Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes

This is my third season of growing tomatoes, and believe me, I have learned a lot in three years. But perhaps one of my greatest sources of knowledge came from a Hydroponic Tomato Growers Workshop that I attended last spring in California. This workshop was geared towards people who were considering starting their own greenhouse tomato business. This was a HUGE source of information for me! There were so many things that I wasn’t doing, and so many things that I was doing in the wrong way. So, from my experience and from what I learned at that workshop, here are are Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes.

Me & the tomatoes

#1. Start ‘em Early

Ok, you probably knew this one. In Canada our growing season is so short, not only due to the cold, but also due to our limited sunlight hours in the winter. We do have enough sunlight to grow foliage (like lettuce and the like), but we don’t get enough sunlight to produce fruit until about March. So if you have a sunny south window (or artificial lighting), start your tomato plants in late February/early March. That should give you a well established plant to transplant into your greenhouse. Read more about transplanting tomatoes…

#2. Grow Tomatoes in a Greenhouse

You know, tomatoes can be grown in the great outdoors, but they will be one or two months behind those that are in a greenhouse. I’m not sure how many frost-free days you have in your specific area, but you probably don’t want to lose two months of them.

So build a little greenhouse. It doesn’t have to be huge, although you can build a good sized greenhouse for little money as this article explains. Otherwise, Alberta’s weather may greatly hamper your bumper crop.

#3. Don’t Plant ‘Em Too Close

This can be said for lots of things. But especially tomatoes. They are such little plants when you transplant them, it’s easy to forget what a jungle they will grow to be in a couple of months. I did it. (twice) My mother-in-law did it. But don’t do it.

Tomatoes need proper air circulation, not to mention that pruning a jungle is difficult. The exact spacing will vary with variety, but as a general rule, put at least two feet between plants.

#4. Mulch Like Crazy

A good layer of straw mulch will help in a couple of ways. First of all, it’ll suppress the weeds. (That alone is worth it.) Secondly, it’ll keep the soil moist. Tomatoes are heavy drinkers and need a lot of water. A drip irrigation system coupled with a good thick mulch will make sure your tomatoes get the water they need. Just be sure not to over water – that’s what causes your tomatoes to split.

#5. Prune Often

This is the one that often gets missed. Some people believe that the more leaves the plant has, the more energy the plant will receive. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Yes, plants do need some leaves, but too many leaves will actually drain energy away from the plant. All the water and nutrients that the roots soak up must be distributed to those extra leaves, instead of the fruit. So here’s what you need to do.

First, eliminate all suckers. Suckers are the little shoots that appear in the elbow between the stem and a branch. Just bend it over and it will snap right off.

Tomatoes Needing Pruning

Secondly, remove any branches that are brown or wilting at the bottom. These do your plant no good. Get rid of them. For these, grasp the stem firmly in your hand and push the branch down with your thumb – it will snap off at its natural breaking point.

Did you know that it only takes three branches to support one cluster of fruit? A healthy, unstressed tomato plant should put out three branches, then a cluster of fruit, three more branches, another cluster of fruit, etc… Once the tomato plant has reached a good size, you can start removing three branches per week from the bottom of your plant. Thus, by the time you are ready to pick your tomatoes, there will be no leaves below that fruit cluster. Sounds crazy, I know – but that’s what the professionals do!

Note: For all tomato pruning, avoid cutting them off with a knife or other tools. Snapping them out with your fingers is very easy and the wound caused by breaking heals quickly. A cut is more likely to allow disease to enter.

#6. Pick BEFORE Tomatoes Are Ripe

This is another one that sounds crazy. Popular belief would have you “vine-ripen” your tomatoes. Surely they are sweeter, tastier, and probably better for you…. NONSENSE.

The fact is, by the time the tomato just starts to turn color (that slight greeny-orange color), it already has all of it’s goodness in it. And it’s actually the seeds inside that make the tomato ripen. As the seeds release ethylene (the gas applied to green bananas to make them turn yellow), the tomato ripens.

Don’t get this confused with the tomatoes in the store that are picked green and sprayed with ethylene – these are picked too early and do NOT have all the goodness inside yet.

So why not let them stay on the vine? A plant’s job is to reproduce itself. If the plant thinks it has successfully produced fruit, it will begin to shut down and produce less. But if you take the fruit away before it sends the “Mission Accomplished” signal to the plant, the vine will continue to pour it’s energy into producing fruit. (I hope I didn’t get too scientific for you there…)

#7. NEVER Refrigerate Tomatoes

Store tomatoes at room temperature. Never refrigerate. Temperatures below 12° for even a half an hour will begin to destroy the flavor. They may keep longer, but the amazing flavor that comes from a home-grown tomato will be lost.

So there you have it – not a comprehensive list by any means, but it’ll certainly get you on your way to growing delicious tomatoes in your own backyard. If you know of any other essentials to growing tomatoes, feel free to leave your comments!


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35 Responses to Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes

  1. Linda Ouimet says:

    I read your articles earlier and decided to create my own dirt, with 1/3
    peatmoss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost from 3 different sources.
    I am growing flowers, tomatoes and zucchini, and cucumbers in this
    soil. I am finding that the leaves of the tomatoes are taking on a lighter green color and have curling of the leaves and the leaves of
    the tomatoe plants are streaked a light green to white color. Can
    you help me to figure out what is happening with them? The tomatoes are growing well, other than one beefsteak tomato looks
    like it has many scratches on the bottom of it. I also was wondering
    whether I need to fertilize everything or not with such good soil?

    • anna says:

      1/3 compost, 1/3 dirt(sand in it) some peat moss in Alberta
      Feed tomatoes Iron , blood meal bone meal alfalfa pellets, epsom salt a teaspoon per month
      looks like your plant needs iron chelated is best.

  2. Linda Ouimet says:

    One more question in regards to your tomato growing tips, when
    you are growing determinate tomatoes do you still remove suckers,
    and if you do will that hurt the plant?

  3. Dave says:

    Linda, let’s see if I can answer all of your questions. First, the leaf curl – this is often a sign of stress and is quite common in outdoor tomato plants. If it were in a controlled environment like a greenhouse, then you might have other problems, but most often this harmless to your plants. There could be many causes – a severe pruning, over watering, transplant stress, etc…
    The color issue is likely a deficiency of some sort – I would guess maybe iron. Plain ol’ manure should clear this up.
    As for whether or not to fertilize your “home-made” dirt, you shouldn’t need fertilizer in the first year, but if you add a handful per square foot each year, that should be sufficient. However, depending on what compose material you use, your soil could be deficient of some things and fertilizer may in need.
    And lastly, I would still remove suckers on determinate tomatoes. As well, for indeterminate tomatoes, at about one month before frost, I would pinch out the growing tip at the top and let the plant put all of it’s energy into existing tomatoes.
    Hope this helps!

  4. Linda Ouimet says:

    Dave, thanks for your reply, I really do enjoy reading your website.
    I am a new gardener, and are growing tomatoes in raised boxes that
    are attached to the deck, in which I added the dirt that you discussed
    in a previous website. Can I put the manure, which is a mix of cow,
    chicken, horse, etc. on top of the plant, or will it burn it ? The other
    question I had about the discoloring of the leaves, could it be from
    hail, as we have had our share of it?

  5. Dave says:

    Be sure that the manure you add is fully composted before you add it to existing plants. If the manure is ‘home-grown’, it should be composted for at least six months. If it’s store bought manure, it’s most likely already composted. Fully composted manure can be safely added to the soil around your plants. (Ideally, fall is the best time to add manure when there is no threat of burning your plants with fresh manure. Plus you can mix it into your soil without disturbing your plants.)

    Hail damage is usually white spots or tears with brown edges. From what you described to me, it doesn’t sound like hail damage. If you could take a picture and send it in to me, I could probably give you a better idea of the cause. (email to dave@albertahomegardening.com)

  6. Jennifer says:

    great post…I think I ran out of the house and had to prune my tomatoes immediately! It sure helps!

    I would love to see a post on how to prevent worms/moths in radishes and turnips

    as well…..

    watering systems….greenhouse and outdoors! We bought some soaker hoses at Canadian Tire but they all seem ot have holes in them…Not impressed!

    I am so impressed with your greenhouse tomatoes…..I need a greenhouse NOW!….. :)

  7. Doris Rodgers says:

    Enjoyed your article. Great tips. Can you recommend some good varieties of greenhouse tomatoes for Alberta? I am growing mine in ‘Maxi-Caps’ in the greenhouse. My favorites so far are Sungold, Sugary and Juliette.
    I am trying some heirloom varieties this year as well. Paul Robeson, German Red are doing well but some of the others are not. Some varieties are getting serious blossom end rot and others are not setting on much fruit. Any advice you could offer would be appreciated. Thanks.

  8. Dave says:

    In my experience, I’ve found Cherry Sugary, Sweet Baby Girl, and Early Girl to be my personal favorites. I’ve probably only tried about a dozen varieties, so I’m sure there are lots of other good ones out there – perhaps someone else can add their comments…

    As for the blossom end rot, this occurs when your tomato plant can’t get enough calcium. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t enough calcium in your soil, but more likely its that your plant can’t absorb the calcium in the soil quickly enough for it’s needs. This can be happen with un-even watering. If you don’t do this already, you should consider a) mulching around your plants to conserve moisture, b) watering your plants on a timer to ensure consistent, adequate water. Hope this helps!

  9. sean says:

    do i need too support tamato plants too grow?

    • Dave says:

      Sean – It depends on the type of tomato plant – some do need support, others can manage without… What varieties are you growing?

  10. Elliot Swicegood says:

    I’m a huge fan of your blog and I read it regularly. Keep up the good work!

  11. Karen says:

    Thanks for the advice, I shall try to prune right now…

  12. Gillian Reap says:

    Good Morning.. I enjoyed reading your blog, it is very helpful. I have a greenhouse, not my first venture with tomatoes, but this year I have curled leaves on some of my plants. I have a automatic watering system and occassionally water between those times if it is very hot. The plants seem very healthy and only 3 have curled leaves, the tomatoes have set on already. I was curious to know what was wrong with those plants.. Is it a good idea to water once a week with Miracle Grow fertilizer for tomatoes or not?
    Thanks. and keep up the great blog..

    • Dave says:

      Gillian, it sounds like a water issue. Tomato leaves will curl with too much or too little water. I can’t really speak to your Miracle Grow question as I don’t usually use ferilizers – just yearly compost. ~ Dave

  13. Gillian Reap says:

    Dave.. guess what… it was not a watering issue… but yesterday I found millions of little green aphids… hardly noticiable to the naked eye.. I can’t beleive I missed them. I sprayed all of the plants with Safer Soap.. something I bought years ago, I am nto sure they even sell it anymore.. Today.. millions of the beasts laying on the beds. I am thinking that they came in the soil, as it is a new greenhouse and new soil. Do you have any other suggestions or knowledge of what product I can buy now to spray them again.? Thanks. Gillian

  14. Anna says:

    Thank you for the information, enjoyed reading them. Did you tray to start your Tomatoes in late February/early March? I was told that to start in March like I did last year is to early. I am in Olds, and my tomato plants had already tomatoes on them by the time i finally was able to plant them out. What is your experience?

    • Dave says:

      Anna, if it worked, don’t change it! The only problem that I could foresee is that if they don’t get enough light, they could become leggy. Maybe plant some in March, some in April, and some in May – See what works best!

  15. Sharon says:

    Hi,
    I’m having problems with my tomato plants in my garden outside. I planted the weekend of Memorial day and most of them are no bigger than when I bought them. They also have some curling leaves on the tops and some yellow leaves. Is this due to over watering or blight? Please reply. I have other plants in my garden, green peppers and cucumbers and they are growing great.
    also, does blight come from the ground? I have been planting for 12 years and never saw anything like this in my garden.
    Thanks.

    • Dave says:

      Sharon: Could be extreme heat, cold, or just plain ol’ transplant shock. I’d give them another week or so and see how they look then.

  16. Carmen says:

    HI Dave, great tips, and great blog. I don’t quite understand one of your prunning tips: “Once the tomato plant has reached a good size, you can start removing three branches per week from the bottom of your plant. Thus, by the time you are ready to pick your tomatoes, there will be no leaves below that fruit cluster.” Three branches per week sounds like the plant will be left with no branches at all, are you refering to the three branches of every cluster? I’m confused!

    • Dave says:

      Carmen: I understand how that could be confusing. In a greenhouse environment, most tomatoes (depending on variety) will continue growing indefinitely. In commercial greenhouses, you see vines that are 20, 40, 60 feet or longer! Your tomato should grow about three new branches each week, therefore, to keep up with it, as the vine grows, you prune off the bottom leafy branches so that you only have 6-8 ft of leafy vine all the time. The rest has been stripped bare. If that still doesn’t make much sense, send me a message through the ‘contact me page‘ and I’ll reply with a picture so you can see what I mean.

  17. Cheryl Saloff says:

    I have been growning Tomatoes in Northern Alberta (about 130 kms south of NWT boarder) for many years in clay based soil and have have wonderful success. With pruning and watering I can get quite a few tomatoes a season. Drought years like this year 2012. This year I kept my mini green houses (old blue water jugs with the tops and bottoms cut off) on until the the end of June, but I kept a few mini green houses on just to see what would happen.
    To my amazement the ones in the mini green houses are doing fantastic even with temperature of 27 to 34 Celsius for practically the whole month so far. I made sure I watered every second day and pushed dirt around the bottom of the green houses so the water would drain nicely into the soil. I fed once at trance planting and used tomatoes spikes what a great crop I have this year.

  18. Ron Hodgson says:

    It’s Aug.4 and my tomatoes are full of flowers (they have green tomatoes too) should I leave the flowers or pinch them off at this time of year. I have varioue types Beef Steak, Celebrity, sub artic etc.
    Thanks
    Ron

    • Dave says:

      Ron: Pinching off your tomatoes depends on how long you want them to produce. If you have a greenhouse and they’ll produce for another two months or better – maybe hold off on the pinching. But out in the open, there is a good chance of frost in early September – so you might start thinking about pinching.

  19. Shaunmcqueen says:

    Hi,
    I have a cherry tomato plant and have noticed holes in some of the fruit. I have seen no obvious signs of bugs, other than the holes. Any ideas what could be the cause?

    Thanks

    Shaun

    • Dave says:

      Shaun: I’d have to see the holes to have a good idea – contact me through the contact page and I’ll send you my email address.

  20. Heather says:

    Thanks Dave for all your tips, they have helped me get better tomatoes than I was before. An excellent tasting and unique looking tomato I’ve been growing for 3 years now in a greenhouse is the “Yellow Pear”. It grows forever(indeterminate) tastes great,and heavily produces large clusters of 2″ little “pears”.

    • Brenda says:

      I have a greenhouse and have tried for a few years to grow tomatoes in 5 gallon black pails. I don’t think they are getting fertilized properly and don’t end up with a lot of fruit on them. Any suggestions. Thanks.

      • Dave says:

        Brenda: If you start with fresh soil with lots of compost, you should be able to make it through the season without adding fertilizer and your tomatoes should do just fine. Is your fruit small – or just small in number?

  21. Brenda says:

    Dave, How do you fertilize tomatoes that are grown the whole season in a greenhouse.

    • Dave says:

      Brenda: Actually, I fertilize very little. I add fresh compost each year, but that’s about it. You if you want to fertilize, simply add fertilizer to the water.

  22. Aaron Hall says:

    This blog is a great source of information! We grow tomatoes in a big greenhouse on our small farm. The best method of support we have found is to hang sisal twine from overhead, tying one or more twines to the base of each plant. As the tomato plants grow, just keep the main stem(s) of the plant twisted around the twine and prune off any excessive side shoots. We have used those little plastic tomato clips, but found them to be unnecessary if the stems are wound around the twine frequently enough…plus you don’t have to mess with removing them all at the end of the season! It works better than support steaks because the plant doesn’t slide down the stake when fruit begins setting, thus preventing any risk of the stems breaking. Just make sure you have strong enough twine, as a tomato plant loaded with tomatoes can be very heavy… We’ve had accidents before!

  23. Mike says:

    Hey great info. I am growing for the first time this year. I have picked a lot of farmers brains on how and what to do with tomato’s. You had some good tips i didn’t find yet.

    Keep the good stuff coming.
    Thanks
    Mike

  24. Nafisa says:

    Some of the leaves in my tomato plant are yellow and the top leaves are curled.it also dosent seem to be growing much.what causes this and what should I do?

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