Tricks to ensure a successful harvest―even with late-start seedlings
Kathleen N. Brenzel
1 of 16Staci Valentine
Hedge your bets
Plant a mix of varieties suitable for your area: a couple of slicers, a cherry type, a beefsteak, and something unusual, like striped ‘Green Zebra’ or the new ‘Blue Beauty’, which is high in antioxidants. And choose early-, mid-, and late-season varieties, indicated on labels as “days to maturity” (DTM). That way, says tomato-growing expert Scott Daigre, “you’ll get lucky. If it’s too hot for some varieties to set fruit in midsummer, others will.”
2 of 16Scott Daigre
Grow the sweetest
A tomato’s sugar content is largely a matter of its genetic makeup. Some varieties, including many cherry types, are extremely sweet. Others, including black varieties such as ‘Black Krim’ (pictured), ‘Cherokee Purple’, and ‘Paul Robeson’, naturally have a robust, intense flavor. But any tomato grown in full sun—for at least eight hours a day—is more flavorful than one from a plant in part shade.
3 of 16Scott Daigre
Determinate tomatoes such as ‘Celebrity’, ‘Roma’, and ‘Sprite’ set all their fruit over a relatively short period, so many are great for canning and freezing. They don’t grow much after flowering starts and tend to be more compact—better for small spaces and pots. Indeterminate tomatoes (like 'Sweet Carneros Pink', pictured) flower and fruit over a long season, and plants keep growing larger until cool weather shuts them down. They need room to sprawl and most likely will require sturdy stakes.
4 of 16Rob Cardillo
Heirlooms often, but not always, taste better. Tomato tasting is not unlike wine tasting—different flavors appeal to different palates, and few crops offer a greater range of flavors than heirloom tomatoes.
5 of 16Reed Davis
Pick sure things
All are easy to grow if they’re adapted to your region. In climates with a short or cool summer (at high altitudes and along the coast, for example), long-season beefsteak types won’t ripen well, but shorter-season varieties will. Cherry (salad) tomatoes are almost foolproof there and elsewhere in the West; our favorites include ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Green Grape’, ‘Isis Candy’, ‘Sun Gold’, and ‘Sun Sugar’. For a medium-size slicer, ‘Early Girl’ also produces well nearly everywhere.
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Pick the perfect spot
Try to avoid planting tomatoes in the same spot every year; diseases build up in the soil and spoil future crops. Grow tomatoes in the same bed only every third or fourth year. If you have just one sunny spot for growing tomatoes, plant in large containers, and change the soil every year.
7 of 16BSIP / Getty Images
Tomato plants sprout additional roots along buried stems—a good thing since more roots are better able to absorb water and food, and support strong growth. Buy seedlings with sturdy stems and bright green leaves. Dig a hole about 15 inches deep in an area that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. Fill with amended soil. Snip off the seedling’s lowest leaves, then set it into the hole and fill, burying the leafless part.
8 of 16Creative Commons photo by Jennifer C. is licensed under CC BY 2.0
In mild climates, plant a few seedlings each week for 3 to 6 weeks, so flowers appear in succession and extend the harvest. In brutally hot inland areas, screen plants during midday. In cooler climates, locate tomatoes near a south or west-facing wall to reflect heat onto your plants.
9 of 16Staci Valentine
Pot 'em up
Where space is limited, grow tomatoes in pulp pots at least 15 inches wide and deep, which won’t fry the roots on hot summer days. Fill them with premium potting mix and rich organic soil amendments, with 1 plant per container. Soil warms faster in pots, so fruit ripens 14 days sooner than in the ground.
10 of 16Thomas J. Story
The best tomatoes for growing in pots are cherry tomatoes. They do well in containers at least 16 inches deep and wide, and need watering and feeding more often than tomatoes growing in the ground. The bigger the container, the less frequently you’ll have to water in hot weather, and the more room roots have to run. A half whiskey or wine barrel is perfect.
11 of 16Rob D. Brodman
To retain moisture, tomato-growing expert Daigre covers the soil around the plants with a layer of seedless hay or straw, about 2 inches thick. Buy it at a feed store.
12 of 16Creative Commons photo by Dennis 27852 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Cages are great for corralling for big indeterminate types. Bend a sheet of wire mesh into a cylinder about two feet across and 5 to 6 feet tall; secure the ends together with wire, and slip it over the new plant. Secure the cylinder to the ground by weaving rebar through the mesh, on opposite sides of the plant.
13 of 16Carol Von Zumwalt
Water, but not too much
Irrigate deeply every 3 or 4 days for the first few weeks. Once plants start growing, water deeply and less often. Use soaker hoses, or try this tip: Poke small holes in the bottom of an empty coffee can, then set the can in a hole in the soil beside the plant. At watering time, fill the can; water will slowly seep into the soil.
14 of 16Flickr user Chiot's Run
If plants overeat, they produce lush leaves but few tomatoes. Apply a balanced organic fertilizer at planting and again when flowers appear.
15 of 16Sam Hamann
Time your harvest
Tomatoes taste best if you pick them after they turn color but just as they turn soft. Tomato expert Scott Daigre’s favorite way to savor a homegrown one? “Pick a ripe, beautifully colored, and slightly soft tomato. Wash it (or not). Cut it (or not). Salt it (or not). Eat it. Best done outdoors.”
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Beat the heat
If a tomato plant drops all its flowers, and therefore bears no fruit, it has probably succumbed to heat.High heat, with temperatures above 90°, can render tomato flowers infertile and cause them to drop, resulting in no fruit. In hot inland areas, screen plants during mid-day. In milder climates with periodic hot spells, ensure at least some flowering by planting a few seedlings each week for three to six weeks. That way, flowers will appear in succession and increase your chances of a successful harvest.