Spring is in the air…and summer is a-comin’! Which means that tomato season is right around the corner! Feeling antsy? Want to make sure your tomatoes are given every opportunity to thrive? Here are a few things to do now to ensure a bountiful crop this year.
#1 - Select the Right Planting Spot
Find the sunniest spot in your garden! Tomatoes need 6-8 hours of sun a day. So, make sure you’ve chosen a planting site that will receive sunlight most of the day.
#2 - Prepare Tomato Friendly Soil
Tomatoes like well-draining soil with a slightly acidic pH (6.2-6.8) and lots of organic matter. Dig compost or aged manure deeply into your tomato beds. Remember that roots will grow out and down, so dig wide and deep (approx. 3 feet in diameter from where you plan to plant your seedlings and 2 feet deep).
Too dry? Try adding some peat moss or coconut coir. Clay-like? Try adding some river sand or perlite to improve drainage. Don’t compost? Create a tomato friendly mix with some coffee grounds and shredded leaves
Need more soil tips? Check out my article on the Difference Between Dirt and Soil
#3 - Perfect Your Transplant
But first…did you buy your seedlings at the local nursery or germinate them from seed? Depending on your answer, the process is a little different.
If you purchased from the nursery and they’re already 6-10 inches tall, dig a hole that’s approximately 2/3 the height of your plant, place your plant inside, and fill the hole.
Why 2/3 of the height? Because tomatoes grow roots along their stems and the more stem in the ground means a stronger root system in the future. This is a good thing!
Alternatively, if you germinated the seeds yourself, and your seedlings have at least 2 sets of leaves and are 2-4 inches tall, you’ll need to decide how vulnerable your small plants might be and make one of two choices:
(1) If you don’t have critters in your garden who are going to munch on the delicate and delicious tomato leaves and stems, and you’ve already hardened off your seedlings, you can use the same method as above.
(2) If you do have critters that you’re worried about, you can protect your plant for a little longer by transplanting your hardened off seedling to a larger pot, letting it grow to 6-10 inches tall, and then transplanting it again to your garden (same method as above).
If you purchased your seedlings this year and want to learn to germinate your own seeds next year, read this and learn the process, it’s easier than you might think!
#4 - Let’s Taco Bout Water…and Mulch
There's nothing more delicious than a yummy taco topped with homegrown juicy tomatoes. But to get those tomatoes to peek juiciness, we've got to get the water right, now.
Tomatoes LOVE water, BUT too much of the good stuff can be detrimental to your tomato crop. So, when and how to water is a biggie that must be figured out early and checked and re-checked often throughout the season.
Obviously, the amount of water you use will depend on the rainfall in your region. But, where I am, in Southern California, we don’t get much rainfall especially in the Spring and Summer, so I am a die-hard supporter of drip irrigation and irrigation timers. This allows me to leave town for a few days without having to worry about my plants.
BUT, once you install your drip line, you can’t just leave and assume that everything will be fine. Make sure to check your plants early and often to ensure that they’re getting the proper amount of daily water. Once you’re happy with the amount of water, check back every once in a while to make sure your lines haven’t sprung a leak or developed a clog. And, as Spring goes into Summer and it starts to heat up, you’ll need to check back and adjust your daily watering routine to account for the higher temperatures.
This might sound like a lot of work, but it’s MUCH easier, more reliable, and safer on your plants than any other method of watering.
Pro tip: Once it starts heating up, add a bunch of mulch to the base of your tomato plants to reduce evaporation throughout the day.
#5 - We All Need Somebody to Lean On
Now that your plants are in the ground and you have their water source figured out, you’ll want to go ahead and install supports. Doing so right after transplanting will help to ensure that your tomato plants’ root structures aren’t disturbed. Once your tomatoes get over 1-2 feet tall, they’ll need somewhere to spread out, so doing this early will save you time later in the season as well. It’s a win-win!
Note: Supports don’t have to be complicated! You can make them on the cheap with stakes and rope or spend a few extra bucks and buy tomato cages or, if you want to get fancy, you can build or buy a tomato trellis.
#6 - Pesky Weeds, You’re Outta Here!
Before their root systems are fully established, tomato plants are especially vulnerable to weeds. If you allow weeds to take over, your tomatoes will have to compete with them for nutrients and they may not win. So, make sure to check your plants and remove pesky weeds on a regular basis.
#7 - Tomato’s Companions
Weeds are not a tomato plant’s friend, BUT there are some other plants that tomatoes love to hang out with. These are called companion plants and they can add delicious flavor to your tomatoes, beautiful colors in your garden, ward off pests, and add more nutrients to your soil.
Love bruschetta? Consider planting basil and garlic in your tomato beds to ward off pests and improve tomato flavor. Just make sure to keep them trimmed low so that the tomato doesn’t get shaded by its companions.
Prefer flowers? Consider planting nasturtiums or marigolds nearby. Both are known to keep many pests away from your tomatoes and they look pretty!
#8 - Fertilize for Stem and Leaf Growth
About a month after transplanting, fertilize with nitrogen-rich fertilizer to provide a healthy structure for fruit to grow.
NOTE: You will need to switch to a phosphorous-rich fertilizer when you’re closer to harvest.
#9 - Let Some Go…
Pruning is an essential part of your early tomato season. Regular pruning early in the season helps shape the plant and develop the stems. Do not skip this step!
#10 - Don’t Forget to Start Planning for your Successful Harvest
Get ready for tomato overload! Throughout the season, my wife and I have an easy tomato, basil, olive oil, and mozzarella salad with every meal.
It's never too early to start looking up and saving tomato-based recipes and canning ideas. Figure out your family’s favorites, so that you can enjoy your tomatoes and share them all season long.
Worried you might have too much of a good thing? No way! Click here to read about the health benefits of tomatoes.