I love writing “quick and dirty” guides – you’ll be off growing tomatoes with a bang. And then you’ll be back here to refine and figure out the details.
The tomato is the single most popular vegetable that grown in the organic gardening circle. Heck, it’s the most popular vegetable grown in the home vegetable garden – period.
Here are some of the main points to consider.
When to Plant
To begin, sow seed early indoors. Calculate 8 weeks back from your last frost data and sow your seed then. I put my transplants outdoors in mid-May so I’d plant the second week of March. If you sow earlier than 8 weeks, your seedlings will be long and lanky and stretched-out ugly.
Plant outdoors after all danger of frost.
Where to Plant
In full sun in a fertile, well-drained soil. Your basic great gardening soil that only exists in writer’s imaginations. Give them your best location and add as much compost as you can.
How to Plant
The easiest thing for home gardeners to do is sow seeds directly into small pots of artificial soil. Figure two seeds per pot (and thin the seedlings to the strongest one after 3 weeks). Grow as many pots as you need plants. This will give the transplant enough room to grow and develop a thick top and full root system. A plant that has been grown in its own pot will not suffer transplant shock when it is moved to the garden.
Giving adequate space is particularly important if you do not have full outdoor light levels with a greenhouse or large grow light system. Crowded seedlings tend to be long and thin. Grow light systems will be needed if you don’t have a greenhouse or full south-facing window (and maybe even with the window too). Keep the lights about 4-6 inches above the seedlings as they grow (move them upwards but keep them close or your seedlings will get spindly)
If you need a LOT of seedlings, you can sow them in a flat by keeping the seeds approximately 1-inch ( 2-3 cm) apart. Then transplant them into growing cells. The problem here is that unless you have adequate light levels you will produce inferior transplants.
The soil temperature for germinating tomato seed should be around 72-73F (23C) . Use a heating cable or mat to produce this heat because room temperatures will only give sporadic germination. When seedlings break the soil around the 10-day mark, reduce the temperature to 64F (18C) and then when they have 4 true leaves, reduce the temperature again and grow on at 59F (15C) . Too high temperatures produce spindly plants.
Feed seedlings twice a week with a quarter-strength fish emulsion or other liquid plant food. A lack of fertilizer will create a tall spindly plant.
Lack of light, too much heat and not enough fertilizer can create the same spindly condition. Get them all right for short, blocky, dark green, fast-growing transplants.
Planting in Garden
Staked plants can be grown on 17-24-inch centers with rows 36-inches apart. The rule of thumb is that each tomato gets 2 square feet of growing space if you’re growing it straight up on a wire or stake.
Sprawling plants should be put into the full sunshine at 24-36-inch spacing. The rows should be 3-5 feet apart. This plant can really spread.
Care & Maintenance
After all danger of frost, transplant outdoors. “Harden off” your transplants before planting; I usually put mine outdoors during the day and indoors at night for a week before I put them in the ground. This gets them used to high light levels, the wind and the vagaries of the garden before being left to fend for themselves.
If your transplants are too long and leggy, harden off as above, dig a trench six inches deep and lay the transplant into the trench so only the top 15 cm of the plant is showing at the end of the trench. Cover the entire stem (leaving only the top 15 cm above ground) and the stem will root. This eliminates weak growth and prevents the plant from flopping around like a fish out of water in every breeze.
As my tomatoes grow up the stakes, I tie them to the stake every 8-10 inches with binder twine. Any thick twine or old pantyhose will do well. You simply want to avoid cutting into the stem with thin ties. I pick a single leader – a single stem – to train to the stake and I remove all other branches. You’ll often see a “sucker” trying to grow from between the stem and a big leaf. Pinch all these suckers off and only allow the main stem to grow.
Is there special care needed if I let my plants sprawl? No. Just plant, water, feed, take care of pests and harvest. Pretty simple really.
Now that you’re read the summary – let’s dig into the details. (yeah, it was a poor attempt at humor) 🙂