Soil preparation is best done a month or more before planting. The fall before spring planting is the ideal time to start preparing.
Location: Use a location that is fully exposed to the sun, has good drainage, and free air movement. Tomatoes will grow and produce a few fruits with 6 hrs of daily sunlight, but that is mere survival conditions and more sunlight is definitely better. Find the sunniest location you can and your tomatoes will reward you for it.
Tomato roots do not like soggy conditions, and a few hours in standing water can mean less or no fruit production. Water saturated soil deprives feeder roots of much needed oxygen. It is the breeding ground for fungus and bacteria. Too much water and the plant will die. If you have damp soil conditions, trench the area around your tomatoes. Use the soil from the trench to build up a bed where you'll place the plants.
Air should be able to move freely around and through the plants. Stagnant air results in more pests and disease, so be sure your tomatoes are not surrounded closely by bushes, other tall plants, or structures. Bushes and other tall plants would not only block air movement, they also would compete with tomatoes for water and nutrients, and possibly sunlight. This is not to say that if you are living on the open prairie where 15 mph+ winds are the norm that a windbreak at a reasonable distance wouldn't be helpful. But for most of my suburbanite friends ensuring enough air movements is more likely the concern.
A rich sandy loam is most desirable. Test the soil when it is slightly moist by rubbing it between your thumb and fingers. Sandy soil will feel gritty. Silty soil resembles flour or talcum powder. If the soil will stick together and form into a small ball it is mostly clay. Loam rolled and squeezed between thumb and forefinger will form a loose, crumbly ribbon rather than a sticky ball. A loam with some sandy grit is ideal for tomatoes. Top soil, green sand, compost, worm castings, or prepared organic garden mixes can all be purchased and spaded in with the soil mother nature (or the developer) provided you with until you arrive at the perfect composition. Adding material like kitchen scraps and coffee grounds is not a good idea right before planting or while the plants are growing. These materials, if used at all, along with any livestock manures should be added in the non-growing season or composted first before tilling into the soil where plants are to be grown.
If you have not grown garden plants before on the site, or if you've had problems in doing so, it might be wise to test the pH. Kits or meters can be purchased cheaply at garden or most hardware stores. The pH should be between 6.0 and 7.5. Below 6 is too acidic and the pH needs to be raised by working in bonemeal or garden lime. Make sure it is not hydrated lime which is caustic to plants and humans. If the soil tests above 7.5, peat moss or garden sulfur can be used to neutralize it. With the sulfur or the lime make sure to read and follow label instructions carefully. If you have already been growing a variety of garden plants on the site for some time with no problems you can feel safe that the pH is fine.
Plant after there is no longer a danger of freezing temperatures. Measurable snow has fallen here in Northern IL on May 11. Usually it is the 3rd week of May before old man winter finally loses his grip, and 90% of the time no frost occurs here after May 16. The general rule folks in the area follow is to wait until Mother's Day to plant tender annuals. While waiting to plant you want to expose the plants to as much outdoor air and sunshine as possible. If once planted a surprise freeze is headed your way, protect the plants by temporarily covering them loosely with cardboard boxes, inverted flower pots, plastic jugs, or some similar make-do contraption. But only leave the plant covered as long as is absolutely necessary. The protecting cover you put over the plant, in the sunlight, becomes a small solar oven that will quickly fricassee the plant.
In we go: When the weather settles, ideally pick a cloudy morning that will be followed by rain within 48 hours. Handling the plant gently, remove with a sterile, sharp knife or razor blade all but the crown leaves. Everything but the crown leaves should be planted below ground. Dig a hole about 8 inches wider and deeper than needed. Fill the bottom eight inches with composted cow manure. Carefully remove the tomato plant from its container without bruising it, making sure to keep the potting soil firmly balled around the roots, and place it upright on the compost. Carefully fill the hole back in around the plant with a rather loose half and half mix of the soil you removed in digging mixed with compost. Lightly tamp down the soil around the plant.. When finished, only the top crown leaves and an inch or so of stalk should be above ground. All the stalk below ground will send out roots. Give a good soaking, but do not waterlog the plant. Then pull in some loose soil around the plant completely covering the wet area.. Do not mulch at this time. It's better to allow the soil to breathe and the sun to warm it. Do not cover plants at night unless frost danger is imminent. After being moved to their permanent home, the plants will take a rest for a few days. It's called transplant shock.
During the extreme drought of 2006 I used a soaker hose
in my tomato bed 3 times. End of June, middle of July, and first of August.
The soil was bone dry at the surface and it was necessary to dig a foot or more
to find real moisture. I used a soaker hose all day and night to gradually
let water percolate down deep into the earth where I want the roots to be and
Water when only absolutely necessary, and when you do water, water well. This business of sprinkling once a day, twice a day, or even once weekly only encourages the roots to stay near the surface where they are more susceptible to disease and can find neither the natural nutrients nor sweet rain water needed to build strong plant tissue and produce the best fruit.
Feed the soil, not the plant. Compost, rotted manure, grass
clippings, leaves, sawdust, even shredded newspaper. If the soil's natural
bio-organisms have not been destroyed by harsh chemicals they will in short order turn these amendments into rich black
humus. Starting with the fallen leaves of autumn and all through the
winter I add whatever organic material I can get my hands on to the compost bin or
spread it directly on the
garden. In early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, I roto-till it
and composted cow manure into the soil.
“Have you tried Epsom Salts?”
The summer of 1618 was an unusually hot and dry one for England, consequently Henry Wicker was seeking out a water source for the cattle he was tending on Epsom Commons. In the valley he noticed soggy ground and a small trickle of water in a deep hoof imprint. Inquisitive and hopeful he dug it out deeper. The next morning Henry was elated to discover that the hole he had dug was overflowing with clear water. He knew he had discovered a spring, and he thought he had found a solution to the summer drought. But Henry was mistaken, for no matter how parched and thirsty, the cattle would not drink his new found water. Henry’s disappointment soon turned to joy though when he discovered that the new spring waters possessed soothing and curative powers. News of Henry’s medicinal spring spread quickly and within a few years the village of Epsom grew into a famous spa. But the good times ended in the early 1700’s after chemist Nehemiah Grew spoiled the fun by successfully analyzing the minerals in the spring; identifying magnesium sulfate as the magic in the potion, which unfortunately for Epsom, could be manufactured cheaply. Soon ‘Epsom Salts’ were being sold at merchant counters far and wide negating the need for expensive pilgrimages to the spring.
The question was presented to me last summer whether or not I had tried Epsom Salts for my tomatoes. I knew that they were good for achy feet, but I was ignorant of their horticultural value, so I had to tell Tom, “no, but I’ll look in to it.”
As it turns out there is sound science in favor of using magnesium sulfate for tomatoes and peppers. Not really a salt, magnesium sulfate is a naturally occurring mineral that prompts vigorous seed germination when planting and speeds renewed plant growth after transplanting. Epsom Salts also assist building stronger cell walls, aid the production of chlorophyll, and increase plant absorption of vital nutrients from the soil.
1. Epsom Salt can be used to prep your garden before spring planting by sprinkling up to 1 cup per 100 square feet of garden surface and then working it into the soil.
2. When transplanting tomatoes, work 1 tablespoon of Epsom Salt into the soil at the bottom of each hole.
3. A month after transplanting work Epsom Salt into the soil around the base of the tomato plant at the rate of 1 tablespoon for each foot of height. This can be continued every two weeks.
Mulch should not be applied around the tomato plants until such time as the soil has thoroughly warmed and is likely to remain warm. I don't always mulch. I didn't the wet summer of 2006. A permanently damp mulch would attract slugs and fungal disease. But mulching can be important if rainfall is scarce. 3 or more inches of mulch will keep the moisture in the ground around the plants from evaporating. During the drought of 2005 I layered newspaper around each tomato plant and then covered that with grass clippings. The soil underneath stayed cool and damp while the heat and extreme drought baked the unmulched ground elsewhere. The 2012 July tied a record with 1955 with daily highs above 80 degrees the whole month. The extreme heat and severe drought made me glad once again for having mulched.
Weeds, of course, should be removed faithfully. They rob the tomato plants of nutrients and water. If allowed to grow and take over, they will even rob the tomatoes of sunlight. A weedy tomato patch is a sorry sight indeed. The runty fruits produced don't even taste the way they should. Hand weeding is a simple matter if done regularly early on.
If space is not a problem tomato plants can be allowed to sprawl naturally over the ground, and while many tomatoes will be stunted or rotted, with enough plants planted, there should be many unspoiled large tomatoes. Getting the tomato vines off of the ground by staking or caging reduces the space needed per plant and greatly reduces spoilage. Also the more vertical the plants grow, the more sun they get which increases photosynthesis making them more productive. It is also much easier to see, reach, and pluck a ripe tomato from a supported plant than from one rambling over the ground.
Determinate tomato varieties should not be pruned and do best caged. They require less space than indeterminates.
Indeterminate varieties need the tallest cages of the heaviest gauge wire and the cages will need some kind of support to keep them from tipping over under the weight of the mature plants. Many indeterminate vines will grow to a length of over 6 feet and will spill over the top of most cages.
Determinate tomato plants
should not be pruned. It will halt their development. Staked
indeterminate tomato plants can be pruned as they grow to allow
only 1 or 2 main vines. These then can easily be tied with heavy twine
loosely to the stake for support. Prune all lateral buds as they
form and any suckers emerging near the base. Occasionally nipping the top
of the main stem will encourage development of a leafy canopy that captures lots
of sunlight and protects the fruit from sunscald.
The flower blossoms closest to the main stems will produce the best fruit. Fruit produced at the extremities of branches generally will be of lesser quality. For canning purposes I would allow nature to take it course and not pinch off any blossoms before midseason. For larger fruit for table use, pinch off blossoms as soon as they appear if not near the central stem. After midseason, when ample time would not be left for fruit to ripen, all blossoms can be pinched. The fruit growing on the plant will receive more nutrients and grow larger as a result. If you want small, unripe tomatoes for pickling, or green tomatoes for frying, or plan to ripen fruit indoors after frost, then, of course, leave some blossoms on the vine.
Many tomato varieties can be successfully grown in large pots. More compact cultivars like Bush Goliath, Manitoba, Mike's KOA, Mountain Princess, Lemon Drop, Health Kick and Viva Italian are easily managed in large containers. More open bush varieties like Early Girl, Champion, Celebrity, Traveler 76, and San Marzano will need a little more support, but will still do quite well. I've grown all the red cherry tomato varieties in containers by trimming back the main stems to maintain a desirable height and encourage bushiness. Naturally gangly heirlooms like Snow White, Omar's Lebanese, Amish Paste, Cuostralee, Kellogg's Breakfast, Early Large Red, Big Rainbow, and Giant Belgian are better suited for staking in the garden.
The earliest variety tomatoes should have fruit ready to pick about 50 to 60 days after setting out plants. An Early Girl plant set out on Mother's Day could have a ripe, red, juicy tomato ready to pick shortly after the 4th of July. On the other hand, the first heirloom Brandywine may not be fully ripe before mid-August - but well worth the wait, I might add. Actual harvest dates will, of course, depend on weather conditions and how mature the plants were before setting out. Cool, damp, overcast days will slow maturation. So will extreme heat and drought. Most tomato plants will not set fruit when temperatures fall below 55o, and most will stop growing with day temperatures above 95o or night temperatures over 80o. Fortunately, 80 degree minimum days are rare here in N. IL. Only 31 such days have been recorded since 1871.
Fruit should be allowed to ripen fully on the vine. Vine ripened fruit will have more flavor and be packed with vitamin C. But be aware that during successive days of extreme heat tomatoes will ripen without appearing to because the red pigments will shut down. If left on the vine too long the fruit will spoil, so bring the mature tomatoes inside even though they are still yellow- orange - green and the lower indoor temperatures will cause the fruit to quickly redden.
When separating a fruit from the plant, do not try to force it loose. Some experts recommend twisting while tugging. Cherry tomatoes and many hybrids are easily harvested this way. But I find even with twisting some heirloom varieties do not want to break loose. To avoid injury to the vine I carry scissors with me to clip those stubborn tomatoes free.
Do not refrigerate tomatoes. It does unspeakable damage to the meat and destroys the aroma and flavor.
End of Season
Labor Day's average low temperature is nearly 60o. Thereafter temperatures begin a steady drop of3 to 4 degrees per week with our average first freeze near mid-October. Traces of snow are likely by October's end - but in 2006 measurable snow was recorded on Oct. 12, and on Oct. 18, 1989 over 6 inches fell on the region. By mid-November frost is the norm. However we have had 80 temperatures as late as Nov. 1 and 90's as late as Oct. 6, so making a hard and fast rule about when the tomato season ends would be pure folly.
At the end of the season, when first frost warnings are being forecast, I haul out a large sheet of heavy plastic to have ready to blanket the plants for protection when dips below 35o threaten. Usually the first frost is short-lived and not that extreme. It is more often than not followed by a week or two of frost free days making it well worth the effort of having covered the plants. The cover should not be air tight, and should not be left on once the sun begins to warm the air. There may be a several rounds of these light, short-lived frosts so I leave the plastic out where it can easily be pulled up over the plants.
When the situation gets desperate with winter weather looming and little hope for continued Indian Summer, when it appears the temperatures are going to fall into the low 20o's or freezing temperatures are going to last well into the daylight hours, or there is going to be a string of nightly frosts; it is time to throw in the towel and admit that summer is really, finally, over. Ready or not, all the tomatoes need to be harvested and taken indoors, the vines yanked out of the ground and mulched. There are several good options for the final harvest tomatoes. The smallest green tomatoes can be pickled. The midsized green ones are good fried. The larger ones can be ripened indoors. I have a friend who does this by pulling the whole plant up by the roots and then hanging it upside down in an unheated, dark, closet. He says the larger green tomatoes ripened this way have the most natural texture and flavor. Sounds like something I could recommend, but I store mine in the greenhouse. Once a tomato starts coloring up, I bring it into the house. If I want to ripen a tomato more quickly, I set it near apples. The ethane given off by the apples naturally ripens the fruit.
Winter Tomato Plants
If you're interested in continuing to grow fresh tomatoes to eat after hard frost you could start new potted tomatoes from slips taken from mature garden plants. Considering these will be kept indoors in pots during inclement weather, choose varieties such as Viva Italia, San Marzano, Mountain Princess, or Lemon Drop that will stay confined. These needed to be started at least ten weeks before your anticipated first hard freeze to avoid a lull in fresh harvest. Also, the best growth will be while the noon sun rays are still high in the sky, so consider late July or very early August to start the new plants.