There is almost no greater gardening joy than plucking a tomato off the vine and tossing it in your mouth when it’s still warm from the sun. I adore growing my own tomatoes, though I wasn’t always great at it. My tomato plants were leggy and didn’t produce much fruit because I didn’t know what I was doing. Well never give up darlings because I grow damn fine tomatoes and I’m here to tell you how can too!
I prefer to grow cherry tomatoes because I find that they’re less likely to be eaten by birds but I do have several larger varieties this year. I love a mix so I grow red cherry tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes, and dark plum cherry tomatoes along with some that are the perfect size for burgers or Greek salad. I have six tomato plants in my garden this year and now, in the heat of summer, I’m harvesting about a cup of tomatoes every day.
Now remember I live in Dallas, Texas (zone 7) so I have a long tomato season. I planted mine in April but you’ll want to wait until any fear of the last freeze is gone. Unlike my winter vegetables, I prefer to transplant tomato plants rather than start from seeds. I grow my tomatoes in a large raised bed garden in full sun.
I know you’re not going to want to do what I’m about to tell you but just trust me here: pluck all of the branches and leaves off of your tomato plant except for the very top. Take the plant out of the container it comes in, fluff the roots a bit (as you would with any plant), and dig a hole deep enough to fit the (now bare) stem under ground. Why do this? Because the tomato will root along the WHOLE STEM but there’s no point in burying leaves.
I learned this from Kyle Hagerty at Urban Farmstead and I have never had better tomatoes in my life. This is how I’m planting tomatoes for the rest of time. My tomatoes this year have been so strong and that’s largely because of the intense root stem that this planting method allows. You help your tomatoes so much by doing this. I know it seems counterintuitive to immediately strip your tomato plant to practically nothing but it yields the best tomatoes.
I am devastated because I had a whole photo shoot this spring to demonstrate this and somehow the photos were deleted from my phone. (I know, I know.) I will update this article next spring to better show you what I mean.
One of the big keys to growing tomatoes is to not let them get too leggy. If your plant focuses on stems and leaves, it’s not focusing on growing fruit. Combat this by plucking off suckers as they grow. What are suckers? Look at each main branch where it intersects the stem. Pluck leaves that grow in that V area. This will also help shape the plant.
The most important thing about tomato maintenance is even watering, which can be really tricky in the springtime in a place like Dallas that gets intense downpours followed by bouts of drought. You can see in the green tomato photos that the plant was a little stressed but I was able to restore it easily with seaweed (more on that in a bit) and even watering in the summer. Try not to let your tomatoes dry out completely. Too little water followed by too much water causes tomatoes to split and no one wants that. Even twice a week until it gets very hot and then water every other day (always in the morning) to keep the soil evenly moist.
I use Seaweed Magic on my roses every three weeks (read about my rose feed program here) and at the same time I’m treating my roses, I go ahead and feed my tomatoes. You simply dilute your seaweed mixture according to the package instructions, put a half cup in a standard watering can, fill it with water, and water the tomatoes. The seaweed makes the tomatoes so incredibly sweet. Ask any of my friends who have had my homegrown tomatoes this year: they’re so sweet and delicious!
Give your plants time to grow before letting them set fruit. Tempting as it may be, pluck tomatoes off of brand new plants. You want the plant’s energy to go toward root production and growing a strong, healthy plant before setting fruit or you’ll be absolutely screwed later in the season.
When your plants reach three feet in height, cut off all of the branches at the base of the tomato plant. You want a bare 12″ off the ground. Keeping the first foot of plant free of stems and leaves reduces the risk of many pests and insects that might plague your plants.
Harvesting tomatoes is simple because they change color like magic as if to say, “Hey, gardener! I’m ready!” As soon as your tomatoes turn whatever color they’re supposed to be, pluck them. They’ll keep on the counter unwashed for about a week. Wash right before you use them.
I hope you’re inspired to grow your own tomatoes! Early maintenance of plucking the suckers means low-stress gardening all summer. Once you get the hang of tomatoes, they’re really an easy vegetable (technically fruit) to grow that can keep you in constant supply of vine-ripe tomatoes.
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