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Tips for Growing the Perfect Tomato

Last weekend, I bought something at the farmers’ market that got me so excited I went way over budget and didn’t even wait until I got home to dig into my purchase. What got me so amped up amid crowds of pushy people before I’d even finished my morning coffee? The advent of tomato season, of course.

Farmers’ market tomatoes are a different breed—figuratively and often literally—than the hard, packaged ones in the grocery stores’ year-round produce section. They’re multicolored, they range in size from that of a Ping-Pong ball to that of a grapefruit, and the taste (oh, the taste!) is fruity, sweet, and silky all at the same time. My ode to fresh tomatoes would be one of undying love if it weren’t for the price: my breathless purchase set me back ten bucks. This got me thinking: could I grow my own tomatoes and feed my craving for the fruit while saving money—and cultivate my own green thumb at the same time?

To find out what it really takes to grow a good tomato, I consulted Penny Granberg, a grower who, according to local opinion, consistently grows the farmers’ markets’ juiciest, most flavorful tomatoes.

Should Any Home Gardener Give It a Try?
Turns out, tomatoes are one of the top crops in home gardens, since they’re easy to grow, compared with other fruits and veggies. And don’t think that tomato growing is just for Californians or Floridians—tomatoes are cold-tolerant to a certain extent. To help out gardeners nationwide with just this dilemma, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed the plant hardiness zone map, which divides North America into eleven zones, ranked by how cold they are (zone one being the coldest). If you look up a plant, like a certain type of tomato, it will tell you whether that plant will survive in your region. For example, one type of tomato might be cold-tolerant to zone seven, so if you live in zones seven through eleven, that’s a type that’s worth a try.

There are two basic types of tomatoes from which to choose: determinant varieties, which stop growing new vines when flowering begins (leading to a large, single crop), or indeterminate varieties, which continue to add new growth throughout the season (usually from midsummer until the first frost).

Plan for Planting
Feeling ambitious enough to start from seed? “Plant them in April,” recommends Granberg, whose Rose Lane Farm in California grows about 1,800 tomato plants each year. “Otherwise, a late frost will ruin them.” Granberg says it’s best to start from seed, but if you lack the timing or patience (or green thumb, like I do), she says, buying a young plant from a reputable nursery is also a fine way to get started, especially for first-timers.

Granberg recommends planting in April because it’s crucial to wait until any possibility of frost has passed. Check with your local garden store to find out an ideal planting time for your area.

Room to Grow
We associate tomatoes with summer because they’re warm-weather produce, which means they must be started indoors in most states. After the six- to eight-week period in which plants become transplant-ready, they can be moved to outdoor soil that’s around a quarter-inch deep in climates of sixty-five to eighty degrees.

Where should you plant the seeds? In sandy-loam soil, says Granberg—and add both compost and fertilizer, which bring soil to a balanced state ideal for growth. “I’m not a fan of growing the plant in pots. Tomatoes need a place where the roots can go deep.” This means that once the plants sprout in the planter, you need to transplant them to a garden. If you buy the plant already sprouted, transplant it right away. Getting the soil just right is crucial—it’s the food for your future tomatoes. Buy some garden soil designed for fruit and flowers, with a pH level between 6.0 and 7.0.

If you’re lucky enough to have options in terms of where to plant, leave ample room around the plants to ensure they get plenty of sun and also shelter from wind, like against the wall of a house, says Ideally, a location that will provide morning to midafternoon sun is best, since late-in-the-day sun can be hotter and end up burning the plant.

The plant’s stage of growth should determine how often and much it’s watered. “Water it every other day until it gets going, then twice a week,” says Granberg. What’s the appropriate amount of H2O? “Give it a really good soak [making sure there’s mulch around it], but don’t overwater it.” (Overwatering can lead to fungus and diseased tomatoes.)

Make Them Grow
If your tomatoes aren’t growing, Granberg advises to “make sure you’re using a fertilizer.” For organic plants, she recommends a fish emulsion, but if you’re not worried about extra chemicals, she says a commercial fertilizer will do the trick, too. Just beware of nitrogen-heavy fertilizers: “If you give [them] too much nitrogen, you’ll get tall green plants with no fruit.”

How long do these delicious gems take to grow? Every tomato is different in terms of growing time. Granberg says that the seed packet will specify how long the plant will take to bloom, which is usually around seventy to eighty days from the day it’s transferred from planter to garden.

Pick at the Right Time
Granberg says her biggest tip for growing great tomatoes is all about the timing when it comes to picking. “The main thing for a good-tasting tomato is not to pick it until it’s ready,” she says. “This means fully vine-ripened, red, and a little bit soft to the touch.”

Whether you’re a gardening novice or a seasoned pro, planting and picking purposefully should leave you with your very own fresh and juicy fruits come summer—and some serious bragging rights around your grocery store–addicted friends.

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