How to grow tomatoes
Plus how to grow GIANT tomatoes!
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It’s no secret that tomatoes are my favorite backyard crop; I’ve been growing them for my entire adult life (and “supervising” my father as he grew them throughout my childhood!)
So naturally, when I started writing a gardening column for Newsday back in 2006, I created The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge in search of the year’s largest tomato. The annual contest ran until I left the paper in 2019. If you love growing tomatoes, you’ll agree there’s nothing better than a roomful of 100+ people who get it!
And each year, as I crowned a new Tomato King or Queen (just two Queens in 13 years!), I picked their brains for more tomato-growing tips. Some swore by manure, bat guano, chicken poop, pruning, etc. — each had their own “secret.” And after a few years, I noticed a trend of tips that were mentioned over and over. You can be sure I made a note of them! And I wrote about them in my AP gardening column this week (link at the bottom of this email).
If you aren’t necessarily interested in growing a giant tomato — but want to grow a healthy, productive and tasty crop — I’ve got some tips for you, too:
Make sure the soil’s pH is no lower than 6.0 and no higher than 6.8. Maybe they can handle up to 7.0, but I prefer not to test those limits. Personally, I don’t let the pH go below 6.2. To raise your soil’s pH, incorporate dolomitic lime into the soil, following package directions.
Plant them deeply! Tomatoes are one of the few plants that don’t die when their stems are buried; in fact, they do much better that way. So when you’re planting your seedlings or starter plants, remove the leaves from the bottom one-third to one-half of the plants and bury the entire bare portion of their stems. They’ll send out new roots from there.
Water consistently! Less-frequent, deep waterings are better than a daily sprinkle.
Don’t forget to keep on top of weeds — and mulch the bed.
Send me photos of your tomato plants throughout the growing season (bonus points if you pose with them!), and you might be featured in an upcoming newsletter!
📬 Ask Jessica
DEAR JESSICA: I’ve been doing hydroponics for years. Recently, I decided to move my beds outdoors because my tomatoes weren't blooming under the lights, and I figured they needed sunlight and at least some wind for pollination.
The two beds are 40-gallon tanks from The Home Despot. There is a 30-gallon tank partially sunk into the ground that holds the nutrient solution, and I run a small pump for one minute a day to each tank (the excess flows back into the nutrient tank).
I've got 27 indeterminate heirloom tomatoes in two tanks (12 sq. ft. of space.) The tanks are on a rail, off the ground, hopefully making pests less of an issue. The white cage holds strings that support and guide the plants. I've got about 50 tomatoes now, and I need to trim off the branches trailing on the ground.
The only issue is that today the plants are over a foot taller than the cage, and I’m not sure whether I should top those off. —James Jones, MD, Ph.D., Jacksonville, Florida
DEAR JAMES: Wow. Just Wow! I’m super impressed by your set-up, and your plants certainly are thriving.
When your plants grow taller than their cages, it’s perfectly fine to top them off. That will also save the plant from pouring energy into the excess growth and redirect it to producing and maturing more fruit.
But don’t just lop off the top. Make your cuts about a quarter inch above a lateral branch. Do this once a week, and eventually, the tops will stop growing.
💡 If you do one thing this week…
Plant summer annuals! For the best blooms in most areas, consider Easy Wave, Shock Wave or Supertunia petunias; Bounce! impatiens; giant zinnias or, Calibrachoas (my favorite!)
For more great gardening tips — 365 of them! — get a jump on the growing season with my Day-by-Day Gardening Calendar. It’s like a complete gardening course in a wall calendar! By the end of the year, I promise, you’ll have earned a green thumb! Plus, your wall will be adorned with award-winning photography provided by The Weekly Dirt readers. And my 20% Off Welcome-to-Spring Sale is still on! Take a look:
👏 Sunday shoutout
Kim Yuen of Kapolei, Hawaii, harvested these beautiful, plump cherry tomatoes from her backyard garden last week.
"I had to save them from the rain by putting them in my belly," she said. Good call, Kim!
Send in your photo, and you could be featured next!
📰This week in my Associated Press gardening column
I write a weekly gardening column for the AP, so you might have seen my byline in your local paper (or news website) — wherever in the world you happen to be. In case you miss it, though, I’ll post the most recent here every week.
7 tips for growing giant tomatoes As 13-year host of The Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, I learned the secrets of growing competition-worthy tomatoes directly from the champions — and I’m pulling back the curtain in my latest AP gardening column! Here's how to grow a whopper!
Not all shade is the same: Gardening where there's little sun: Gardening in the shade doesn't have to mean limited plant choices and lack of color. The first step is understanding which type of shade you have. Click in for guidance and plant suggestions.
Sunflowers! Homegrown sunflowers are popular, native and, for some, newly meaningful. Learn how to grow them— and how to harvest and roast their seeds.
Plant this, not that: Native alternatives for 8 popular invasive plants.
Go Native! If your idea of the perfect garden includes abundant plants that do well with little human intervention, while attracting and supporting all manner of pollinators, plant natives. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Annuals to plant for old-time nostalgia: Longing for grandma’s flowers? Here are 8 vintage garden favorites.
Filling raised beds? Save money—and grow better—with Hugelkultur: Hugelkultur is a different, more natural (and cheaper) approach to raised beds or mounds that doesn’t require so many bags of top soil or compost. Instead, you fill the space with organic matter that gradually decomposes, feeding the soil and plants. Here’s how.
Growing veggies in small spaces: Smaller new varieties can yield great results for vegetables grown in containers.
Plants to plant in spring for a beautiful garden next winter: When you’re planning and planting your spring garden, think ahead to next winter too, and include plants that will create interest in your landscape in the so-called “off season.”
Black innovators who reshaped American gardening and farming: The achievements of 19th-century scientist George Washington Carver have landed him in U.S. history textbooks, but many other agricultural practices and innovations that traveled with enslaved people from West Africa or were developed by their descendants remain unsung. Here’s a look at five.
Want more? You can read all my AP gardening columns here.
Let’s be friends! Follow me @JesDamiano on Instagram
📧 How’m I doing?
I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.
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