Nothing says summer quite like fresh, ripe tomatoes, and fortunately, they’re incredibly easy to grow. There are varieties that will thrive in just about every region, even Alaska and as many different types of tomatoes as you can imagine. Do you want the classic “beefsteak” tomato, or a petite cherry tomato? Plan to stick with heirloom varieties, or do you want the picturesque dark red? Want one harvest or a whole summer of fruits?
It’s not too late to plant tomatoes for a late summer harvest; most varieties reach maturity in 50 to 90 days. You will need a full 6 to 8 hours of sun to get the best tomatoes, and rich, well-drained soil that you water regularly. When you bring your nursery plants home, remove the bottom two sets of leaves, dig a hole deep enough to cover the stem up to the bottom of the remaining leaves and set the plant firmly in place. Leave 2 to 3 feet between most tomato plants if using stakes or cages; you can also just let them grow, but that takes up more ground space.
For container gardening, you want a large pot that will easily accommodate your tomato plant; 20 gallons is about right for most tomatoes, though many cherry tomatoes can handle smaller pots. Make sure there is good drainage and well-treated soil.
Keep your tomatoes watered well, but let them dry out between waterings. You can place a collar around the seedlings to help prevent cutworms as well. Inspect your plants regularly and remove any pests by hand. Tomatoes are traditionally staked, or grown in a cage; some varieties do well without any external support and many varieties like to sprawl. Be aware that if you let your tomatoes grow along the ground, there is greater risk of disease, pests and rot.
Tomatoes will be very happy in rich soil (that’s why you have compost, right?) and usually don’t need additional fertilizers. If you are vermicomposting, many gardeners swear by “worm tea” on their tomato plants.
You can pinch off small suckers that grow between the central stem and the branches or leave them be. Pinch them for larger fruit, leave them for a larger harvest. Use soft ties to secure your plants to the support stakes or cage. Tomato TLC – lightly brush the flowers with fingertips or a paintbrush to aid in pollination. When it comes to pests, pick off the hornworms by hand, and rely on organic methods for the rest of them. Consider netting or caging your tomatoes if birds, squirrels, or gophers are a problem.
When it comes time to harvest, pick your fruit when it’s firm and fully ripe (color isn’t always an indicator) and store on the counter, not the refrigerator. If it gets late in the season and frost threatens, you can pick fruits and let them ripen indoors, or pull the entire plant and hang it upside down in a warm spot until the fruits ripen.
Or, you could make fried green tomatoes and other specialty dishes that use unripe fruits.
Either way, congratulations, you’ve now got a wealth of wonderful, wholesome and organic produce at your fingertips!