Ah, tomatoes… Probably my favorite thing to grow in my garden every year! They have so many interesting qualities, there are so many differing varieties to choose from, and they help make delicious BLT’s… What’s not to love?! But when I talk to friends, I don’t get the same enthusiasm. Some say their tomatoes don’t grow very tall. Some say their plants get diseased and die. Some follow with their plants just don’t produce very well. A fairly well-known fact is that tomato plants can easily acquire disease if they aren’t cared for correctly. This can result in them dying or producing little fruit. After several years of gardening, planting both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes, indeterminates and determinates, I believe I’ve found a consistent manner to get a solid and beautiful tomato crop year after year.
The 6 Key Components
When aiming to get a beautiful patch of tomato plants that are all tall, strong, and productive, I’ve found that there are six key components. I wouldn’t say these are revolutionary. In fact, I’ve seen these strategies used by many gardeners. This is simply a compilation of what I’ve found to work when used together. While compiling these, I have worked to balance effort with results. Because, I have to agree, some of us can’t spend hours upon hours out in the garden!
When I first grew tomatoes, all I did was plant them, water and wait. The plants grew tall and bushy and when we had our first major thunderstorm, my plants were blown all over the place. They lived, but definitely had some damage that resulted in decreased production. I wasn’t using anything to support and hold the plants in place as they grew. Then I came across a gardener who had tomato plants as tall as 6 feet… and it changed the whole game.
Many people will use structures call tomato cages to support their plants. These work well but limit the support given to the plant to around 2-3 feet. If the plant grows taller than that, it can still topple over. These can work well for determinant varieties that have limited height.
I believe the best methods involve use of the cattle or livestock panel. There are two main methods, one involves two panels per row and the other just one panel per row.
Method one involves placing a cattle panel on either side of your tomato plant rows. As the plants grow, they are held up between the panels and there is a good amount of support holding up the plants. However, if any branches get too long, they can sometimes snap or break. Overall, method one takes little effort.
Method two involves just one panel being placed on one side of the tomato plants. As the plants grow upward, green stretchy garden tape (I’ve also used old t-shirts cut into strips) can be used to tie up the branches to the panel. This method requires a bit more weekly work. However, I feel that it ends up securing your plants the best while still allowing the branches to have some wiggle room and allowing you free access to pick your harvest!
For both of the cattle panel methods, I secure the panels to metal t-posts, one post at each end and one in the middle, using zip ties or fencing wire and usually with the panel 1 to 1.5 feet off the ground.
Going back to the story of my tomato plants left completely alone… another factor that resulted in reduced harvest was that my plants didn’t receive very good air flow. Since the plants were laying over, the air underneath the bushy plant was very moist. It was a breeding ground for disease. I had all hybrid plants that year that were fairly disease recent, varieties like Celebrity. However, I still noticed that my plants just looked tough. It likely was due to them lacking good air flow. This was especially noticeable on exceptionally warm days. In addition, I had tomatoes laying directly on the ground that then were more likely to get tomato rot resulting in waste.
By providing upward support for my tomato plants, I kept the tomatoes off of the ground and hence had very little waste. In fact, the only time I had waste was if I couldn’t see the fruit until it was well past over ripe which happened only a couple of times. By tying up the plant branches to the panel, it also kept the base of the plant free from obstruction and allowed for good air flow around those base branches. The base of the plant is probably the most important. If the base gets diseased, it will spread to the rest of the plant. If a branch higher up gets diseased, you can fix the problem quickly by just pruning if off.
Additionally, to take the whole air flow process one step further, for any branches along the base of the plant that start to grow “suckers” in the “armpit” of the branch, I prune those suckers off. The “armpit” of the branch is simply where the branch joins the main stem of the plant. By pruning these off at the base, this reduces the amount of material around those base stems and allows the plant to “breathe” more. Air flow is absolutely critical for tomatoes, so I take it very seriously!
Watering seems simple, yes? Many people drag out their sprinkler to their garden, turn it on, leave it for several hours and call it good. Wrong! This is so wrong! For tomatoes, this is one of the worst ways to water your plants. Overall, I don’t prefer this method for any part of my garden. But it’s especially bad for tomatoes as it can increase disease. The water can touch branches and leaves that have disease and then drip off of those upper branches into the soil. This can result in more disease for this year’s plants AND for the plants you have in years to come. Yes, essentially rainfall can result in the same problem. That’s why we practice plant rotation (see that section below). However, unless you live in a climate that gets regular rainfall, rains here and there shouldn’t be a long-term problem.
The Soaker Hose
The best tool I found to water a large garden is this little thing called the soaker hose. Soaker hoses slowly water your plants allowing the water to truly soak into the soil right next to the base of the plant. So not only is it better for the plant, but it also actually helps you conserve water as you have less on the leaves of your plants that just evaporates off.
The last key watering technique is to water your plants deeply about two times a week rather than a little bit each day. Personally, I water my garden in the evenings using my soaker hoses for about two hours. By watering in the evenings when the temperature starts to decrease, it also helps reduce the amount that will evaporate before the plants and soil can take it in. Additionally, allowing the hoses to run for at least two hours results in about a good inch or two of water fully saturating the plant roots. This helps to increase the root structure and also the plants productivity. Finally, by keeping a fairly regular watering schedule, you can help reduce the number of tomatoes that have cracked skins.
We can do all things right in caring for the plant, but if there’s no pollination there will be no tomatoes. The cool thing about tomatoes is that not only can they be pollinated by insects such as bees, but they can also self-pollinate. Self-pollination is when each flower can pollinate itself if there is adequate movement to move the pollen down into the follower to fertilize the female part of the flower. Pretty cool, right?! So, taking these two methods of pollination into consideration, there are a few things you can do to make sure that your tomato flowers are pollinated leading to a bountiful harvest.
Attract the Pollinators
First, you can plant other flowers or plants around your tomatoes that will attract pollinators to the area. I’ve planted zinnias and marigolds around mine and the honeybees absolutely loved it. I found that as soon as the zinnias were flowering, the bees were right there and wandered off over into my tomatoes as well. Goal accomplished!
Aid in Self Pollination
Second, shake your plants! No, seriously! In order to cause pollen to move down into the flower through self-pollination, movement is needed. This is why if you tie up your plants, you should always leave some give so that the branches still can get some movement.
If you live in an area with a good amount of wind, you might not have to do a single thing. The wind will move your flowers around and help that pollen get to where it needs to go. However, if you run into a period of little to no wind, you might want to go out and fill in. I grab a branch that has flowers on it, ones that are open and blooming, and do quick, little shakes for about 20-30 seconds before moving on to the next one. This is just enough movement to help ensure those flowers result in beautiful tomato goodness.
Fertilizer isn’t necessary, especially if you have a good garden rotation and exceptional soil. However, if not, you may want to give your plants some supplemental fertilizer. There are multiple brands, types, and recommendations for how often to apply it.
Personally, I like to give my tomatoes and peppers a fertilizer that’s made specifically for them, so they don’t get an overabundance of a nutrient that they don’t need. I give my tomatoes and peppers the Shultz brand fertilizer formulated for tomatoes. It’s water-soluble meaning that you place the recommended amount into a gallon of water, then apply the solution to the base of your plants. If you find that another type would work better for you, then go for it! Try different types until you find the one you’re happy with!
How often you fertilize your plants is also completely up to you. I give mine fertilizer about once every 2-3 weeks, just enough for a little boost. My biggest recommendation, however, is to not over fertilize them. This can lead to plants with lots of foliage and little produce.
Utilizing plant rotation in your garden is good practice for more than just your tomato plants. There are studies that evaluate soil quality when plants are rotated year to year using a general path. For this post, however, we are going to focus particularly on the importance of rotation in regards to tomatoes.
Disease, it can be an eternal battle to fight and take preventative measures over. As we discussed before, when it rains or if you water from over-head the plants, disease can transfer from your plants to the soil. If you were to plant your tomatoes in the same spot year after year, you may find that your plants will easily become disease stricken. If you were to plant other plants from the same family as tomatoes (nightshade family) such as peppers and potatoes in the soil, you may find that you have the same problem. The disease issue is because the plant pathogens start to become concentrated in the soil.
Three Year Rotation
To prevent concentrated plant pathogens, leave the soil free of a nightshade plant for at least 2 years. This should allow time for the plant pathogens in the soil to become non-viable. So, a general rotation for my garden might look like planting tomatoes one year. Year two in the rotation I might plant beets, onions, or beans. Year three, I might end the rotation with another round of beans if necessary or more likely something like lettuce, cabbage, broccoli or squash. Year four, I would return and plant a nightshade family plant like tomatoes. There are a good number of crop rotation plans on the internet.
The main thing is that you want to find a plan that works best for you based off of what you actually like to grow and eat. Remember that it’s not an exact science, so don’t get too caught up in the order.
Some final things to consider
So, you’ve followed all the guidelines, you did your best to care for your plants, and you still ended up with plants that didn’t produce very well. It’s important to remember that different tomato varieties have different requirements and perform differently. Look at the variety you’re planting very closely. Is it meant to be grown in your climate? How about your garden zone and length of growing season? Has this variety been known to do poorly where you’re at? Sometimes the plant might simply not enjoy your soil type. I encourage you to try different varieties and read the reviews of each. I plan to write a review of the varieties I plant in my garden each year for the benefit of those who need a baseline opinion. Check out my past reviews here.
Your local garden centers are also a good place to ask questions. If it’s a greenhouse worth its salt, the people who work there likely have done their research to find varieties that will thrive in the area. They also may know that your area has a specific problem that’s not common and may be able to guide you to a solution. Utilize their knowledge, learn from them.
However, remember to be courteous, especially if it’s a small business. They’ve done a good deal of work to provide plants that will do well for you. Personally, this is why I still buy a few starts from our local garden center each year. They are a wonderful resource for me, always answering questions and being so helpful. I repay this kindness by giving them some of my business. They’re a small family-owned greenhouse and supporting businesses such as these is important. If we don’t, one day they may not be around.