tomatoes can be from two feet to eight or more feet. It all depends on the particular type you grow and how long your growing season is.

Three basic kinds: Determinate, Intermediate and Indeterminate Tomatoes

Tomatoes on a vine

Determinates are those that stop growing at a particular point. These do not need pruning, they usually are no taller than three feet and produce a smaller yield but can be sufficient for small spaces and containers, or varieties that are specially made for sauces. Once they stop growing, they will begin to flower and all the fruit comes in at once. These are ideal for those who want to can tomatoes and don’t want to have the season stretched out over a long period of time.
If you plant the small varieties in containers, just be aware they can dry out quickly. Therefore, regular watering is a must.

Intermediate and indeterminate will grow from four to eight or more feet; they need pruning and can be staked or left to grow on the ground.

Staking versus Non-Staking

If staked and pruned, the fruit will be less susceptible to diseases; sometimes they say the yield may be slightly reduced but the fruit will be larger. My experience is that the staking or cages may reduce the yield some, but not the pruning.

The staking or use of cages and pruning may delay the fruiting stage by a week or so.
When staked or caged, they are more susceptible to blossom end rot and sunscald.
If you allow them to spread on the ground, then you run into disease problems, as the fruit will develop against the soil and is thus more likely to get disease. Therefore, straw mulch is essential to help prevent this problem. Also, animals like slugs can easily reach the fruit on the ground.

They are also more susceptible to other diseases, as air circulation is minimal and funguses can easily develop.

It is almost impossible to prune them on the ground and your overall yields will be less, as more energy will go into the actual plant and leaf production versus fruit production. It will be hard to see or find fruit if the plant is left to spread on the ground.

If allowed to grow, they will continue to do so until frost hits them or the plant gets diseased and dies. Once they start to produce, you will see the various fruits at different stages of development, from flowering to having fully ripe fruit all in the same plant.

Bloom Length

Another decision that has to be made is the length of time to harvest, which is dependent on bloom time. There are early bloomers, – from 40 to 60 days, mid-summer bloomers, – from 60 to 80 days and late summer bloomers, – from 80 days on. These correspond to the dates to harvest that the packages mention. The dates to harvest will range from 50 days to 90 days. This is the necessary time that the temperature must be warm above 45°F but ideally in the 60’s or warmer. The warmer the better, as the fruit will ripen faster on the vine and taste better.

To learn more about growing vegetables sign up for Amritaculture 101 a comprehensive course on growing food with Nature on the Amrita Virtual Academy website.

Photo Credits:

First photo: Copyright © 2021 Marleny Franco – All Rights Reserved

Second: Ponyo Sakana

Third: Copyright © 2021 Marleny Franco – All Rights Reserved

Fourth: Copyright © 2021 Marleny Franco – All Rights Reserved

Fifth: Copyright © 2021 Marleny Franco – All Rights Reserved

Sixth: Gary Barnes