How to Grow the Best Tomatoes on the Block
From your own canned sauces to delightful tomato pies, there is so much you can do with this summer produce. Skip the grocery store: to thoroughly enjoy every iteration of tomato, you should grow your own. Even if you don’t have a backyard, you can grow gorgeous tomatoes right in your own home.
Colin Cudmore, founder of the Garden Tower Project, invented a container garden called the Garden Tower 2, which allows anyone to grow organic vegetables easily even on flat rooftops, concrete slabs, and ordinary decks. He has a few tips to make your tomato garden as fruitful as possible.
Tips for Container Tomatoes in Dry Conditions:
- A 140-inch pot or larger is better for growing tomatoes. Use up to 20-inch pots and the plants will respond by getting larger and producing more fruit. Larger pots also hold more root mass and water, which helps a lot as the days get hotter.
- Stick with only cherry or compact, container varieties like determinate (bush) tomatoes.
- Bison, ten fingers of Naples, window box Roma, patio princess, and tumbler tomatoes are all good choices. Any type may be used with proper trellised support.
- Use only potting media (soil) that is labeled for larger pots. These soil mixes often contain composted pine bark and\or peat moss, perlite, or vermiculite. Other mixes use coir, peanut shells, and rice hulls for bulking purposes. Mixes that are too high in peat moss will compress substantially during the growing season, thus reducing root mass. Without this mass, the plants will be unable to develop properly and hold enough water to get through the day.
- Container tomatoes require upright support. Since container varieties tend to be shorter, conical wire trellises with two rings are sufficient (these are readily found in garden centers). Be sure to install them in the container shortly after planting — you are likely to damage the plants by waiting. Some of smaller cherry tomatoes are so small that no support is required.
- Good tomatoes require high nutrient density in the soil. Potting media often comes with approximately a two-week fertilizer charge, then the plants need to be fed or growth will slow. Apply an organic (timed-release or pelleted) fertilizer following the label directions for rate based on pot size. Two weeks after planting, begin watering weekly with a soluble fertilizer. Until the plants begin flowering, you can use a balanced fertilizer with a 1-to-1-to-1 ratio, such as 20-20-20. Once your plants are flowering, change over to a high-potassium fertilizer. Most fertilizers blended for tomatoes fit this description. Organic growers can use a combination of fish emulsion, green sand, kelp meal, and bone meal to get similar results. Be sure to increase feeding as the plants grow larger. Apply more timed-release fertilizer after 10 to 12 weeks. There is good research to support the inclusion of seaweed-based supplements even with a strong conventional fertilizer program.
- While insects are seldom a big problem on tomatoes, I find that diseases are common due to the Northeast’s generally humid summers. Septoria leaf spot occurs on all tomatoes and requires attention or it will defoliate the plants just as the fruit is really coming on. This disease is very easy to diagnose, it starts as scattered speckles or lesions on the lowest leaves. Then the speckles become larger and more numerous and spread upward, eventually leaving dead leaves behind. Without those leaves, the plant cannot produce sugars and the other compounds that go into creating flavorful fruit. Eventually, Septoria leaf spot will kill the plant outright. From the first flower buds, apply copper solutions weekly. If the weather is dry, you can reduce fungicide applications to every two weeks.
- Harvest your tomatoes as they ripen completely. This timely harvest allows the plant to move resources to other fruit. Never leave rotten or overripe fruit on the plant as they will degrade other fruit. For the best flavored fruit, leave the tomatoes on the vine until fully colored. At the first sign of frost, harvest any fruit that looks even somewhat ripe, then toss the plant or cover the plant with row cover during cool periods. The row cover will increase the heat and protect the plants from frost until it gets below 25 degrees F.