By Steve Salky
Tomatoes are just about everybody’s favorite summer vegetable to grow, and certainly to eat as well. Having grown tomatoes every summer for several decades, I can attest that they are worth the effort. Here are a few tips learned from those many years of trial and error:
- First, I plant my tomatoes on the angle, almost horizontally, rather than vertically.
- Next, I dig a shallow trench, instead of a deep hole.
- After pinching off some of the lower leaves, I lay the “root ball” and most of the stem/stalk into the trench.
- I gently curl the top portion of the tomato plant to remain above the soil and cover the portion laying in the trench with soil.
- I then place rich compost in the soil near the root ball and along the trench in order to encourage strong root growth. Tomatoes like well composted soil and do not work as well in clay soils. The plant will grow vertically, as it reaches for the sun, and no one will ever know that your plant started out laying down in a trench!
I recommend this planting method for several reasons. First, a tomato stem or stalk will sprout roots from those portions underground and so it will better support the growth of the tomato plant over the long growing season. Second, the shallow trench will have warmer soil than a deep hole. Third, the roots will not be directly under the plant, making it easier to keep the plant well watered over the long and hot growing season. This also allows you to avoid overwatering the leaves, which can cause mold or blight on the lower leaves especially.
Additionally, because we are all anxious about eating fresh tomatoes, we often “jump the gun” with tomatoes by planting them too early. Tomatoes generally prefer soil temperatures of at least 70°F to grow effectively. While many tomatoes that are planted too early will just sit there, some will die if the soil is not consistently at least 65°F. So, patience is a virtue when it comes to planting tomatoes. In our gardens in Washington DC, we generally wait until after Mother’s Day, when the soil has warmed and night time temperatures rarely fall below 50°F.
When watering a tomato plant, water the soil (not the leaves) and water deeply. Allow the roots to dry before watering again. Tomatoes do not like wet roots for extended periods. This is also why soils with too much clay (clay soil holds water for a long time) can be bad, causing tomato plants to develop a fungal disease that rots at the roots. Steady watering, every three or four days, tends to work best for tomatoes. And during the brutally hot periods, you should water early in the morning or after the sun has set, to avoid unnecessarily wasting water on evaporation.
Finally, tomatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they draw a lot of nutrients from the soil. Thus, giving them some fertilizer before, during, and after planting is appropriate and helpful. Tomatoes love phosphorus, so finding an organic fertilizer that contains phosphorus is ideal. Bone meal, particularly fish bone meal, is a good organic fertilizer for tomatoes. As with any fertilizer, it is best to carefully follow the directions on the package, as too much fertilizer can damage even a healthy tomato plant fairly quickly.
Enjoy growing your tomatoes! They are well worth the effort.