33 Awesome Tips for Planting, Growing and Harvesting Tomatoes

Tomato Fact #1: Did you know that Canadian farms produce close to a million metric tons of tomatoes in Canada every year?

Tomato Fact #2: All greenhouse-grown tomatoes are sold for fresh consumption.

Tomato Fact #3: Canadians consumer approximately 1.33 litres of tomatoes every year. (source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry)

Tomatoes are used practically almost everyday in everything from pastas to salads to soups and more…

Here are some tips that we use to grow our own awesome tomatoes and you can do too in your own backyard garden.

Read on and get growing!

Planting Tomatoes

1. Location, Location, Location

tomato-plant-location

Tomato plants need lots of strong direct sunlight.  In fact, they need anywhere from 8-10 hours of light each day in order for them to flourish and minimize the risk of disease.

Plant where there are no large trees or buildings nearby so that the sun is not blocked.

If you aren’t sure, mark off an area that you think has sufficient sunshine and check back every 2-3 hours in a day to see if the sun still reaches that spot.

2. More than Breathing Room

Overcrowded seedling plants result in poor in air circulation and can raise humidity levels which lead to disease.  Spacing plants too close together can also cause some plants to shade each other; without adequate sunlight plants can suffer from blossom drop and fail to flower and set fruit.

If you allow your plants to sprawl, measure off two shoe sizes (shoe size 10 ~ 11 inches) and a bit and you’ll get pretty close to the recommended 24 inches apart.

If you plan on staking or caging your tomatoes, measure off 1.5 shoe sizes and you’ll get pretty close to the recommended 15 inches apart.

3. Turning Up the HEAT On Soil

It’s a fact, Tomatoes LOVE heat.

Extra degrees of soil warmth will translate into earlier tomatoes.  Who doesn’t want early tomatoes?

Use plastic (black or clear) to cover the planting area before you intent to plant.  Some say that clear plastic works better because it allow the sun’s energy through while trapping the heat energy.

When you add the plastic covering, it will cause the weed seeds to germinate faster and then kill them so they won’t come back.

4. Soil Power Up

Like anything you create, grow or build, starting out with the right foundation is critical to future success.

Get a high quality soil base to make sure that you have enough nutrients for the plant to draw from.  Later on, you can continue to add to this soil with other nutrients as they become depleted.

5. To Determinate or Indeterminate

Selecting the right type of tomato plant is dependent on what you plan to do with them.  If you want a large quantity of tomatoes quickly, then select a determinate variety.  If you want to eat fresh tomatoes on an ongoing basis (at least for a while) go for the indeterminate variety.

Determinate – Grow to a certain height (approximately 3 feet tall), stop growing, and then set and ripen their fruit all at one time.

Indeterminate – The plants like to grow tall before it starts to set fruits and the fruit will ripen at different times.

If you are looking to make your own tomato sauce, go for the determinate variety so that you can harvest a large quantity to use.

6. Meet Hairy Vetch – An Organic Friend

hairy-vetch

To keep your tomatoes healthy and strong, many organic gardeners often plant hairy vetch in the garden bed as opposed to rotating crops in small growing spaces.  Hairy vetch is known to fix nitrogen in the soil and provide almost all the needs of the subsequent crop.   In addition, it also supports several beneficial insects and can host several species of nematodes.

Plant hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) in the fall and let it grow.  When it is time to plant tomatoes in the spring, cut the hairy vetch right down to the ground and plant the seedlings through matted residue.  Doing it this way not only provides nitrogen, but the hairy vetch also acts like a mulch that preserves the moisture and prevents weeds from sprouting.

7. Young and Green – Buying Seedlings

The simplest way to identify which seedlings to purchase is when it looks healthy.  This means that the foliage is clean, has a dark green color and is sturdy.

If there are flowers showing or the leaves at the bottom are turning yellow or brown, then you have a plant that has been stressed.

Take a closer look at the leaves, top and underneath, to make sure that there are no chew marks or insects like aphids.  If there are, don’t buy it.

Getting the most productive plant means choosing the healthiest, pest-free plants that you can find.

8. More Roots = More Fruits

tomato-planting-more-roots

It’s all what we want when we plant a tomato plant, lots of tomatoes to use in our salad, to make sauce and to just eat them with a dash of salt.  There are a couple of ways you can encourage more roots from your plant.

Dig a deeper hole – plant your tomato plants deeper than the pot they come right up to top few leaves.

Dig a shallow trench – lay your tomato plant sideways and within a few days, the plant will straighten itself out and grow toward the sun.

The stems will be able to develop roots all along it which makes for a stronger plant, better foundation, and greater ability to absorb nutrients and water.  As an added bonus, a larger root system near the soil surface will mean more heat is available to the plant, producing earlier tomatoes.

9. Tomatoes like Eggs too!

tomato-crushed-eggshell

When you plant your seedling in the deep hole, use a handful of crushed egg shells because it provides the tomato plants thrive on calcium.

The calcium from the from egg shells is absorbed into the roots and into the stems of the plant.  If you have yellowing tomato plants, it is a sign that you have a calcium deficiency.

As an added bonus, when you boil your eggs, don’t throw away the water as it is full of calcium from the egg shells.  Let the water cool off and water your tomato plants with it.

10. Break the Disease Cycle

To get rid of disease-causing organisms and stop the cycle, place your tomatoes on a 3-year rotation schedule with unrelated crops.  Unrelated crops such as corn, beans, or lettuce will break the disease cycle.

Make sure you don’t plant members of the tomato family which includes peppers, eggplants and potatoes.

In addition, get rid of diseased plants instead of composting them.  Either throw them away or burn the diseased plants and any other garden debris like mulch or weeds that were in contact with the diseased plants.

Growing Tomatoes

11. “A Little Vinegar With My Soil Please”

Tomato plants like soil that has a pH between 5.5 – 6.8 so they are considered to be acid loving plants.

Acidic soils have iron in a soluble form which allow plants to take in the iron contained in the soil. Tomatoes have a high iron requirement to help it flourish and grow. Alkaline soils also have iron, but not in soluble form and can’t be absorbed by the tomato plant.

You can gauge whether your soil is acidic or alkaline by using two simple household items: vinegar and baking soda.

Put a couple spoonfuls of soil into two separate containers. In one container, add some vinegar.  If it fizzles, it means that your soil is alkaline and you are done.  If it doesn’t fizzle, add water to other container with soil so it becomes wet and muddy.  Add some backing soda to it and if it fizzles, it means your soil is acidic.  If neither sample fizzles, then your soil probably has a neutral pH of 7.

For other ways to determine soil pH, check out these tests.

12. Stake Them High

tomato-staking

Keeping disease away from tomato plants is always an ongoing issue, but manageable.  One way is to use 6-foot stakes (what is showing above ground) or a trellis system for indeterminate tomatoes.

By keeping the ripe fruit off the ground, it is less susceptible to disease and it is easier to harvest.

A basic trellis structure is 8-foot steel stakes pounded approximately 18 inches into the ground at 4-foot intervals.  Attach horizontal wires to the stakes with 1-foot vertical intervals to provide the tomato vines support as they grow.

13. A Balanced Approach: 5-5-5

Maybe Hairy Vetch isn’t your thing, consider adding a small amount of balanced organic fertilizer like 5-5-5 and work it into the soil just before you decide to plant the tomato seedlings.

Fertilizing too much before the plant is well established and in full flower means you get lots of foliage and very little fruit.

Putting down a small amount of 5-5-5 balanced fertilizer gets the plants off to a good and healthy start.

14. Tie them up – White Glove Handling

tomato-tying-up

When you want to support your plants, avoid the use of wire or string.  Try using strips of soft cloth or green growing tape so that it will not girdle the stem.

15. Watering the “Right” Way

Knowing how much to water and when is important to helping to developing healthy tomato plants and fruits.  Always try to water directly on the soil and not on the leaves to minimize the chance of disease.

When the plants are developing: water the plants deeply and regularly.  Get at least 1 inch of water per week.

When at the height of summer: soak your tomato bed once a week or every five days.

When the fruit begins to ripen: ease up on the watering to help coax the plant into concentrating its sugars for better flavor.  If you hold back too much water, the plants will wilt and become stressed.

16. Getting Water to Where It’s Really Needed

tomato-irrigation-deep-watering

Tomatoes have two sets of roots, some are at the surface and the lower ones drink in the water.

Sink a pipe vertically, be careful not to hurt the stem, into the ground when you plant out.  The pipe allows you to get water down to where it counts quickly and efficiently.

17. A Rock and Some Water

If you are in a period of drought, considering using some flat rocks and place one next to each plant.  The flat rocks will pull up water from under the ground and keep it from evaporating into the atmosphere.

18. Prune or not to Prune

Indeterminate tomato varieties require (or benefit from) pruning because they continue to grow unlike determinate varieties, which stop growing.

Pruned plants will yield fewer and larger fruit (great for sauces), while unpruned plants will yield greater numbers of smaller fruit.

19. Prune it Right

tomato-pruning

Prune off non-fruiting branches.  These are shoots that develop between the stem and the main branches.  By doing so, you will direct the tomato plant’s energy into growing bigger and better fruit.

However, you will need to go easy on pruning the rest of the plant because it is the leaves that are photosynthesizing and creating sugars that give flavor to your tomatoes.

When your tomato plant grows to a height of 65 to 90 centimeters, remove the lower leaves from the bottom 25 centimeters to prevent the development of fungus.

You may also want to prune off the leaves (that have yet to change color) around the full size tomatoes to get more sunlight for the fruit, increase air flow and minimize disease.

20. Remove those Suckers (fruit bearing branches)

Why would you want to remove fruit bearing branches?  It depends on what you want the plant to do.

Sometimes you prune out the suckers so that the plant doesn’t get top heavy.  Another reason is that the plant can produce more fruit than it can mature in time for the fall season.

If you aren’t sure, prune one plant and not another and see what happens.  You’ll know better next time around.

21. Adding Just Enough Compost/Mulch

When the first fruit is ripening, add some compost around the stem and trim some of the upper leaves to encourage new growth and continued fruit.

Make sure that it is also warm enough outside and the ground has had a chance to warm up before adding mulch. While mulching does conserve water and prevents the soil and soil-borne diseases from splashing up on the plants, putting it down too early it will also shade and therefore cool the soil.

22. Dry Leaves = No Infection

Tomatoes can become infected when airborne spores land on wet plants, as a result never use an overhead sprinkler or water from above. If it rains you can’t do anything about it, but try not to unnecessarily get the plants wet.

When watering, always keep the water towards the base of the plant, and try and keep the leaves dry.

Using drip or soaker hose irrigation is the best way to do this.

23. Mid-summers Refill is Nitrogen

It’s mid-summer and you’ve watched your tomatoes grow and grow.  If you have low organic matter in your soil, you might run out of nitrogen for your tomatoes by mid to late summer.  You’ll know by the yellowing of the lower leaves. With low nitrogen levels in the plant, the plant can get early blight disease which spreads like wildfire.

Control early blight by keeping up nitrogen levels up from mid to late summer and significantly improve the number of fruit.

Also consider using water soluble fertilizers and use according to label directions. These are good summer fertilizer supplements.

24. Cutting out the Cutworm

protecting-from-cutworm

Cutworms are one of the many pests that can affect your tomatoes.  Cutworms chew through the stem of the plant, effectively killing it.  You can stop this from happening by placing a “collar” around the stem of the plant where it goes into the soil.

Take an old cardboard toilet paper roll holder or a strip of newspaper and create collar around the stem.  Make sure the collar is at least 1 inch below and 1 inch above the soil surface.

Once the stems toughen up in 3-4 weeks, cutworm damage is no longer an issue and the paper collar will have rotted away.

25. Some side dressing with the tomatoes please

Side dressing is the application of fertilizers in a shallow furrow or band along the side of vegetable row crops or in a circle around individual plants along the drip line.

Side dressing gives extra nutrients to the plants so that they can produce to their full potential.

Apply the side dressing 2-3 weeks after transplanting, at blossom time, before first picking and 2 weeks after the first picking.

26. Solarize your soil

Harness the sun’s energy to help you control nematodes and weeds.   During the hottest part of the summer, moisten the area and cover it with a sturdy plastic tarp.  Leave the tarp in place for at least 3-4 weeks and it will kill the weeds and nematodes.   It is also an effective treatment for other pests and disease pathogens.

Harvesting Tomatoes

27. Harvesting the Fruit

You can see when the fruit is ready to be harvested when it is a solid color (red, yellow, etc.) from top to bottom, but still firm.

By keeping an eye on how the fruit is developing, you may need to harvest daily or every other day.

The best-tasting tomatoes have a balanced ratio of sugar to acid.  As the sugars increase so does the color of the fruit. So during the longer days of summer, tomatoes that ripen in this time have more sugar than those who mature during shorter days of summer.

Once you pick them, store tomatoes on your kitchen counter, where the temperatures are above 50° F (10° C), instead of in your refrigerator’s crisper. The cold temperature can spoil the tomato flavor and texture.

28. Pick it Right

Grasp a ripened tomato gently and firmly. Twist it until it snaps off the vine.  You may also want to use clipper or knife to harvest tomatoes. Cut the stem close to the fruit.

29. Looks Count!

Tomatoes will always ripen from the inside out. If a tomato looks ripe on the outside, it will be ripe on the inside.

30. Watch the Temperature

Tomatoes stop ripening are above 30C / 86F. If you have a long string of hot days, or if you live in an area that has consistently hot summer temperatures, then tomatoes may ripen to a yellow/orange color and stop. Harvest them before they turn completely red.

Even if the days are overcast or cloudy and warm, the fruit will continue to ripe because tomatoes need warmth and not light to continue the process.

31. Save Your Own Seeds

saving-tomato-seeds

Instead of buying seedlings, consider saving your own seeds from your own crop.

Select the best looking fully ripe tomato, squeeze the seed mass into a jar, fill it with water and shake well.  In a day or so, rinse the seeds through a strainer and dry them on a plate for a couple of weeks or until fully dry.  Store in a cool dry spot and you are ready for next year’s growing season.

32. Ripening Tomatoes – Go the distance

tomato-ripening

When the fall months arrive and you still have several green or partially ripe tomatoes on your vines,  don’t let those tomatoes go.  Here are two ways to ripen them properly even when you don’t have the warmth or sun to mature the fruits.

Ripening Indoors – Pick the tomatoes and cover them with a single sheet of newspaper in a warm and dark spot.  The tomatoes will continue their ripening process.  Check on them once a while to make sure they don’t over ripen.  Remember to never ever put them on a windowsill.  It may turn red, but it won’t be ripe.

Ripening Outdoors – Cut a semicircle around the plant that is 2 inches from the stem and 9 inches deep.  By cutting some of the roots, you’ll shock the plant into forcing all its strength into ripening its fruit.  Make sure you only do this near the end of season.

33. Long term storage of tomatoes

If you are looking to store your tomatoes for a longer period, you can freeze them.  Remove the core of fresh unblemished tomatoes, place them entirely into freezer bags or containers and seal.  Label them along with the date you froze them.  When you defrost the tomatoes, the skin will slip right off making it perfect for creating sauces.