Thursday, January 26, 2012

How to Plant Tomatoes

Yesterday we talked about where tomatoes come from and today is how to plant them to get the most from your tomato patch:

Tomatoes like loose, fertile soil.  Prepare the garden in the fall by turning 1 inch (2.5 cm) of good compost and dry leaves into the top 4 inches (10 cm) of soil.  For most growing regions, it is best to start the tomato early inside, or from purchased transplants.  Sow indoors 4 weeks before the last frost and transplant after danger of frost. 

Start seeds indoors by pressing moist, potting soil into small planting cells or pots.  Using a pencil, drill a small hole in the soil and sow 3 seeds.  Lightly cover the seeds and place in a window that receives full sun or under growing lights.  Seeds will germinate in 1 to 2 weeks.  As they grow they need to be transplanted into larger, deeper pots.  Transplant before the plant begins to produce flowers.

Tomatoes are a long season crop, most maturing after 80 days.  In cooler climates tomatoes can be transplanted much earlier, before the last frost date.  This takes additional work but will be well worth the effort.  Start seeds indoors 8 weeks before the last frost and transplant 3 weeks before last frost date.  One week before transplanting, place a row cover or Wall-O-Water where the plant will be planted to warm the soil.  After planting, water the plant every other day and fertilize with a nitrogen rich, organic fertilizer to stimulate growth.  If using a Wall-O-Water, be sure to cover the top on frosty nights by stuffing some newspaper inside. 

Plant tomato seedlings 18 to 24 inches (45 to 50 cm) apart in rows spaced 36 inches (90 cm) for optimal production.  When planting, bury the plant up to the first set of true leaves, or even deeper, depending on the size of the plant.  Place either a cage around them after removing the row cover, or have posts ready for tying them up.   This will help keep vines and tomatoes off the ground, which is very important to control disease and bugs. 

Tomatoes need a lot of water when they are growing and forming fruits.  In the hot summer months when green tomatoes are on the vine, it is sometimes necessary to water once in the morning and once at night.  If tomatoes begin to split, they may be too wet.  On very hot days, tomato leaves tend to curl; this is normal unless there are brown spots on the leaves. 

Tomatoes need very little fertilizer if planted in rich soils.  Watch for slow growth, as this may indicate the need for nitrogen.  If you do fertilize, do so lightly, as it may stimulate the plant to grow instead of producing fruits.  Also, watch the fruits for brown spots on the blossom end, called blossom end rot.  This is typically a sign of calcium deficiency or low watering.

After tomatoes begin to blossom it is good to “stimulate” your plants.  Do this by running your hands through the leaves and gently shaking the vines.  Tomatoes are wind pollinated, and doing this encourages new flower production and fertilization.