Growing tomatoes outside is one of the easiest and most rewarding of all outdoor vegetables. I have some top tomato growing tips and tricks that will help you succeed, whatever type of tomatoes you are intending to grow.
Tomatoes are the number one vegetable to be grown in the home garden. It has many uses in the kitchen and so delicious eaten straight off of the vine. For hundreds of years after it was ‘discovered’ and brought to Europe tomatoes were widely considered to be potentially poisonous. Thankfully, we now know different.
A tomato plant can be grown in the ground, in a planter, in a hanging basket, in a vertical container, and even in an upside-down container. They’re just so versatile to grow. Read on for my guide to growing the healthiest outdoor tomato plants that will produce the largest and juiciest tomatoes.
The Tomato Growing Season
Tomatoes have a long growing season; this is typically 2 to 3 months from planting to harvesting, depending on the variety. They love the heat and will not thrive unless the air temperature is consistently above 60℉ during the day and 45℉ at night.
When all danger of frost has passed in the spring it’s time to start growing tomatoes outside. One of the prime tomato growing tips is to err on the side of caution and wait a couple of weeks after the official last frost date. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of it being warm enough, with the sunny spring days. Planting out too early will, at the very least, stunt the growth of the plants and delay the harvest.
Purchasing Tomato Plants
Although tomatoes can be grown from seed, I prefer to buy seedlings from my local nursery. One reason is because tomato seeds have a long germination period and you need to start sowing 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost, to get the plants ready for transplanting into the open. Germinating seeds requires a lot of attention and there are plenty of other things that need doing in the spring.
There is a large variety available and commercially grown plants are usually disease resistant. This resistance is often denoted by letters after the plant name. For instance, ‘LB’ indicates that it is resistant to late blight and ‘EB’ indicates that it is resistant to early blight.
Look for a seedling that has deep green leaves, a good strong stem, at least the size of a pencil, and is as broad as it is tall. A tomato plant that is 6-8 inches tall and wide is ideal. This plant size will allow the plant to develop a stronger root system so it will produce longer.
Don’t buy scrawny seedlings or plants with tiny tomatoes already on them. The scrawny plants or tiny tomatoes will probably not survive the shock of being transplanted.
Best Tomatoes for Growing Outside
The length of growing season in your area and how the tomatoes will be used are the main points to be taken into consideration when selecting the varieties to grow. A few varieties are good producers in almost any climate.
Early Girl is an early producing variety that matures in about 60 days and will continue to produce all summer. Better Boy and Beef Steak are popular, hardy varieties that are dependable producers. Roma tomatoes are best suited for use in cooking sauces.
When you are growing tomatoes outside, you are spoiled for choice, with so many varieties to select from. Start with a couple of tried and true producers for your growing zone, then experiment with a new variety each season.
Which Type of Tomato to Choose?
Tomatoes are generally classified as determinate or indeterminate. I also like to separate out the heirloom varieties.
Determinate plants have a determined mature size and production amount. This type will grow to a certain height, produce tomatoes all at once, then die. Most varieties of cherry tomatoes and Roma tomatoes are determinate.
The indeterminate varieties will keep growing and produce tomatoes throughout the summer. They can grow very tall so will need good support. These include the beefsteak and Better Boy varieties.
Heirloom types are passed down from generation to generation. They generally produce tomatoes that are more flavorful, colorful, and oddly shaped but are more susceptible to diseases. Heirloom types are also non-GMO and organic.
Preparing the Soil for Optimum Results
Choose a location that will receive at least 7 or 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. About two weeks before planting out your tomatoes, prepare the outdoor soil by working it to the depth of 18-inches. Add 3-inches of compost and sprinkle Epsom salt to the top of the soil and lightly work them into the soil.
Compost will increase soil fertility, prevent compaction, promote drainage, aid in moisture retention, and promote a bio-diverse subculture in the soil.
The Epsom salt will add calcium to the soil to promote strong root growth and help prevent blossom-end rot in the developing tomatoes.
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Some Tomato Growing Tips When Planting Out
Before planting them outside permanently, tomato plants need to be hardened off for about a week. Transfer the plants outside for a progressively greater time each day and then return indoors in the evening. This process will acclimatize the plants and prepare them for transplanting. You can also use a cold frame for the complete hardening off process.
Tomato seedlings should be planted in the soil up to the first set of leaves. All parts of the plant stem that is buried will develop roots and the more roots the plant has, the more nutrients and moisture the plant will be able to uptake.
I like to set tomato plants 3-feet apart so that, as they mature, the foliage does not touch. This allows more light and air to penetrate to the developing fruits.
Dig a hole to the required depth and, taking care not to squeeze the stem to hard, set the seedling in the hole and back-fill with soil. Gently pat down and water thoroughly to ensure the roots are in good contact with the soil.
As it grows a tomato plant will require support from staking or cages. If it was allowed to grow along the ground the fruit would rot. A good tomato growing tip is to build this support at this stage to avoid possible damage to the roots at a later date.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need a steady supply of water and food. They need this applied directly to the roots and not the foliage. I like to incorporate cheap but effective methods for watering and retaining moisture at the time of planting. For watering, I use a plastic bottle with the bottom cut off and the cap removed and bury this alongside the plant. To retain moisture in the soil, I place some small rocks around each plant.
Finally, spread a three-inch layer of straw over the bed to keep the soil warm and prevent weed growth.
Watering and Feeding the Plants
For the first few days after transplanting, water daily. After that, water your plants deeply once a week, or continue a daily routine if the plant is being grown in an outdoor container. Watering should be done early morning so that moisture is available throughout a hot day.
Tomato plants like consistent feeding and a water-soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle-Grow Tomato Plant Food, allows a gardener to provide a consistent source of food and water in one step. Feed the plants every 7 to 14 days.
Plant Care and Pruning
Tomato plants develop ‘suckers’, which form side shoots on the plants. They grow in the ‘V’ formation between the main plant stalk and a side branch. If left alone, these suckers will rob the plants of energy and produce inferior tomatoes.
Pinch off all suckers that develop below the first blossoms on the tomato plants. This will direct all the plant’s energy into developing and ripening tomatoes instead of feeding inferior suckers.
As the plants develop, they should be supported by attaching to the cage, trellis or other structure. Soft ties should be used so that the plant is not damaged.
Pests and Diseases
Purchasing disease resistant plants will mitigate the chances of your plants suffering from many of the traditional diseases associated with tomatoes, such as Early Blight or Late Blight. Further steps, such as correct spacing of the plants and keeping the area clear of weeds, will also help to avoid these fungal infections.
Tomatoes are vulnerable to garden pests, such as aphids and whiteflies. I find that a regular spray of Neem Oil onto the plants, will safely control most of the common garden pests.
The End Result – Time to Harvest
Time to reap the rewards for your hard work.
Tomatoes are ready for harvesting when the fruits change from green to red. The fruit should be firm but slightly springy to the touch.
Snip the tomato from the vine with sharp scissors to prevent damage to the vine when harvesting.
At the end of the season, when there is a danger of a frost, cut any remaining fruits from the vine and put them in a paper bag. Left on a counter top they will ripen in a few days. Never put fresh tomatoes in a refrigerator as this will quickly diminish the flavor.
Growing tomatoes outside is easy and can provide a great way to get kids interested in gardening. If you have outdoor space for growing just one plant, make that plant a tomato. I hope that you have found these tomato growing tips informative and useful.