My Ultimate Tomato Growing Tips

ultimate tomato growing tips

Tomatoes are arguably one of the most beloved vegetables (or fruits, depending on who you ask) in the gardening world. And i pomodori are an absolute must for any Italian giardino. 

In my opinion there is nothing that you can grow in your backyard that will give you a more authentic taste – compared to what you can buy at the grocery store – than a tomato. With their vibrant colours, juicy flesh, and versatility in the kitchen tomatoes are more than just a staple of my garden, they are stars of the show. Don't believe me? Check out the 4 lbs monster tomato grown one year and a record 48 lbs of fruit off a single plant grown another. 

Learning to master how to grow these delicious fruits requires more than just planting seeds and hoping for the best. Because of the different varieties, specific requirements, and techniques to help them grow, they aren't for beginners. Growing tomatoes is an artform and to ensure a bountiful harvest, here are some saucy secrets you need to know:

giant heirloom tomato harvest


Choose the Right Varieties
: Before you start planning, consider the type of tomatoes you want to grow. Beyond the general cherry, slicing and sauce fruit types, there are two basic categories of the plants themselves. Determinate varieties grow to a certain size, tend to be more compact and produce fruit all at once, making them ideal for small spaces, container gardening and cooking up a big batch of jarred passata. Indeterminate varieties, on the other hand, continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the season, making them a great choice for larger gardens.

Grow Them From Seed: There are over 10,000 different varieties of tomato. If you want to try more than the typical 10-12 types you'll find at the nursery, consider buying seeds instead of seedlings. Tomatoes need to be started indoors 8-10 weeks before transplanting outside. Using grow lights and potting them up halfway through their indoor phase will give you strong, healthy seedlings for an earlier harvest once they go in the garden.

Choose a Sunny Spot: Like all fruit-bearing plants, tomatoes thrive in full sunlight. Make sure to choose a spot in your garden that receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sun per day. Insufficient sunlight can result in leggy vines and poor fruit development.

Prepare The Soil: Tomatoes prefer well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Before planting in the garden, amend your soil with compost or aged manure to improve both the structure and health. A great mix of both those materials is this from Miracle-Gro Organics. This prep work can be done in the fall or the spring. 

Transplanting The Right Way: There are two competing methods to transplanting tomatoes, though they do share some similarities. Any part of the tomato stem that comes in contact with soil will grow additional roots, so to encourage a strong plant they should be transplanted deep in the soil, or laid on their side in a trench and covered with soil. To do either one, remove any leaf branches on the lower 1/3rd of the plant when transplanting. Which method you choose depends on factors specific to your garden, such climate, irrigation as the depth of quality soil. If you want my take on which is better, watch here. Before placing the seedling into the hold or trench, drop in a handful of pure hen manure pellets for an early boost of nitrogen and calcium. Tomato plants should be spaced 18" apart to ensure adequate airflow and prevent overcrowding.

Provide Support: Most tomato varieties benefit from some form of support, such as stakes, strings, or trellises. Keeping the vines upright makes pruning and harvesting easier. But even more importantly, supporting the plants improves airflow around them which reduces the risk of disease and aids in ripening fruit evenly. The best type of support to use depends on tomato variety, pruning method, and your garden layout. But in all cases it is best to install supports when you transplant to avoid disturbing the roots later on.

Water Wisely: Tomatoes need consistent moisture to thrive and ensure enough nutrient uptake, especially during the flowering and fruiting stages. Instead of watering lightly and frequently, it's best to water them deeply and evenly, twice a week. The soil should be kept moist below the top inch, but not waterlogged. Avoid overhead watering and splashing from the soil onto the plants, as it can promote fungal diseases. Instead, water at the base of the plants early in the morning giving time for things to dry out. Aim for approximately 5 litres of water per plant, per week. Inadequate watering is the major cause of issues with fruit development – including blossom end rot.

Fertilize Regularly
: To ensure healthy plant growth and an overflow of fruit fertilize your tomato plants regularly throughout the growing season. Use a balanced water-soluable fertilizer approximately every two weeks. Phosphorus is the most important nutrient for root and flower development early in the season. To boost this in your soil, spread bone meal (here's the brand I use) around the base of young plants. Once fruits form, potassium becomes the integral nutrient for better tasting tomatoes. As you start to harvest ripe tomatoes, reduce feeding to once a month until the end of the season. 

Prune for Success
: This is where tomato growing really turns from science to art. While not strictly necessary, pruning has many benefits for your tomato plants – including to improve airflow, reduce disease risk, and focus the plant's energy on more and larger fruit production. But what and how to prune comes down to variety and the method you're using you support your plants. Generally speaking it's highly recommended to remove all leaf branches and excess growth from the lower 12" of the plant. And of course any diseases or damaged foliage you find. The removal of suckers (small, flowering shoots that form in the leaf axils) is more controversial. I prefer to allow one or two suckers to develop into secondary stems and then remove all other suckers from large fruiting tomato plants. For smaller grape and cherry tomatoes, the uppermost suckers can be allowed to develop into additional fruit clusters. To get a expert pruning lesson that could help you grow 30% more tomatoes, watch this trick. 

pruning tomatoes for airflow and plant health

Monitor for Pests and Diseases: Keep a close eye on your tomato plants for signs of discolouration and stress. Common insect threats include aphids and hornworms – which can be dealt with through manual removal or encouraging predatory insects to play their role. Browning leaves or yellow spots are common symptoms of viruses, fungus and bacterial issues such as wilt or blight. Identify the issue as best you can to act promptly at the first sign of trouble. Pruning and fungicide applications are the best methods of control. Proper sanitation practices, such as cleaning tools between pruning, removing plant debris and rotating crops around the garden, can also help prevent problems now and in the future.

Harvest at the Right Time
: There are various stages of tomato ripening from the first blush of colour (called breaker) to fully ripe. When is best to pick can depend on the type of tomato and usage. For the best flavour and texture allow them to achieve at least 70% of their ripeness. Sauce tomatoes taste best when harvested at full ripeness. Tomatoes that overripe and left on the plants are more prone to cracking and splitting, especially after a watering. Also consider that even after harvesting, tomatoes continue to ripen naturally. If your tomatoes are being enjoyed by critters more than you, harvest the fruits at the first sign of colour and allow them to finish the process inside.

tomatoes at different stages of rippening
Store Them Properly: NEVER store tomatoes in the fridge. Instead, keep them in a low basket at room temperature but out of direct sunlight. Cooling tomatoes down will stop the ripening process and significantly change their taste. Only store cracked, damaged or cut tomatoes in the fridge to prevent the rapid growth of mold. Tomatoes can be washed and frozen whole, or peeled and jarred for making sauces and soups well beyond the end of the season. 

By trying out some of my top tomato tips, you can grow healthy, productive plants for a endless harvest of delicious, homegrown fruit. Whether you're an experienced Nonno or just starting out with your gardening journey, there's nothing quite like the satisfaction of picking a ripe tomato straight from the vine and savoring it with some salt, basil and extra virgin olive oil.

Buon giardinaggio!

2 comments

  • Thank you for your time and sharing your knowledge.

    Donna
  • Thank you for sharing all your tips tricks and knowledge.

    Nora Lazaris

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