Ultimate Guide to Growing Tomatoes – Part 2: Tomato Plant Care
By now, you’ve got your tomatoes started and in the ground. With the help of our first post in our Ultimate Guide to Growing Tomatoes, they were started properly and transplanted at the right time to the right location. Now what? For your tomato plants to provide plump, red fruit all summer, you need to provide them with some TLC.
Like most fruit plants, tomatoes need four critical elements to thrive ―water, light, food and pollination. So you just stick them in the dirt in a sunny spot and wait for the rain and bees, right? Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if it was that simple. Getting your plants just the right amount of these elements can be tricky. Here’s how to get it right:
Proper watering is key to having a successful harvest. Tomatoes that are grown in a dry environment can often develop cracks. If you let your tomato wilt you can decrease your yields or even cause some fruit to fall off the vine prematurely. Tomatoes that are running too wet can be more subject to fungal diseases. Be consistent. Generally, unless under heavy fruit-load, an inch of rain per week is adequate. I am a big advocate for mulching. Use shredded bark, weed free hay/straw, compost, or grass clippings. Mulch helps to conserve water and cool the soil in the hot months. It is also great to get the microbial action stimulated in your garden. A healthy plant of any kind starts with a healthy root environment.
Most water sources can be utilized for irrigation but a water test will give you a better idea about the quality of your water. If you are using pond water, be sure there is not runoff from farm animals contaminating your system. Municipal water sources generally contain chlorine. If you allow municipal water to sit for a day or so, the chlorine will “gas-off”, making the water safe for your plants.
Rain collection is popular and can be a great way to save some money and help reduce your carbon foot print. You can either let gravity do the work for you or install a submersible pump in your barrel and feed irrigation lines and/or drip tape.
Proper Lighting for Tomatoes
Tomatoes love the sun. They prefer full sun locations but can still grow and produce in areas not receiving full sun all day. Tomato plants convert sunlight into energy, and it’s important for tomatoes to have energy in order to produce fruit. For the best tomatoes, since this is the Ultimate Guide to Growing Tomatoes, you want your plants to receive eight or more hours of light, but they only need six hours to produce fruit. A safe rule of thumb for growing tomatoes is the more light, the better. But once your tomatoes grow, how much light do they need to ripen? In fact, sunlight is not what gives your tomatoes that beautiful red blush. Tomatoes ripen from heat and ethylene gas.
If you are growing indoors, your plants would prefer 16 hours of light with a minimum of 650 foot candles at the leaf surface.
Food for Tomato Plants
Like I mentioned earlier, tomatoes are heavy feeders. There are 17 nutrients they need total but the “macro” nutrients that they need the most of are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K). Calcium is another essential nutrient that tomatoes need in fairly large amounts to help avoid blossom end rot at fruit set. Bone meal is often applied to the soil to improve calcium levels. If you have a rich soil with lots of organic matter, your tomato can get most of its requirements from the soil. If you are growing hydroponically, try one of our complete fertilizer blends to ensure all the nutrients your plant needs throughout the growing cycle are available. Our blends also work well in traditional gardening applications.
Obviously if you are growing your tomatoes “traditionally” (i.e., outdoors), hopefully your local bee population can take care of this for you. When it comes to pollinating in the greenhouse, you have a couple options. One way is to buy bumble bees and put a small hive in your greenhouse and let them do the work for you. If you don’t want to invest in bees, you can do what we do and mechanically pollinate. A cost-effective way to do this is to buy a cheap sonic tooth brush and “trick” the flower into thinking a bumble bee is on it. The ultra-high vibration of the toothbrush mimics the bumble bee’s wings and causes the flower to release the pollen. Tomato flowers are “perfect,” which means that they contain both male and female parts. Simply by releasing the pollen, you have done your job. No need to get a tiny paint brush and try to transfer pollen from one flower to another. Just releasing the pollen will help you improve your fruit set. Check out my video for a demonstration of how to do this.
Are you feeling like a tomato growing expert, yet? Slow your ego a bit there; we still have to get to Part 3: Tomato troubleshooting – Preventing common pests and diseases and finally, Part 4: Beyond basic tomatoes – Organic and heirloom tomatoes. Then you’ll be official experts and can feel free to challenge me to a tomato growing duel!
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abennett96/3796096113/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/james_nash/3878635986/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/cromely/3737581367/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffcouturier/3529321436/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/johndal/210313736/