Whenever I think about growing tomatoes, I can’t help but remember that scene from Steel Magnolias. Ouiser tells the ladies at Truvy’s beauty parlor that she grows them only because that’s what old Southern ladies are supposed to do. She doesn’t even like them, but seems to be able to grow them with no problem.
So what have I been doing wrong all these years? Well, here’s what I did right this year (and wrong in the past) to grow some strong and productive tomato plants.
Plant them deep. I wrote previously about a post from Deb that gave some advice on planting tomatoes — deep enough that even the lowest branches are buried. This gives more surface area for roots to form. I’ve never done this before, but I did this year. I can’t wait for the end of the season to see what kind of root system I built this time.
Give tomatoes food, especially calcium. I did not fertilize at planting and I should have, because nutrients prevent problems before they start. Blossom end rot in tomatoes develops from a calcium deficiency. You can get calcium by applying gypsym (thanks to jakemississipping on Instagram) or in fertilizer. A little before mid-season, I applied a synthetic formulation for tomatoes and vegetables, which includes an extra punch of calcium. Growth really took off and I haven’t seen anything that looks like blossom end rot yet.
Pull the suckers. Easily put, suckers are little shoots that grow out of the armpits of tomato plants — between the strong, main stem and its branches. Pinch them off. They take away energy that should be used for making tomatoes.
Water those tomatoes consistently. I think I already knew they say you need consistent watering on tomatoes, but this year I really committed to it. The solution: a timer! I’m watering with a sprinkler at 6:00 am for a half hour every day. It’s working! These plants are so lush, it’s ridiculous.
Staking tomatoes. If you do all the things above right, you’re going to have some tall tomato plants. I bought the regular three-ringed tomato cages from Lowe’s, but the plants are already lapping over the top. I saw several gardeners’ home-made versions like the ones in this post on DIY beefy tomato cages from The Real Farmhouse. A lot taller and a lot more support.
Tomato growth stalled? Wait for the heat. I had been dreading the really hot temperatures, thinking they would evaporate water and wilt my plants. Just the opposite has happened. When the temperatures finally reached the 90s, that’s when growth really took off. Patience, patience, patience. Theresa of Tending My Garden reminded me to be patient.
Prune lower tomato branches to avoid pests and disease. When plants reach two feet tall, prune away the lower branches. Leaves dragging in wet soil are a hotspot for pests and diseases.
Don’t fertilize to ripen. All my tomatoes look like the photo above — green and not ready to harvest. Am I supposed to do something? Fertilize? No, says Growing A Greener World garden guru Joe Lamp’l.
“…adding extra fertilizer seems like a logical thing to do, to give those tomatoes a little extra boost. But don’t do it. The environmental changes that result in this ripening slowdown are nature’s way of dealing with and resolving the challenge. It’s not a nutritional deficiency. In fact, adding fertilizer now could exacerbate the problem by forcing the plants into a growth mode at an inappropriate time.”
I have about 30 flowers blooming, so many more to come. Let’s see if I can bring these tomatoes down the homestretch and into my salads.