Top 12 Tomato Tips

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It's no contest: The tomato is the most popular veggie grown in the United States. With so many varieties available, it's no wonder more than 35 million gardeners will plant tomatoes this growing season.

It's easy to join their ranks and make your backyard the neighborhood Tomatoville. Whether you prefer a beautiful beefsteak or a cheery cherry, you'll soon be growing the tastiest tomatoes on the block. Just follow these tips, then rustle up some recipes for fresh marinara sauce, soup, chutney and the like. Those tomatoes will be on the vine before you know it.

1. Start with seeds.

Buying transplants is the easiest way to grow tomatoes. But if you really want to explore the many distinctive varieties available, you're better off starting seeds indoors.

Six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, drop seeds into pots filled with seed-starting or well-drained potting mix. When the seedlings sprout two sets of leaves, transplant them into bigger containers.

2. Seek the heat.

As seedlings grow, they need lots of light and heat. Put them in a sunny window, or place an artificial light 4 to 6 inches above the seedlings to encourage stout stems.

To prepare seedlings for planting, set them outside for a few hours daily in early spring. When temperatures stay above 55°F, it's time to plant.

3. Show your support.

Keep your tomatoes clean and disease-free by supporting them with stakes, trellises or cages.

Vining (also known as "indeterminate") tomatoes will continue to grow until killed by frost. Use at least a 5- to 8-foot-tall cage or a trellis to keep them off the ground.

Bush varieties (also known as "determinate" tomatoes) are great in any garden. But they're especially good choices for containers or small spaces. Use small stakes or cages to support them.

4. Know your dirt.

Tomatoes grow well in soils with a slightly acidic pH level of 5.8 to 7, but they adapt nicely to slightly alkaline soils, too. If your soil is sandy or claylike, work in 2 to 3 inches of compost.

Have your soil tested and follow the recommendations for best results. Avoid nitrogen-heavy fertilizers that produce lots of leaves and little fruit.

5. Quench their thirst.

The best thing you can do for tomatoes is water them consistently. This can prevent leaf-end roll, blossom-end rot and something known as "cat facing"—misshapen cracks that appear on the stem end of the fruit.

Make sure your tomatoes get at least an inch of water a week. Watering in the morning helps prevent disease and leaf burn. And don't water the leaves.

6. Mulch 'em.

Mulch keeps soil moist, protects low-growing tomatoes from resting on the ground and helps prevent soil from splashing onto the foliage after a soaking, which spreads disease. It controls weeds and keeps the soil cool.

Use organic mulches, such as leaves, straw or marsh hay, or herbicide-free grass clippings. As these materials break down, they enrich the soil and improve its structure.

7. Don't get suckered.

Remove suckers, those little shoots that appear in the crotch between the stem and branch when training tomatoes to a single stake. Suckers develop into fruiting stems, creating a larger plant that's hard to contain to a single stake. Removing them will give you fewer but earlier fruits. Leave the suckers on tomatoes grown in cages or sprawled on the ground for a larger harvest. And always leave the leaves, which produce the nutrients that makes tomatoes delicious.

8. Beat disease.

Prevent blight, a common fungal disease, by mulching, rotating plants, and staking or trellising.

9. Think outside the veggie bed.

No room for a big vegetable garden? Try growing tomatoes in your flower beds instead. The colorful fruits are a pretty addition to any landscape.

10. Focus your energy.

About a month before the first frost, pluck new flower clusters off tomato plants to direct energy into the fruits already set on the vine.

At room temperature, fully ripe tomatoes keep their flavor for up to two days. To speed the ripening process for less mature fruit, put tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple. The ethylene gas released by the fruit helps your tomatoes ripen faster.

11. Cool it.

Tomato growers are often rewarded with more than they—and family and friends—can eat. You can store ripe tomatoes at room temperature for a few days. To keep them longer, store in a dry, fairly cool location. But make sure your storage space isn't too cold: When the temperature drops below 55°F, tomatoes start to lose their flavor.

A rule of thumb says you'll need two tomato plants for every tomato eater in your household. But if you plan on canning, four per person is a better bet.

12. Try heirlooms.

Heirloom varieties aren't hard to grow nor hard to find. They're just great-tasting tomatoes.

Save and refrigerate the seeds of heirlooms until next year. They will maintain their excellent flavor and appearance if you start with seeds collected from a mature plant in your garden. Popular heirlooms include Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and Black Krim.

More Heirloom Varieties:

  • Amish Paste: An indeterminate heirloom variety, this plant produces juicy, red 6- to 8-ounce fruits. They're very meaty, mildly tart and great for sauces or eating straight off the vine. Matures 85 days from transplanting.
  • Green Zebra: This variety isn't the biggest of the crop, but it will make quite an impression in a mixed salad. The fruit is green with light-green stripes and has a light citrus flavor. Matures 75 to 80 days from transplanting.
  • Powers Heirloom: More than 100 years old, this determinate variety is certified organic. It produces heavy yields of 3- to 5-ounce yellow paste tomatoes with great flavor. Matures 85 to 90 days from transplanting.
  • Italian Heirloom: One of the most productive varieties around, this plant produces fruits that weigh more than a pound each. They've very flavorful, easy to peel and ideal for both slicing and canning. Matures 70 to 80 days from transplanting.

Source: Birds & Blooms "Grow Veggies for Less"