We’ve waited patiently, or not, and April 15th has finally arrived.  No, it’s not because we’re so excited about doing taxes, it’s because we can finally plant all of our warm weather plants!  The winter visions of red, juicy tomatoes, vine-ripened cantaloupe, crisp cucumbers without the waxy outside, squash of all varieties…these may now become a reality.

I’m asked all the time if I start my plants ahead of time.  My answer is, I try and seem to always fail miserably (I’m not patient nor attentive enough).  My preference is to start most of my warm weather crops by direct sowing.  That means I wait till it’s warm enough and put the seeds directly into the ground where I want them to grow.

I do buy transplants for tomatoes and peppers.  I tend to buy a lot of the Roma and paste varieties since I can tomato sauce for winter use.  That’s a lot of sauce for this family!

Because tomatoes are a very popular summer veggie (although, they really are a fruit), I thought I’d add a few pointers for growing tomatoes.

  • DON’T buy the tomato cages you find at the store.  They have a serious design flaw.  When the tops of the plants are full of tomatoes, they become top heavy.  The tomato cages aren’t able to hold the weight and they fall over, often snapping the tomato plant.
  • Make your own cages.  Invest in a heavier gauge wire fencing and create cylinders to place over the tomato plant- they should have a 1 ½  to 2 foot diameter.  Use long pieces of rebar, driven into the ground, to secure the cylinder cages around each plant.  Make sure you’re able to get your hand through the squares on the fencing.  There’s nothing more frustrating than finding the perfect, juicy tomato and not being able to get to it.  As the plant grows, pull the branches through the fencing to help spread it out.
  • Before you plant your tomato plant, strip the main stem of ½ to 2/3 of the little branches – starting at the base.  Plant the tomato deep in the ground, leaving about 2” of space before the first set of remaining leaves.  Tomato plants are fascinating in the fact that they grow roots from the main stem wherever it has contact with the soil.  If the plant is deeper in the soil and there is a greater root structure, the plant is stronger and more secure. The increased amount of roots allows for more nutrition to be used by the plant resulting in a better yield.
  • Be sure to keep the lower leaves on the plant from touching the ground which leads to a greater chance for disease.  Snap off the lower branches – the plant will be fine.
  • If you find that you have brown spots on the bottom of your tomatoes, there are a couple of things to look for:   1. Are you watering from the top of the plant?  The water accumulates at the bottom of the fruit and sits there causing it to rot.  2. Too much water, either from you or just a lot of rain, will cause rot.  3. There could be a calcium deficiency in your soil.  If you’ve taken care of the water issues and you’re still having problems, side dress each plant with some calcium.  Side dressing= adding fertilizer or mineral to an individual plant by putting a ring of the substance around the plant at the drip line – where the rain or water would fall off the plant and onto the ground.  This way you’re assured the substance will be worked into the soil.
  • Tomatoes require quite a bit of water so sometimes it’s tricky not to over water or give too much at once.  A great idea is to take 2-liter  soda bottles and cut off the bottom.  Pierce the cap with several holes and replace it on the bottle.  Bury the bottle, cap end in the dirt, and fill the soda bottle with water.  It will slowly release the water into the ground making water consumption much more efficient for the plant.  Also, it will give time for any chlorine to evaporate from the water if you’re using city water, and the water will be warmed by the sun – a much preferred temperature by the plant.
  • Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family which is toxic.  The tomatoes aren’t toxic but the plant (stem and leaves) is so don’t feed it to your livestock.  Animals can eat the tomatoes, however.

The time and effort put into your tomato plants at the beginning of the season will certainly pay off…and when you take that first big bite from a sun ripened tomato from your own garden, it will seem like no effort at all!