I love growing my own tomatoes. Each summer I can hardly wait to taste the first sun-ripened fruit plucked straight from my garden vines. Few pleasures can rival a simple lunch of sliced heirlooms paired with creamy mozzarella and fresh basil. My mouth waters just thinking about it!
California’s current drought presents some unique challenges for gardeners. The need to conserve water rules out many summer crop choices, but thankfully tomatoes aren’t one of them. In fact, with minimal water and a little coaxing, you can grow an impressive yield of fruit in a small amount of space.
In early March, I planted several varieties of heirloom tomato seeds I saved after last year’s harvest. I highly recommend sowing your seeds indoors and on a staggered schedule so the plants don’t mature and yield fruit all at once. By May, the first group of seedlings was sturdy enough to be moved to the outdoor beds in our backyard. Just five weeks later, they’re over six feet tall!
Want to know my secrets for success? Just follow these 7 tips for growing great tomatoes and you’ll be on your way to a fruitful summer harvest.
Tip #1: LOCATION. Tomatoes need at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight each day, so be sure to plant in a sunny place.
Tip #2: AMEND. It’s all about the dirt. I start each season by adding a fresh layer of compost, worm castings, and a few shovels of aged chicken manure to the soil my planter boxes. My tomatoes thrive on this trilogy of ingredients! I thoroughly dig the mixture into the dirt, and allow it to rest for several days (or even weeks) before planting my starts. *To avoid soil-borne disease, I rotate different crops in my beds every other year.
Tip #3: BURY THE STEMS. Plant seedlings about 15″ apart to the depth of their first true leaves. This encourages a strong, healthy root system.
Tip #4: SUPPORT. Your growing vines will need sturdy cages, trellis, or stakes to hold them up as they grow. Many heirloom varieties produce heavy fruit that can bend and break vines if left unsupported. Put supports in place when you plant your seedlings to avoid disturbing the roots later.
Tip #5: WATER. Adopt a “less is more” mindset. Most people over water their tomato plants which makes for less flavorful fruit (and encourages some types of rot and mold). As a rule of thumb, if the soil is dry on top but still slightly damp an inch below the surface, you’re fine. To conserve water, I installed a simple soaker hose that runs along the base of my plants. I water deeply once a week in the morning hours, and allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Mature plants may need even less frequent watering. This irrigation method slowly drips moisture into the soil where it’s readily absorbed by the roots. If hand watering, avoid getting the leaves wet. Mildly “stressing” your tomatoes by withholding water intensifies the sugar content in the mature fruit which gives them richer flavor.
Tip #6: PRUNE. As the plants mature (about 3 feet in height), trim off the leaves on the bottom twelve inches of the stem. This allows greater airflow which promotes plant health and discourages fungus problems. I also pinch off the non-fruiting “suckers” that sprout in the center joint between two main branches. This helps the plant direct its energy into producing fruit rather than sprawling vines.
Tip #7: COMPOST. Encourage new growth and more fruit by adding some fresh compost to the soil around the stem of your plants as the first tomatoes begin to ripen.
That’s it! Now stand back and watch those tomatoes grow. Oh yeah . . . one last thing. Try playing some music while you garden. I secretly suspect plants like a good rock anthem.
I know I do.