Tips for Growing
is an Heirloom Tomato?
are tomatoes that have been around a long time. Rediscovered in the recent taste revolution, “heirloom”
refers to tomatoes that are not hybrids, and have been in existence at
least 50 years—preserved for their superb taste. Heirloom tomatoes often are unusual
shapes or colors. Many people have never tasted “real” tomatoes—if
you’ve only eaten supermarket or other commercially produced tomatoes,
you’re in for a delicious surprise.
No synthetics or chemicals! Fertilizers and pesticides must come from natural sources to be considered organic. Compost is the best soil conditioner and a great fertilizer as well—if you have
it, use it! Other organic fertilizers are also easy to find. Many gardeners grow tomatoes with no pest control other than picking off tomato hornworms by hand.
Tomatoes love sun—put yours in the sunniest place you’ve got (unless you
live in Death Valley). Less than six hours of sun per day means a rangy
plant with no fruit. No soil in the sunny place? Consider putting your
tomato in a container,
then you can move it to wherever you want.
Use proper potting
soil for containers. If your outdoor soil is not rich in nutrients
and organic matter, add compost—the
best soil improver. Your tomato is a vine that grows up to ten feet
tall, but can fit in as little as one to three square feet of ground space.
cage, or twine your tomato around a string, or plant near a chain link
fence. See ‘Support’ for tips on tying.
exactly the right spot—and don’t be afraid to change your mind about it
should hold at least 3 gallons, and must drain well. Clean 5-gallon
paint cans or buckets are good as long as you punch drainage holes in
them. And of course, you should feel free to decorate them as inspiration
Day—Planting Your Tomato
a large planting hole to loosen the soil around the root ball and
ease the way for questing roots. Ideally, the hole should be big enough
to bury a basketball. Prepare the soil by filling the hole with water
the day before. Let the water soak in—your tomato will dig it. Fill the
hole part way with compost. Add a fistful of fertilizer and/or a few eggshells.
Break off all but the top 3 or 4 branches and bury the plant deeply, so
the soil covers those former branch sites—they will form roots, giving
your tomato an extra solid foundation.
After transplanting, water
when the top inch of soil is dry (or cheat—use a moisture
meter). Temperature, wind, and the soil type will affect how fast
the soil dries out. It’s
easy to water too much. We recommend that you don’t think of “regular
watering.” Do not try to keep the soil moist. Instead, make
it your goal to not let the soil dry out completely.
see tiny fruit on your tomato, cut way back on water (and fertilizer).
This change tells your tomato that it is time to focus on fruit. Water the ground around the plant—try not to let water splash
up onto the leaves. Water splashing up from the soil can spread disease.
Mix a handful of tomato
or vegetable fertilizer—preferably organic—into the soil of the hole
or container. Add compost for richer soil. Scratch a handful of organic
fertilizer or compost into the surface soil once a month. Do not overfeed!
The nitrogen in fertilizer
(the first number on the label) encourages leaf and stem growth. If you
want your plant to focus on producing fruit, cut back on nitrogen.When
fall is approaching, cut way back on fertilizer
and water. If leaf ends start to turn yellow during early or mid-season,
you may need more fertilizer. Phase it in gently and see if you notice
If you don’t pinch back your plant, you’ll get a tangle of vines, and
less fruit. If you would like to learn about pruning
and types of tomato plants in more detail.
Go vertical—it increases fruit production and decreases the chance of
diseases and pests. For the highest yield, plant 18” apart, grow in single
or “Y” shaped vines, and tie them straight up. Support your tomato! Cages,
garden net, or stakes are easy to find. Or plant your tomato against a
fence, or knot garden twine on a 6-foot frame and suspend stems by twining
them around the string. If you are using cages, prune your suckers so
you get 3 or 4 main stems (instead of a long “Y”), then start pinching
off their growing tips once they start spilling out and blocking the light
of the tomato the next cage over. If you’re tying, tie loosely—the stems will expand with time.
frequent visits will help you stay in touch with your tomato’s health.
Problems are minor when dealt with as soon as they appear. Tomato hornworms
eat leaves and fruit, and leave their calling card: black droppings. Pick
the hornworms off and smush them—disgusting, but effective! Try using
homemade pest repellent/leaf cleaner, especially if you see little white
bugs on the underside of the leaves. Tomatoes can crack from uneven moisture,
or appear “catfaced,” with scars and holes in the blossom end from cold
weather or too much nitrogen. Ugly tomatoes taste great—just cut out any
bad parts. Blights,
late and early, disfigure both leaves and fruit for those east of the
Mississippi and on the West Coast. Wilts can kill tomato plants.
is the best cure:
control is key to disease control
at ground level instead of overhead
• Don’t tie or prune your plants when they are wet
• Don’t plant in the same area two years in a row, and make sure you clean
up dead plants at the end of the season.
the Season Wanes
Get every last bit of tomato goodness! When there’s only a month left
of warm weather:
cut off all growing vine ends, and all small and undeveloped fruit.
Cut back on water and fertilizer so the plant focuses on ripening existing
to Get Help
Ask a gardening friend or neighbor—tomato people love to share
tips! Try calling your local agricultural extension office (most states
have them), ask Dr. Google, or visit www.windowbox.com/tomatoes. Enjoy!