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Ten Tips for Growing Great Tomatoes

ten tips for growing great tomatoes

We’re not sure if there’s anything that tastes more like summer than a delicious, garden-fresh tomato. The supermarket can’t even touch the quality of these gems fresh from our gardens. When you bite into a sun-ripened tomato straight from the plant, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would bother buying them from a store.

Tomatoes are simple and easy to grow, but if you want that knock-out flavor without the frustration, our pros have some recommendations for how to make your plants thrive this summer. Garden success has never tasted this good.

Tip #1: Do Some Research:
There are so many delicious tomato plants to choose from, so it can be daunting to make a decision on which one(s) to include in your garden. When it comes to annuals and pretty blooms, we advocate for falling in love with your favorites and letting some creativity flow. But when it comes to the more practical tomato plant, a bit of research ahead of time is important. Ask yourself what kind of tomato crop you want — small cherry tomatoes, big beefy tomatoes or something in between, and what kind of plant you want to be growing — determinate or indeterminate.

Think seriously about your garden and what you want from it: are you willing to put in more hours of work for the tastiest of heirloom tomatoes from more challenging plants? Or would you rather spend your summer relaxing and enjoying a beautiful garden with determinate plants that mostly take care of themselves? Thankfully it’s not an all-or-nothing game, you can plant as much of however many types as you want! A bit of research is all you need to start on the right foot and avoid any summer surprises as you grow.

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Tip #2: Some of Our Favorites:
Picking a tomato variety can be difficult because there are just so many good choices to pick from! To make it easier, these are some of our favorite tomatoes for all garden needs.

Roma is a great jack-of-all-trades tomato that doesn’t require much maintenance. For a simple and straightforward garden, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Beefmaster is an indeterminate variety that requires some work like pruning and staking to keep it in line, but the resulting harvest is worth the effort. Consider staking these plants, as their tomatoes are so heavy that they can bend or damage the stems!

Early Girl is another indeterminate, requiring a modest amount of maintenance. But with an early maturity, you’ll get to enjoy tomatoes sooner in the season and for longer with this plant.

Sweet Million has it all in the name, an indeterminate with millions (ok, hundreds) of tasty little tomatoes — perfect for snacking!

Green Zebra and Black Krim are heirloom tomatoes for those that are both adventurous and traditional. Heirlooms are varieties that have been passed down for decades, and these tomatoes offer unique looks for their heritage. You’ll also be impressed by their delicious taste.

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Tip #3: Start Off Right:
Whether you’re growing from seeds or buying starter plants, at some point you’ll be taking small little seedlings and planting them outside into your garden or containers. Only stocky plants, ones that aren’t lanky and floppy, should make the final cut and be planted in your garden. These are going to be the most successful at growing with the least amount of work from you.

Tip #4: Sun and Heat:
Tomatoes thrive with some warm weather and soil, so choosing a spot with maximum heat and sun exposure is the best way to get the tastiest tomatoes. We promise that with a good location, you’ll be able to taste the difference that sunshine makes.

If you have the option, the best places for many tomatoes are in big containers or raised beds, where their soil and roots are easily warmed by the sun. Pass on the traditional bed with one of these methods, and you’ll have your friends and neighbors begging for your secret when they have a taste of your tomatoes.

If you plant in a traditional bed make sure to plant your tomatoes in a different spot than the previous year.  This will help prevent disease and insect problems that can lay dormant in the soil until the following year.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Tip #5: Drainage:
Tomatoes don’t like to have wet feet, so make sure your soil drains well. If it naturally retains water, you don’t have to give up, though. Simply add some peat moss into the mix before you plant, giving them the structure, nutrients, and drainage that they crave.

These plants are heavy feeders, too, so make sure you establish a fertilizing schedule to give them the nutritional boost they need to produce delicious crops. Use an all-purpose fertilizer for the best results.

Tip #6: Planting:
Tomatoes will sprout roots wherever the soil touches the stem. Start by submerging a third of the stem when you plant — you’ll get a head start on developing a healthy root system! Just make sure you take off any leaves that will be buried so you don’t invite rot.

If your tomato plants got a little lanky while you were waiting to plant, simply plant them a little deeper than normally would. This technique transforms that lanky and floppy stem into a healthy root system, saving the plant and encouraging successful crops.

When you plant consider adding an organic fertilizer to your planting hole to give your plants an extra burst of nutrients.  You can also consider adding a handful of egg shells, which contain calcium and will help deter blossom end rot.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Tip #7: Mulching:
Mulch is a fantastic tool in the garden, as it suppresses weeds and insulates the roots of your plant keeping heat and water in. Your tomatoes will benefit from keeping more heat and moisture at their roots, which is exactly where they want it! Perhaps the best part about mulching is how much it cuts down on garden work by stifling weeds, which also leads to less competition for nutrients for your plants. Spread a natural mulch in a generous layer around your plants and reap the benefits!

There are lots of options for natural mulch that work fantastic in the garden. For your edibles, we suggest something that isn’t chemically treated. You can choose from all kinds of naturally-occurring woods and barks to find something that satisfies both your practical and design needs.

Tip #8: Proper Staking and Tying Up:
This tip is for indeterminate tomatoes primarily, because the determinate types have a bushy habit and generally take care of themselves.

When you’re tying up your more wild-growing indeterminate tomatoes, try to use something soft and flexible so that their stems aren’t broken by the ties. You can purchase ready-made ties for your garden that are designed for the task, or even use something like strips of old pantyhose to keep things tidy. Tie it loosely but secure with a knot to keep your plant in order and off of the ground.  Sturdy tomato cages can also be used to stake your tomatoes.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Tip #9: Pruning is for Suckers:
Tomato plants, especially indeterminates, send out “suckers” during the growing season. These growths don’t help you and your tomato crop very much and actually pull nutrients away from the fruit that you are trying to grow. Prune away these growths, keeping all of the nutrients and hard work that your plant is doing focused on important things, like growing fruit!

Near the end of the season, pruning can also be useful for other parts of the plant that are wasting energy. As you near the first frost of the season, start thinking about cutting your losses and discarding some tomatoes that simply won’t make it to maturity so that your plant can focus its efforts on the last few crops of the year.

Tip #10: When to and Not to Refrigerate:
The ideal temperature for ripening tomatoes is at room temperature. Place fresh produce that you plan to consume right away on the counter to get the most out of their superior, from-the-garden taste. Trying to ripen tomatoes in the fridge is likely to leave you with tomatoes that lose their fantastic flavor and could end up mealy and lacking in texture.

While you might want to refrigerate some tomatoes if they are already ripe and you won’t be eating them quite yet, you can still end up losing flavor and quality this way. Instead, think about all of the fantastic dishes that you can cook them into now that you can save for later. Things like pasta sauces or salsas will help you make the most of your garden produce.

Growing tomatoes is popular and easy, but there’s more to know than just putting your plants in the ground and watching them grow. With a couple of simple tips, you’ll have all the tools you need to have phenomenal crops all summer long, to be enjoyed by you, your friends, and your family. If only we had tips for what to do with all of your bountiful harvests!

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How to Train Your Tomatoes

Ted Lare Blog Feature Tomato Plant

Garden-fresh tomatoes are the very best of summer. Most gardeners can’t help but to feel a little nostalgia as they work with their own tomato plants, and the fruits of your labor practically taste of sunshine. With so many varieties offering different types of deliciousness every summer, it’s no wonder these edibles are always among gardeners’ favorites.

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Tomato Types:

Before concerning yourself with questions about the shape and color of tomatoes, your first decision comes down to choosing between determinates and indeterminates. These two varieties are often separated by question of their lineage, in addition to their more important differences in growing habits and in how much fruit they produce.

Determinate: These tomatoes tend to be the newer hybrid varieties. These are your no-fuss garden plants: they are well-behaved, sit up straight, keep their hands to themselves and won’t need any training. Determinates thrive in containers or gardens, and require very little intervention from their gardeners. The trade-off is that they often yield considerably less than their ganglier indeterminate cousins.

Indeterminate: These varieties of tomato are a little more unruly. They can be a handful if they are allowed to get out of control, and can be a bit of a challenge to keep in line. The tomatoes of these varieties grow on vines instead of compact plants, and are noticeably more bountiful than determinate plants. The world’s most delicious and prized tomatoes, including the famous heirloom varieties, are all indeterminate. But they need some training to keep them in line as they produce their delicious fruits.

Tomato Tough Love:

Tomato plants are sugar-producing factories. They take the summer season to gather all the energy and nutrients they can from the soil and sun to grow stems, leaves, and their prized fruits. All of the best plants in your garden are experts at growing in the summer, but they need a bit of guidance – and even some tough love – to make them produce the fruits you want.

Tomatoes are explosive growers that thrive in the summer heat, but a lot of their new growth will simply not be able to yield before frost cuts the growing season short. Pruning is absolutely essential to tomato care and is just as important as tying for keeping your plant in line. Well-pruned plants are easier to manage, look better and, most importantly, will be able to focus their sugars towards fruit production rather than creating new stems that won’t yield. Proper pruning is essential for a tidy and organized garden, but is also vital for healthy plants that produce delicious tomatoes as a reward for your efforts.

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Tying Your Tomato:

An “untrained” indeterminate, or a plant that is left to its own unruly ways of growing, will inevitably end up a complete mess. Without some guidance, these plants become tangled and disease-prone, without producing any of the tasty tomato treats we want. Proper training of your vine will reward you with a clean and tidy garden that reflects your efforts. You’ll have an incredible harvest of tomatoes that are more numerous and ripen sooner than untrained plants.Supporting your tomato can be as easy as using a stick, or as complicated as a trellis. Whatever device fits the style of your garden will work just fine, as long as the fragile stem has some structure to cling to. Because the stem is so fragile, it should be tied loosely to your support every 6-8”. Avoid using wire, since it could cut into your tomato. Gardeners will find much more success using thicker ties (such as thick twine, plastic plant tape, or strips of pantyhose) to secure their delicate plant.

Handling tomato vines with care is vital to their success, but can be more challenging than many gardeners think. To create the most productive – as well as tidiest and most attractive – tomato garden, gardeners have to think carefully about how they secure their plants. Ties should be just loose enough to support without damaging, and always secured above flowers so that the heavy, ripening fruit doesn’t damage the stem.

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Tomato Pruning 101:

Your tomatoes will need some basic pruning to keep them at their best. Pruning helps your plants stay healthy, produce as much fruit as possible in your growing season, and divert as many growing resources as possible into creating perfect tomatoes.

Pruning for Health: Keep your tomato plant healthy by pinching all the side stems that appear below the first flower cluster. It might seem a little extreme, but boosting air circulation will help your tomatoes ward off disease. Not only will your garden look tidier and cleaner, but you will have healthier plants that are less susceptible to fungus or rot.

End-of-Season Pruning: Once the growing season starts to slow, you’ll need to prune to help your plants prioritize. When cold and frosty weather is approaching, you will want to direct your plants to focus their energy on ripening the fruit they have, instead of creating more new stems. In order to give your plant the time it needs, pruning for the end of season should start a month before the first frost. This pruning – called topping – might seem harsh, but is important if you want to get the most from your plant in one season. Find the existing fruit clusters and pinch off the stems just above each of them. Here in Iowa the first frost typically happens in October. The actual date changes a lot year to year, so finding the right time to top your plants can be a bit of a guessing game. To be safe, you’ll probably have the most reliable results if you start pinching off in early-mid September.

Pruning for Tomato Maximization: Regular, ongoing pruning will divert as many resources into growing fruit as possible, while continually cleaning up your plant’s messy growth. You’ll need to target growth that doesn’t produce fruit. Focus on pinching these parts of your plant to help it produce tastier fruit:

• Suckers grow at an angle from the joint between the leaf and main stem. These should be the first to go, as they will never yield any fruit and will make your plant look far messier.

• Side stems low on the plant are also not useful for creating tomatoes. Once your plant is flowering, anything below the first flower cluster can be removed.

• For large tomatoes, pinch off the smaller half of the developing fruit clusters. The remaining clusters will receive all the sugar and resources that the clusters would have had to share, helping your plant to produce the large, juicy tomatoes you want for your dinner table.

Keeping Your Tomatoes Healthy:

Any tomato plant is very vulnerable to disease or damage. How you handle and work with your plants can make a big difference to their health. Keeping your plant’s dainty structures in mind can make the difference between a healthy and attractive plant that produces tons of tasty fruit, or a sickly plant that underperforms.

Pinching with your fingers is highly recommended for your tomatoes, rather than cutting with pruners. The steel of your pruner’s blades often hosts old pathogens that can easily be transmitted to your vulnerable plant. It is also important to know that your tomato plant is more susceptible to damage and disease when wet – the open wounds you leave after working on your tomatoes are an open door for fungus to enter from water into your plant. To keep it safe, simply avoid handling your plant – whether pruning or tying – while it’s still wet from rain or watering.

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Indeterminate tomatoes might sound like a messy challenge with so many guidelines, but their care is actually quite simple. By knowing the basic rules of how and when to prune and tie your plant, your garden will be set up for success. These classic varieties bring so many benefits to your garden in exchange for some relatively easy upkeep. By choosing indeterminates for your garden, you’ll be rewarded with more delicious tomatoes for your dinner table this summer, and a charming nostalgia that can’t be found anywhere else.