This summer, I want you to have your best tomato harvest yet. There are countless “secrets” and “hacks” out there for growing better tomatoes, but they’re hit or miss. In this article, I’ll share 7 proven tomato growing tips for better harvests.
Planning is my favorite tool for growing healthier vegetables. When it comes to tomatoes, it is best to think ahead and plan out your care routine. However, most of these techniques can be applied mid-season to help your tomatoes thrive.
1. Water Consistently
Prolonged periods of dry soil can make it difficult for the plants to transport water to the developing fruits. This can cause blossom end rot, which is not actually rot, but rather unfinished skin on the bottom of the fruits.
This appears as a black or darkened spot on the bottom of the tomatoes. BER is unsightly and can invite mold to begin growing on the affected fruits. Not good!
Many gardeners believe it is caused by a calcium deficiency in the soil, but this is usually not true. While calcium is involved in the problem, the root cause is inconsistent watering.
Another issue caused by inconsistent watering is tomatoes cracking and splitting. When tomato plants are subjected to an extremely dry period, and then flooded with water, that water is quickly dispersed throughout the plant.
If fruits are ripening on the plant, the excess water can cause the skin to break. Though split fruits are still edible, it can lead to mold forming along the cracks.
To prevent these problems, provide regular, consistent irrigation for your tomato plants. Most tomato plants require about 1 inch of water weekly, and more during very hot weather. Drip irrigation can be a life saver or add a reminder on your calendar.
2. Use Mulch
There are many types of tomato mulch, from shredded leaves, to straw, and even black plastic. There are so many benefits to mulching that it should be near the top of your list.
Types of mulch:
- Shredded leaves
- Lawn clippings
- Black plastic mulch
First, mulch helps keep soil’s moisture level even. After irrigation, the layer of mulch prevents evaporation, keeping the water where it is needed, at the tomato plant’s roots.
Mulch also helps protect both the soil and the tomato plant. The soil is protected from direct sunlight and rainfall, reducing erosion. The plant is protected from soil-borne pathogens that could otherwise end up on the lower foliage.
To top it off, natural mulches slowly break down over time, releasing nutrients to the soil. This acts as a mild fertilizer for your tomatoes, helping keep your plants healthy.
Tip: If you use straw or grass clippings, make sure they are free from any residual herbicides to avoid damaging your tomatoes.
The best time to mulch is at the time of transplanting, but it can also be applied mid-season as well. The benefits begin right away, so any time is a suitable time to start!
3. Prune As Needed
Tomato plants are opportunists. Indeterminate types will grow wildly in every direction, searching for more soil to take root in. This works well in unlimited soil space but will become unwieldy in a home garden.
That is where pruning tomatoes comes in. Most tomato types require some amount of pruning, whether it is just a quick bottom prune, or consistent pruning of sucker shoots. Here are the major types of pruning and how they benefit tomatoes:
Bottom pruning is a simple technique that can be applied in late spring or early summer. It is as simple as it sounds: prune away the first 6-12″ of foliage from the bottom up.
First, make sure there is plenty of foliage on the upper portion of the plant to carry on photosynthesizing and producing energy. Then, with a clean pair of pruning shears, snip off any lower leaves or shoots.
This helps keep the foliage away from the soil, reducing the chances of soil-borne disease. It also improves airflow, further improving that plant’s condition.
Prune “Sucker” Shoots
Indeterminate varieties require “sucker” pruning. These side shoots will appear all along the main stem and take energy from the plant. If left to grow, they steal energy and typically don’t produce many fruits.
So, I recommend pruning sucker shoots from most indeterminate varieties. The exceptions are cherry and grape tomatoes, where leaving a few suckers can actually increase yields.
For determinate types, do not prune away suckers. These plants will only set fruit once, so leaving the suckers on will help increase the overall yield. Instead, you can prune out some of the leaves to improve aeration.
Learn all about indeterminate vs determinate tomato varieties.
Prune Out Dense Foliage
Some tomato types are dense with foliage. However, as they grow, some leaves become more of a liability than an asset. For these, I recommend pruning them off.
When a tomato plant is super bushy, the air around the leaves becomes stuffy and humid. This is the perfect environment for fungus to grow, and for disease to set in.
Pruning away older leaves and excessively dense foliage helps open up the plant. The wind can then easily blow through the tomato plant, helping evaporate any water on the remaining leaves and stems.
I prune foliage throughout the year on all tomato types to keep the plant “open” in all directions. This, paired with proper plant spacing, helps keep my tomatoes disease free, all season long.
4. Grow Vertically
Like I said, tomatoes like to grow in all directions. Many gardeners use cages or wiring to keep the plants upright. However, many varieties will do best on a single, central trellis.
If you are growing determinate, bushy tomatoes, a cage may be ideal. However, for indeterminates, a tall stake or trellis can suffice and keep the plants to a small footprint in the garden.
Trellising also improves the all-important airflow, helping to keep diseases at bay. You can use 8-foot-tall stakes, build a simple string trellis, or train your tomatoes up garden netting. The objective is all the same: suspend the main stem on a vertical structure.
This design can make it easier to access and harvest your tomatoes and make it easier to identify pests and disease.
5. Fertilize Potted Plants Regularly
If you’re growing your tomatoes in pots, then fertilizer will be a necessity. Most bagged potting soil comes with nutrients mixed in, but those will often be depleted by a large tomato plant before the season is over.
I like to use organic fertilizer to avoid nutrient burn, and to provide a more gradual release. There are countless options, but one of my favorites is Performance Organics.
Check out my favorite tomato fertilizers here.
You’ll know when your tomatoes need food. The leaves will turn yellow, the growth rate will slow down, and fruits may even fall from the plants. Using a consistent fertilizing schedule avoids these issues entirely, and ensures the plant has everything it needs to produce lots of healthy flowers and fruits.
6. Plant Flowers Nearby
Every year, I seem to grow less vegetable plants and more flowers. Not because I want fewer edible plants, but I want more beneficial insects in my garden!
The best tomato companions are flowering plants. Flowers provide food for insects, and so they are naturally attracted to the plants and those around the flowers.
I plant tons of alyssum around the base of my veggies, and the hover flies and lacewings love it. More importantly, the aphids, whiteflies, and thrips hate it!
My favorite flower companions:
You may also wish to plant native flowering plants to attract local insects. Many types of insects prefer a specific species of plant, so a little research can go a long way!
7. Use Proper Spacing
The last tip may require some re-arranging of your potted plants. Tomatoes, unlike peppers, require lots of space between each other. Remember how much I talked about airflow? Well, spacing plants correctly is critical for it!
As a rule, plant tomatoes 24-36″ between plants for optimal aeration and healthy growth. While this can be reduced with vertical growing, it is still best to give tomatoes more room than you think is necessary to be safe.
Tip: Plant garlic, basil, and flowers between tomatoes to take advantage of any extra space.
If you have potted plants, space them wider and avoid any foliage from touching the next plant. This, paired with pruning allows air to flow through the foliage, reducing disease dramatically.
I hope this article helps you achieve your healthiest tomato plants yet! I love growing bountiful tomato plants, and I use these growing tips every season. Feel free to share any additional methods you use below.