Tomatoes are the most popular garden plant to gardens worldwide. They are one of the most versatile vegetables, though botanically a fruit belonging to the nightshade family, used in everything from drinks to soups, salads, and main dishes. Tomatoes are either “determinate” fruiting once per season, or “indeterminate” fruiting continuously throughout the season. With over 7,500 varieties coming in many sizes and colors, you are sure to find a tomato plant or two that is perfect for your garden.
Sow seeds indoors 6 – 8 weeks before last frost date. Sow 1/4″ deep in moist seed starting mix, keep soil moist, but not wet. As soon as seedlings emerge, 7 – 14 days, provide plenty of light on a sunny windowsill or under a fluorescent light.
Before planting out in the garden seedlings need to be hardened off. This is done by moving young plants to a sheltered area outdoors where they are protected from the hot sun and winds for 7 – 10 days. If frost is still a threat, cover or bring plants in at night. The process of hardening off strengthens the plants cell structure and helps prevent sun scalding.
Select a sunny location in your garden. Turn a good amount of compost, well-aged manure, or a combination of both into the soil. When your seedlings are 6 – 8 inches tall, plant them out in the garden. Tomatoes should be planted deep with the stem buried to the first set of leaves. The deeper they are planted the more roots will form to help support the plant and take up plenty of nutrients. Whether you are caging or staking your plants, place your supports at the time of planting to avoid damaging the plants roots later on. Water thoroughly until a small puddle forms around the base of the plant, this settles the soil around the root ball and removes air pockets.
Tomatoes need about 1 – 2 inches of water a week during the growing season. Keep plants well watered, especially during dry spells. Use a rain gauge to monitor rainfall amounts and to check if you need to water. Water deep and keep soil moist, but not soaked, this prevents the tomatoes from cracking.
Mulching helps to retain soil moisture and maintain soil temperatures, as well as keeping weeds to a minimum. Natural mulches like fallen leaves, grass clippings, or straw are great in the garden. These type of materials slowly break down throughout the growing season, providing a continuous supply of nutrients to the soil.
Check the plants every day and pick tomatoes by gently twisting them off the vine when they are at their peak color and slightly soft to the touch. Tomatoes that ripen during longer days are sweeter than those that ripen in shorter days later in the season. For best flavor and texture, store your tomatoes at room temperature.