Tomatoes! Determinate? Indeterminate? Heirloom? Caged? Staked? Pruning? Feeding? Relax, it isn’t so very hard to grow tomatoes successfully. Start with rich, fertile soil in a sunny location out of direct wind and be prepared to provide plenty of water and fertilizer.
Determinate tomato plants produce all of their fruit at once and then the plant is finished. This is ideal for those who like to can salsas and sauces. The flowers blossom at the end of the shoots and they tend to be bushier, thicker plants which make them a good choice for smaller growing spaces. Determinates generally require less pruning and staking with the exception of the more vigorous varieties that produce large, heavy fruit that will indeed require staking or caging.
Indeterminate plants continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the season until the first hard frost. Their flowers bloom along the vines and they tend to sprawl and usually require staking and pruning. Depending on the variety, indeterminates can grow well over 6′ tall and are particularly desirable if you’d like a continuous harvest for slicing or salad tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes can also be used for canning but you may need a few more plants so that you have plenty to can at any one time.
Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been passed down from season to season, from the plants that have produced the best fruit for juiciness, size, taste, shape, and colour. Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate.
Cages or stakes are required to support the stems of the plant so that they do not bend and break while bearing the heavy weight of the fruit and this keeps the fruit off the ground and therefore less likely to rot. This also keeps the plant itself from sprawling along the ground making it less prone to disease and pests. If you stake, you can offer one 5′ to 6′ stake for every plant and as the plant grows, tie the stem loosely to the stake every 12″. Another staking method is to use twine, perhaps on a straight row of plants or in squares of four plants. Use stakes to support the twine and then string several rows of twine from stake to stake every 12″. With little help, the plants will learn to use the staked twine for support. If you cage, you will require one cage for every plant. There are also trellises, tripods, ladders, and other ways to get creative with tomato staking.
Pruning, which mostly involves removing suckers, can help keep the plant compact and prevent sprawl and can make it easier to be supported by cages and stakes. Pruning can also improve production and promote air circulation which helps to minimize disease.
Over pruning can remove shoots that would have become fruit, can remove leaves that would have fed the plant and can remove foliage that would have protected fruit from sunscald.
Pruning happy medium: Prune the suckers that grow below the height of the first cluster of flowers to help keep the main supporting stem strong. Leave in place the suckers in the upper portion of the plant that will eventually produce flowers and fruit.
Feeding (fertilizing) rule of thumb is to choose the N-P-K ratio (% of Nitrogen – % of Phosphate – % of Potassium) that best suits your soil. If you don’t know your soil, you may be able to use an even ratio (ie 10-10-10). Nitrogen aids foliage, phosphate helps roots and fruits, and potassium is for photosynthesis and to fight disease. If you have tried to grow tomatoes in the past and get beautiful foliage but little fruit you likely have soil high in nitrogen so can choose a fertilizer with less nitrogen such as 5-10-10. Fertilize once a week being sure to water the plant first, otherwise, a thirsty tomato plant can draw in too much fertilizer and become burned. Compost provides beneficial slow-release nutrition to tomatoes and other plants and is ideal to mix into the soil before planting, and can also be used as a mulch.
Plant your nursery tomato plant into the garden once the soil is warm and all threat of frost has passed and the plant has has been hardened off, which means to expose it more and more to the outdoors over a period of one to two weeks so that it can adjust from its temperate greenhouse environment. Dig a hole as deep as the roots plus half the length of the stem. This buried portion of stem will grow roots and help to develop a stronger plant. Provide water and once the soil is lovely and warm place a layer of mulch on top of the soil around the plant to help retain moisture and prevent the lowest growing fruit from resting on the ground. Patiently nurture until you can slice and enjoy!