Follow these 10 tips from our gardening expert, and enjoy growing your best tomato crop ever.
By Ann Wied
Waukesha County, Wisconsin
When planning a veggie garden, most people put tomatoes near the top of their list. Follow these tips, and you’re sure to enjoy a juicy, flavorful harvest, even if you’re a new gardener.
1. Pick the right location. Tomatoes do best where they get 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. And make sure they’re at least 60 feet away from any black walnut trees. If the two root systems come into contact, tomatoes wilt.
2. Buy the right plants. Choose plants that look healthy and varieties resistant to diseases prevalent in your area. This information is on the plant tag or in the garden catalog.
3. Don’t rush to plant. Check your area’s recommended planting date; planting too early means soil that’s too cool. That can slow growth, cause nutrient deficiencies or prevent fruit set.
4. Space plants at least 3 feet apart. It’s tempting to place small plants closer together. But those plants will grow, and they’ll need that space for air to circulate, helping leaves dry quickly to reduce the chance of disease. Plus, the additional space will make it easier to water, weed and harvest.
5. Mulch around the root zone. Use straw, dry grass clippings or compost, enough to cover any disease spores that might be in the soil and keep them from splashing up onto plants during rain or watering. An inch or two is fine; you can use up to 4 inches to keep the soil moist and reduce watering.
6. Water wisely. Water regularly to keep plants healthy and productive, prevent stress and keep nutrients moving through the plant. Don’t overdo—soil that’s too wet means rotted roots and cracked tomatoes. Water directly to the roots to keep the leaves dry and reduce risk of waterborne disease. This also conserves water, with less lost to evaporation.
7. Wait to fertilize. Too much nitrogen before fruit starts forming promotes leaf growth, not blossoms (which eventually become tomatoes). The main ingredients for vegetable fertilizer are nitrogen, for fast, green growth; phosphorous, for root development, rapid growth and quality flowers; and potassium, for disease resistance, strong stems and winter hardiness. Look for N, P and K on the label.
8. Support and prune plants. Stakes or cages keep healthy plants from collapsing onto the damp ground, where they’re vulnerable to disease. Supports also make watering, weeding and harvest easier. Pruning some stems, particularly if your plants are big and bushy, helps open the plant for better air circulation.
9. Watch for problems and act quickly. Remove affected leaves, or the entire plant if the infection is severe. Don’t compost them—diseased spores can survive and travel back to your garden. Remember, no single product will control all tomato diseases or pests. Figure out what insect or disease you’re dealing with, and get specific recommendations.
10. Rotate your planting location. Wait at least three years before planting tomatoes in the same spot to keep any vestiges of this year’s diseases out of next year’s soil. In fact, that’s a good idea for all your veggies. Consider sketching your garden each year to help you with next year’s layout.
About our expert: Ann Wied is consumer horticulture educator for the UW-Extension in Waukesha County, Wisconsin.
Photography by Konstanttin.Shutterstock.com