Growing Tomatoes Successfully
By Patricia Rossi, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Growing tomatoes is not difficult and can be done successfully in all manner of circumstances, from large vegetable gardens to patios and containers. A bit of planning makes all the difference and the following considerations may be helpful toward a good growing season:
Tomatoes can be grown from seed or starts. If you wish to start from seed, seek a credible seed source, whether catalog or nursery, and plan to sow seeds in flats six to eight weeks before transplanting. There are excellent references and instructions in planting from seed to guide first time gardeners.
Selecting early, mid and late season varieties helps to ‘pace’ the tomatoes growing in the garden.
There are two groups of tomato varieties. One group is determinate tomato plants, which grow to a certain height, tend to be bushy, and produce all their fruit at one time. The other is indeterminate plants, which grow like vines and will continually yield fruit all season. Indeterminate tomatoes can get quite large and heavy and require strong vertical support and some pruning for healthy cultivation and easier harvesting, which also generally results in more even ripening. Staking also helps protect plants from pests and disease.
Other considerations are space and purpose. Consider the assumed mature size of your plants. Cherry and smaller fruited tomatoes such as Sweet 100 or Gardener’s Delight make sense for container growing. Larger tomatoes may require planting 18 to 30 inches apart. Most gardeners prefer a selection of “slicer” tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and paste tomatoes but some prefer growing paste tomatoes with few seeds specifically for sauces and canning.
One of the most helpful but often ignored tips in growing tomatoes is not to plant your tomatoes in the garden too early, waiting until all danger of frost has passed (usually April 15 to May). The adage that it is better to be safe than sorry applies here. While you are patiently waiting for that day, prepare your soil.
The fundamental planting guidelines for growing tomatoes in Sonoma County are:
- Richly organic, slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Incorporate compost.
- Plant deeply.
- Full sun, 8 to 10 hours a day.
- Mulch a few weeks after transplanting when young plants are established to help retain moisture, maintain soil temperature, suppress weeds and protect against disease.
- Watering may be the trickiest part of growing tomatoes and needs to be adjusted with growth and temperature. Watering can decrease as plants mature. Take care not to over water and avoid getting water on the foliage.
- Fertilize with fish emulsion, kelp or another natural fertilizer. When in doubt, use less.