Tomatoes are one of summer’s stars – frankly, a winter tomato is barely worth eating. Growing a tomato plant was daunting and intimidating to me when I first started. But I forged ahead, and bought a couple of cherry tomato plants, transplanted them into a bigger pot, and waited. I found an easy way to fertilize called tomato stakes, which are a little stick you push into the dirt to slowly release food for the plant – so easy.
Cherry tomatoes are easy to grow, give earlier gratification as they ripen sooner, and are prolific. But do not discount regular tomatoes or even beefsteaks, which can get quite large. Granted, they take longer to grow and ripen, but are hugely satisfying and so tasty! Over a few years, I have expanded the varieties of tomatoes I grow, graduating from plants to seeds. The varieties to choose from are plentiful: yellow, orange, purple and almost black cherry tomatoes (one is called Black Cherry!) as well as red. So experiment! I grow new varieties every year just to see what they are like. Subscribe to seed companies’ catalogues – there is nothing better than reading all the seed catalogues in the dead of winter and planning your garden with new experiments. Try a few plants for the first year, but don’t limit yourself to just what is in the garden centre – seeds open a whole new world up to you. Seeds obviously take longer, but you can start them indoors a couple of months ahead under a grow light or in a sunny window.
When transplanting, choose a big, deep pot and a good soil to start – it will pay off later on. Fill the pot and bury the plant as deep as you can, removing all leaves that will be below the surface under the dirt. Don’t worry about removing leaves, the deeper you bury the plant, the better, it will develop a strong root system this way. I stir in some tea leaves (I save and dry some for a month or so prior to planting) to supply the plant with nitrogen. Not too much, or the plant will have lots of foliage, but not too many fruits. I use about one to two tablespoons per plant, depending on ow large the pot is. Add some eggshells for calcium. Use cooked eggshells, or boil raw eggshells in water for 5-10 minutes, then dry and crumble. Stir in a granulated fertilizer such as ActiSol, a pelleted chicken manure that will also help to repel squirrels or use one of the afore-mentioned fertilizer stakes. Water thoroughly. Make sure to keep your tomatoes watered well. It is ok if they look a little wilted at times in very hot weather, just water them if they start to look sad. It is always best to water first thing in the morning to allow them to re-hydrate before the strong sun comes out. If they are in a very sunny location during very hot weather, they may need watering twice in a day. Adding eggshells and keeping them consistently hydrated will help prevent blossom end rot, a large black spot on the bottom of the tomato fruit.
When watering, do it close to the stem. Try not to get water on the leaves or allow backsplash of dirt. Adding a layer of mulch can protect the plant and lessen the need for more frequent watering. Trim back any leaves that are touching or near the surface of the dirt. I cut them back so that about four inches of stem are bare above the dirt. These two simple steps, cutting back the leaves and watering at soil level, will help prevent soil borne diseases, as will adding that layer of mulch.
I also plant a few basil seeds or a plant with each tomato. Your tomatoes will taste better for it, plus the basil helps repel insects. I also add lettuce seeds at the base of the tomato. They are beneficial to each other – as the lettuce grows, it shades the bottom of the tomato, and in the heat of the day, the tomato shades the lettuce and helps prevent it from bolting!
So, now your tomato plant is thriving, and starting to grow little yellow flowers. Those flowers need pollination in order to grow a tomato. Fortunately, tomatoes are self-pollinating. If you are growing them in a greenhouse, shake the plants every day, but otherwise the wind will move the plants enough to pollinate. Teeny tomatoes will start to grow, it is so fun to watch the progression. Be sure that when your cherry tomatoes start to ripen that you pick them before they are too ripe. Sometimes they can split as you pull them off the plants. Otherwise, I have pulled fairly green fruits and let them ripen inside with no problems. I usually try to let them at least get partially ripe before picking. Store them on their “shoulders” (the top where the stem was) as they ripen. Never put tomatoes in the fridge, ripe or unripe. The texture will become mealy and unpleasant.
If your tomato is growing rapidly, be sure to stake it as it grows, as it can be more difficult to do as it gets bigger. Cherry tomatoes can grow to be over six feet tall! I use either bamboo or covered metal stakes and tie it to the plant using tomato tape or clips. The longstanding rule has always been to pinch off at least some of the suckers – tiny little leaf stems that grow between two branches. This does two things, it keeps the foliage in check and it also reduces the overall yield. Now the new theory is to not break them all off, as the extra foliage can help shade the plant, and the yield can be higher. I am trying a bit of both this year. Tomato-growing is always a learning experience. As your plant gets larger, and especially near the end of the season, it makes sense to trim off extra foliage and flowers that will not have time to produce fruits. Also, near the end of the season, the plant needs all its’ energy to ripen the existing fruits so the extra foliage is depriving the fruits of that needed energy.
There are two types of tomatoes – determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes, such as Tumbler, one of my faves, do not require pinching or pruning, as they have an already-determined set of tomatoes in their DNA. Indeterminate tomatoes, such as most cherry tomatoes, will continue to grow and flower indefinitely in the right conditions, so they can get very tall and out-of-control. So pinching suckers may be necessary on an indeterminate tomato. Just be careful not to over-prune – the plant needs foliage to shade fruits from strong summer sun.
If you are lucky, and at the end of the season, you have a bumper crop of green tomatoes and frost threatens (likely, if you are in Calgary in September), pick them and let them ripen in a box away from the light. Take a few out at a time to expose to light and ripen. Sometimes, they all ripen at once, but there are always different avenues for using them.
Recipes and ideas for using that crop in Tomatoes, Part 2!