10 secrets for growing prize winning tomatoes
1) Choose the variety carefully!!! What kind of variety you grow will depend a large part on what your climate is like and what your goals are. If you live in an area that gets a lot of moisture/is humid, you will especially want tomatoes that are disease resistant for sure: try Royal Chico, Peron, or Arkansas Traveler (all available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at rareseeds.com). If you live in a northern area or one with a cool, short growing season, look for tomatoes that are early producers and that set fruit in cool weather. Try Stupice or Sub-Arctic Plenty. If your goal is to make sun-dried tomatoes, try Principe Borghese…it’s famous for this purpose.
2) Location, location, location. This is the mantra for the real estate world but it holds true for gardening too. Give your tomatoes the best “garden real estate” possible. Of course, this means full sun, good well drained soil, and plenty of elbow room.
3) Plant them deep to develop a lot of roots. Tomato plants have the ability to grow roots all along their stems if they come into contact with damp soil. When planting a tomato plant, dig a hole as deep as possible. You may want to add some good compost, fertilizer or calcium to the hole to put nutrients where the roots will be. Otherwise, place the plant deep into the hole, remove any leaves that will be below the soil line and cover most of the plant with dirt.
4) Use a paper collar to prevent worms. Tomato horn worms emerge from the soil in the spring and crawl along the ground to find their new home…i.e. your beautiful tomato plant. A simple paper collar around the base of the plant will prevent them from ever climbing up the stem. I have used this simple trick for years and have never had a single tomato worm on my plants. An ounce of prevention…
5) Prevent soil born diseases. After planting your tomato plants deeply and adding a paper collar, another important preventative step is to cover the soil around the plant’s base somehow. Perhaps you already mulch your garden. If so, just pull the mulch around the base of the plant. If you don’t mulch, add a thin layer of grass clippings, dry leaves, straw, or paper weighed down with rocks. This prevents the soil from splashing up onto the leaves when it rains or the sprinklers are on. It will prevent a lot of soil born diseases that tomatoes have problems with. Again, an ounce of prevention people! It really is worth a pound of cure.
6) Grow them off the ground. Instead of letting the tomato plants sprawl on the ground (I tried letting them sprawl once and most of the fruit rotted because it was touching the ground), grow them vertically with a support or cage. The type of tomato you plant will determine the type of support you will need. Determinate tomatoes will do fine with a large standard tomato cage or a strong stake since they are more bush like in their growth. But indeterminate tomatoes will need a significant amount more of support as they continue to grow and grow and grow…like a vine.
Note: these first 6 items will go far to give you some AMAZING tomatoes. And most of the time, this is all that I do (usually because I get distracted with something else and end up neglecting the tomato plants).
Notice how all 6 of the above tasks can be done at planting time which goes right along with my favorite way of growing things…set it and forget it. Benign neglect, baby. Because there are more important things in life than tending plants 24/7.
But if you want to do more for your plants, here are a few more ideas.
7) Add supplements. This one is optional in my opinion as I really don’t add much to my plants beyond mulch and the occasional compost. But if you would like to add something, consider adding compost to the base of the plant or using foliar sprays to fertilize in the form of comfrey tea or compost tea, etc. Just be sure to NOT GIVE TOO MUCH NITROGEN or else the plants will produce a lot of leaves and no fruit.
8) Water deep to promote good root systems…don’t overhead water if possible. My garden is on an automatic watering system so unfortunately, my plants get watered with an overhead sprinkler. But I DO water deeply and infrequently. If you live in a humid climate or have problems with disease, you will definitely want to water deeply at the ground level and avoid getting the leaves wet. Some options? A soaker hose, drip irrigation, one of the ideas on this page, or something like this may be good options. Or you may want to consider no irrigation as discussed in this article as a way to increase flavor and reduce costs and effort.
9) Prune the suckers. To say that there is a lot of conflicting advice about pruning tomato plants is putting it lightly. To prune or not to prune, that is the question. Some people say removing the suckers is absolutely necessary and some say it is a waste of time. Me? I tend to fall into the second camp. Sometimes I take off some suckers at the beginning of the growing season and then get sidetracked with something more shiny and forget to do the rest. Here is an article about pruning suckers from one of my favorite gardening authors. It pretty much sums up what my experience has been. If you choose to prune those suckers, here is a great tutorial of what suckers are and how to remove them for (supposedly) healthier plants.
10) Save the seeds! Once you have gone through all of the work to grow the best tomatoes possible, you will want to save the seed from the best fruits so you can grow them again next year. Luckily, tomatoes are one of the easiest seeds to save since the plants are self-pollinating and rarely cross-pollinate with other tomato plants. If you want to make sure they will not cross-pollinate, use a technique that will prevent crossing. A great resource on how to do this and on seed saving in general is a book called “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. For an awesome tutorial on how to save tomato seeds, check this post about it from Garden Betty HERE.
Well, folks, that is the best advice I have for helping you to grow those prize winning tomatoes that we all want. I’d love to hear about your successes and your flops too.
Now go plant yourselves some amazing tomatoes!
Because there really is nothing quite like a juicy, fresh tomato straight from your own backyard!