Tomatoes: Planning & Planting for an Outstanding Harvest
Tomato plants get pretty big, so a little planning can be a big help. Draw a plan on graph paper or use another method to figure out how many plants will fit in your garden and still leave room for peppers, beans, or whatever else you'd like to grow. If you stake or cage your tomatoes, you can plant them 2 feet apart, which gives each plant about four square feet of growing space. If you have more space for your tomatoes, you might let them sprawl, in which case you'll want to plant them at least 3 feet apart.
For me, a single long row of tomatoes does better than multiple shorter rows. Picking the fruit is easier than in a tomato "jungle," and the improved air circulation helps prevent fungal disease. If your summers are humid also, either stick with single or staggered double rows, or allow extra space between rows of tomatoes. You could also just scatter your tomato plants one by one throughout your garden, staking or caging them to keep them from overrunning other plants. Some plants such as lettuce will appreciate a little shade from the tomatoes, but mostly you'll want to try to plant your tomatoes where they won't hog all the sunshine.
| Planting is as easy as 1 - 2 - 3 !|
Tomato plants appreciate good garden soil with plenty of organic matter, but too much nitrogen could give you huge plants without many tomatoes. We built a new little raised bed one year and filled it with top-quality "topsoil" and leaf mold; our tomato plants were 14 feet tall, green and lush, and completely tomato-free. One soil preparation myth is that tomatoes need extra calcium to prevent blossom end rot. "B.E.R" actually results when the plant is unable to take up enough calcium, and adding eggshells or other calcium sources won't fix an uptake problem. Just take the same steps for digging and amending the soil in your tomato patch as you do for the rest of your veggie garden, and your plants will do just fine!
As you're getting your garden ready for your tomatoes, plan ahead for their water needs. If you run a soaker hose along your row of plants, it's easy to give the roots a good drink (which they love) without getting the foliage wet (which can encourage disease). Tomato plants appreciate a deep drink twice a week, maybe three times in hot, dry weather.
You can purchase tomato plants at your local garden center or big box store, or you can grow an astonishing variety of tomatoes starting from seed. Some people swear by the flavor of heirloom varieties, while others think hybrids give them better yields. However you get your tomato plants, it's a good idea to harden them off by getting them gradually used to outside conditions. Even plants that have been on outdoor nursery shelves for weeks may need a day or two to get used to conditions in your garden.
When you plant your tomato seedlings, be sure to bury some of the stem. The plant will grow extra roots all along the buried stem, and you'll have a stronger, healthier plant. If your plants are tall or leggy, you don't have to dig a hole to China. The soil probably hasn't started warming up more than 5 or 6 inches below the surface, and planting into colder, deeper dirt won't do your plant any favors. Instead, dig a shallow, sloping trench. I like to add a sprinkling of polymer moisture crystals and time-release fertilizer all along the planting hole.
Lay the plant along the trench, and bury it up to the last few pairs of leaves. Gently bend the top of the plant upright, but don't worry about getting it exactly vertical. Don't bother pruning off any branches or leaves that you're burying; pinching them off would just make unneccessary wounds along the stem. Your tomato plant will look awfully tiny in your garden now, but just think of the vigorous root system it will have with all that buried stem.
If you're using stakes or cages, put them in place now. I tend to procrastinate and then regret it when I'm wrestling a cage onto a plant half my height. Mulching around the plants will conserve moisture and help prevent disease. The mulch should form a fat "doughnut," with a ring of clear dirt around the stem of the plant. Grass clippings make great mulch for your veggie garden! Your plants might not look like they're growing for the first week or two, but don't worry, they are busy developing an awesome root system. Hold off on fertilizing until you see new growth on top. Then watch them take off.
I hope this will be your best tomato growing season ever!
For additional information, check out the great Tomato Discussion Forum here at DG.
Thanks to Dr. Carolyn Male for sharing her expertise. For her useful explanation of "blossom end rot," click here.
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