Are you a gardener looking for a list of tips for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes? If so, you’ve come to the right place.
Every year come late January / early February my gardener wife turns into what parents with little kids recognize as the “pre-Christmas four year old”, only instead of “visions of sugar plums” dancing in her head, she’s got visions of exceptionally beautiful tomatoes doing the Cha Cha in that noggin of hers. I blame all those enticing seed catalogs that show up in the mailbox this time of year, the ones she’s got her nose stuck in just before nodding off to sleep. Yes, it’s more than a little disconcerting, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that awful a recurring problem to have, especially when I stop to consider all the delicious marinara sauces and salsas that I know to be in my not-too-distant future.
Lest we forget what we’re talking about here, the tomato tops the list of most popular veggies grown by home gardeners across the country. Nine out of ten gardeners (more precisely roughly 86 percent) will grow tomatoes. Many buy starter plants from nurseries or the box stores, others start them from seed. Mrs. K is in the latter camp.
Anyway, without further ado, a countdown of Mrs. K’s top ten tips for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes.
Tip #10: Plant in Ways that Establish an Abundance of Roots
We like to start our tomato plants in late January or early February in a greenhouse, to give them a bit of a head-start in the growing cycle. One of the issues we’ve found with doing this is that the plants can become somewhat leggy (garden speak for tall and spindly), hardly a desirable quality. But the nice thing is that this can be turned from an issue into an advantage. How so? Well, it turns out that when a tomato plant is transplanted into the ground, any extra stem can be turned into rooting surface simply by making sure it’s in the soil. (Yes, all of those fine hairs you see sitting along the stem? Those are all potential roots just waiting to be placed in a nice comfy environment in which to grow).
Now for the fun part of this tip. It turns out that the actual implementation of what I’m talking about here, placing the long stem in the ground, can be done in one of two ways: the easy way, or the really really REALLY easy way. (For those who may not know, I’m all about taking the path of least resistance, so you can probably guess which of these two approaches I prefer).
Let’s begin with a bit of detail for each of these methods. Begin by removing the bottom leaves, anything beyond the first six or seven inches at the top of the plant. (This is done no matter which of the two approaches you decide to take). The first planting option is easy enough: just dig a hole deep enough to hold roughly 80% of the plant, and deposit the plant into the hole. Yeah this works just fine, but depending on how many plants you’re putting in the ground this fine spring day, it can end up involving a whole lot of unnecessary digging. Which is why I prefer going with option two, which begins three days prior to doing any digging whatsoever, with us leaving the tomato plants in question out on the ground, laying on their side, horizontally, in full sun, still in their pots. It looks as though we had our tomato plants standing there ready to go into the ground and somebody came along and tipped them over. That’s good. In two or three days you’ll notice that the top few inches of the plant have reoriented themselves and are now bending upwards towards the sun. At this point, dig a shallow trench (emphasis on the word “shallow”) for the entire horizontally positioned stem of the plant, and plant accordingly. (It usually makes most sense to trench at an incline, so that the potted end of the plant is buried a little deeper than the top, but you get the idea). Placing a good chunk of the plant in the ground using either of these approaches will result in your tomatoes taking root quite well, being very happy with you, and giving you lots and lots of delicious fruit.
Tip #9: Give Root Growth a Boost
Phosphorous is extremely important during the initial establishment of a plant, which is to say the rooting phase. It ensures the building of strong, healthy plant roots. You probably know that phosphorous is the P component in a fertilizer’s NPK percentage numbers, so it’s right up there in importance with Nitrogen (the N value) and Potassium (the K value). We always add a bit of extra phosphorus when putting tomato plants in the ground, to give them that little extra boost in the rooting department.
Avoid Burning Roots
All of the additives in tips 6 thru 9 get placed in the garden box or planting area when the plant is put into the ground. During transplant, the hole or trench is dug a bit deeper than is absolutely necessary, and into that hole is added each of the items mentioned. A buffering of soil an inch or two deep is then placed on top of the amendments, to keep new plant roots from getting burned. (Hey, remember the last time you burned your tongue eating some of your favorite soup? Yes the soup is good for you and yes it’s yummy, but you’d have enjoyed it a whole lot more if you’d let it cool down a bit before you dug in, no? Well there you go…).
Tip #8: Use a Well Rounded Organic Fertilizer for Tomatoes
In the “create a comfy environment in which to grow” category, use of an organic veggie fertilizer is always a solid place to start. Tomatoes require a wide range of both secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium, sulfur) and micronutrients (these last, zinc, iron, boron, chloride, molybdenum, copper and manganese, in much smaller quantities). Calcium improves cell health, protects a plant from disease, aids in the prevention of bruised fruit, and ends up being instrumental in allowing a plant to produce highly nutritious fruit. (See also tip #5 which describes the use of eggshells). Magnesium is important for the entire photosynthesis process, whose workings we know to be vital to a plant’s overall health and well being. Sulfur provides for proper proteins and amino acids. A deficiency in either magnesium or sulfur will hurt a plant’s growth, showing up in the yellowing of its leaves. Finally, molybdenum helps tomato plants make use of nitrogen efficiently, zinc works to regulate a plant’s growth and promote good sugar usage, and boron assists a plant in making use of the nutrients it needs during the development of its fruit and seed. So select a solid overall organic fertilizer designed for tomatoes and follow the application directions on its packaging.
Tip #7: Provide a Nice Supply of Nitrogen
For heavy feeders like tomatoes, amending the soil properly cannot be over stressed. Yes they’re a bit pampered, but did I mention these are the most popular plants in the household garden? I know, I know, you love all your garden plants equally and don’t play favorites. Well, feel free to pamper them all by giving each what they ask for. These tips are focused on what our beloved tomatoes ask for. (Hey, it’s a list of tips for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes, after all…).
We make use of alfalfa pellets to supply a slow release source of nitrogen to young tomato plants. As I keep mentioning, tomatoes are notoriously heavy feeders, so they appreciate having bigger portions of nitrogen on which to munch. A healthy handful of pellets sprinkled about within the hole that will act as the new home for your tomato plant, that’s all that’s needed.
Tip #6: Use Azomite to Promote Solid Growth
Azomite is another useful soil additive. A bit of research and customer testimony indicates that Azomite helps tomato plants in a number of concrete ways:
- It increases crop yield, grade out and quality
- It increases nutrient availability in the soil, which in turn increases uptake in plants
- It improves a plant’s natural ability to handle stress
- It increases a plant’s capacity to withstand water supply and temperature fluctuations
We notice a significant difference in a plant’s growth rate and vigor when Azomite is used, which is why we recommend mixing a small amount in with some compost when transplanting. (And we do mean a small amount. Don’t go overboard, a little goes a long way with this stuff…).
Tip #5: Use Ground Up Dry Egg Shells as an Inoculant
Adding pulverized egg shells into the soil in which a tomato plant is placed is also a very good idea. This too should be done at the time the plant is moved from its comfy pot into the ground. What does this do? It keeps the plant from coming down with blossom end rot, which is the bane of any half serious tomato grower.
For those new to gardening, blossom end rot is that affliction that hits tomatoes and peppers. It shows up as a big rotten black spot on the “blossom end” (the bottom) of the fruit. Nothing upsets a grower quite like seeing an otherwise beautiful piece of fruit ruined by something that’s easily preventable. The root cause of the problem? Calcium deficiency. Yes, calcium is especially important to those veggies in the Solanaceae family of plants. Egg shells provide us with a ready supply of calcium, so why waste ’em? Mrs. K keeps a large container in the corner of the kitchen counter in which go all cracked egg shells. She let’s them dry there for some time (a couple of weeks), then grinds ’em up into a nice powder using her handy dandy food processor thingy, dumping the powder into a very large mason jar. (In a time crunch, I’ve seen her pop shells into the oven for a little bit to dry ’em out). By the time early April rolls around and our young tomato plants are ready to go out into the real world, we’ve got a nice supply of calcium rich powder to help get them started right.
Ok, I know what some of you are thinking, because I thought it too: “Hey, that’s a lot of work. Maybe we should just stick a whole egg in there and call her done. Or perhaps just use the cracked egg shells as is.” Sorry, but shortcuts aren’t gonna work; what’s needed is egg shell that has been dried and pulverized. The calcium powder is what gets absorbed quickly into the soil, and is just what your tomato plant needs to keep the BER blues away.
One final note. We hear that those colorful heartburn pills can also be used for this. (If you look at the list of active ingredients, you’ll see that these tablets are nothing but calcium carbonate). Makes perfect sense, but we haven’t tried it because Mrs. K likes the “reuse, no waste” aspect of the egg shell powder. Besides, if our tomatoes are taking all of the calcium that’s meant for us, what do we do when we need some? Anyway, feel free to try this easy alternative if you’re so inclined.
Tip #4: Use Gibberellins When a Plant Starts To Flower
Once a plant has established itself in its new home and reaches the early flowering stage, it’s a good idea to shift gears and go from promoting strong roots to encouraging flower and fruit production.
Gibberellins are plant hormones that regulate various developmental processes, including stem elongation, germination, dormancy, flower development, and the growth of leaves and fruit. One of the longest known classes of plant hormone, GAs act as chemical messengers during various processes that include waking from dormancy and other aspects of germination. So GA use definitely belongs on our list of tips for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes.
We make use of kelp meal to provide a source of Gibberellins to our flowering tomato plants. Kelp contains gibberellin-type compounds, so its introduction encourages flowering. A dusting of a third to up to a half a cup of kelp meal around the base of a plant is all that’s needed.
Tip #3: Apply Epson Salt for a Boost of Magnesium
This tip isn’t just for tomatoes, it can also be used to help with the growing of peppers and roses. Just at the point when the plant is starting to produce fruit (or buds in the case of roses), you’re going to spray the leaves with a bit of salty water. There’s a simple recipe: mix into 4 cups of warm water 1 teaspoon of epson salt. Place the mixture into one of those spray bottles and apply liberally to the leaves of the plant. For best results, apply a second dose in 10 to 12 days. No, this isn’t a “dance around the plant naked in the light of a full moon” kind of thing, it’s actual science: the plant will produce more fruit in response to the boost of magnesium you just gave it. Cool, huh?
Prune Young Plants
Pruning young plants can enhance plant structure and produce increased yields. For tomatoes, this is especially
applicable to indeterminate varieties (those that produce and ripen fruit throughout the season). When done correctly,
pruning helps a tomato plant direct its energies in the most appropriate ways, which is to say ways in line with what
we’d like to see happen…
Tip #2: Apply Baking Soda for Sweeter Fruit
This tip points to the importance of little things like soil pH, and is especially good for determinant plants because they set fruit all at once. Just around the time when fruit production is at its peak, sprinkle a small amount of baking soda on the soil around the tomato plant, being careful not to get it on the plant itself. (As an alternative, you can dissolve a teaspoon of baking soda in a gallon of water and dump that around the plant). What you’re doing here is adjusting the pH level of the soil, lowering its acidity level. The result? Tomatoes produced by the plant in question will be more sweet and less tart. And who doesn’t love a sweet tomato?
Tip #1: Use Healthy Seeds for Healthy Plants
Finally, in keeping with the finest traditions of countdowns everywhere (flash back to Dave Letterman’s famous, or perhaps infamous Top 10 List, complete with light drum roll going in the background at the end), the number one tip for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes? Stated in three simple words:
Yup, this final tip in our “list of tips for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes” applies to absolutely everything a gardener grows from seed. And from an organization named Silicon Valley Seeds, you should have seen it coming! But what constitutes good seed, exactly? Well, that question can be answered via a short list of some of the things we look for in “good” seeds.
- Large seeds. Remember that in the seed realm, upwards of 80% of a seed’s volume is dedicated to food storage for the young sprout. So size does matter.
- Fresh seeds. It’s a viability thing. Seeds harvested within a four season window are generally considered best.
- Well processed seeds. Seed needs to be cleaned and dried properly in order for it to have a good shelf life.
Learn to winnow dry seed using air. Learn to do the same for wet seed using water. If you get rid of the junk stuff, you’ll end up being more successful when sowing.
- Well stored seeds. Seed stored properly will remain viable for longer periods of time. Keep seed stored in a cool, dark, dry place, and maintain a good record of when the seeds were harvested and from how many plants they were taken.
- Seeds saved from the things you like. Saved seed should be from fruits and plants that exhibit desirable qualities. What constitutes a “desirable quality”? Well, dear reader, that is completely up to you. (To borrow a line from a certain credit card company we hear advertised all the time, seed stewardship has its privileges…).
- Seeds from trusted sources. For seed obtained from other folks, be sure it’s seed that has been organically grown and processed, and that it’s coming from a reputable source, which is another way of saying from people or companies that understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. (Refer to our handy list of reputable organic seed sources).
So there you have it. Our favorite tips for growing healthier, tastier tomatoes, all fairly straight forward things that one can do to help their tomato plants produce an abundance of tasty, healthful tomatoes.
Happy growing. And even happier eating!