Tips for Growing
What is an
Heirlooms are tomatoes
that have been around a long time. Rediscovered in the
recent taste revolution, “heirloom” refers to tomatoes that
are not hybrids, and have been in existence at least 50
years—preserved for their superb taste. Heirloom tomatoes
often are unusual
shapes or colors. Many people
have never tasted “real” tomatoes—if you’ve only eaten
supermarket or other commercially produced tomatoes, you’re
in for a delicious surprise.
No synthetics or chemicals! Fertilizers and pesticides must
come from natural sources to be considered organic. Compost
is the best soil conditioner and a great fertilizer as
well—if you have it, use it! Other organic fertilizers are
also easy to find. Many gardeners grow tomatoes with no pest
control other than picking off tomato hornworms by hand.
Tomatoes love sun—put yours in the sunniest place you’ve got
(unless you live in Death Valley). Less than six hours of
sun per day means a rangy plant with no fruit. No soil in
the sunny place? Consider putting your tomato in a
then you can move it to wherever you want.
Use proper potting
containers. If your outdoor soil is not rich in nutrients
and organic matter, add
best soil improver. Your tomato is a vine that grows up to
ten feet tall, but can fit in as little as one to three
square feet of ground space. Stake,
cage, or twine your tomato around a string, or plant near a
chain link fence. See ‘Support’ for tips on tying.
the right spot—and don’t be afraid to change your mind about
it later. Containers
should hold at least 3 gallons, and must
drain well. Clean 5-gallon paint cans or buckets are good as
long as you punch drainage holes in them. And of course, you
should feel free to decorate them as inspiration strikes.
Day—Planting Your Tomato
a large planting hole to loosen the
soil around the root ball and ease the way for questing
roots. Ideally, the hole should be big enough to bury a
basketball. Prepare the soil by filling the hole with water
the day before. Let the water soak in—your tomato will dig
it. Fill the hole part way with compost. Add a fistful of
fertilizer and/or a few eggshells. Break off all but the top
3 or 4 branches and bury the plant deeply, so the soil
covers those former branch sites—they will form roots,
giving your tomato an extra solid foundation.
After transplanting, water
when the top inch of soil is dry (or cheat—use
wind, and the soil type will affect how fast the soil dries
easy to water too much. We recommend
that you don’t think of “regular
watering.” Do not try
to keep the soil moist. Instead, make
it your goal to not let the soil dry out
When you see
tiny fruit on your tomato, cut way back on water (and
fertilizer). This change tells your tomato that it is time
to focus on fruit. Water the ground around the plant—try not
to let water splash up onto the leaves. Water splashing up
from the soil can spread disease.
Mix a handful of tomato
or vegetable fertilizer—preferably
organic—into the soil of the hole or container. Add compost
for richer soil. Scratch a handful of organic fertilizer or
compost into the surface soil once a month. Do not overfeed!
The nitrogen in fertilizer (the
first number on the label) encourages leaf and stem growth.
If you want your plant to focus on producing fruit, cut back
on nitrogen.When fall is approaching, cut way back on
water. If leaf ends start to turn yellow during early or
mid-season, you may need more fertilizer. Phase it in gently
and see if you notice an improvement.
If you don’t pinch back your plant, you’ll get a tangle of
vines, and less fruit. If you would like to learn about
types of tomato plants in more detail.
Go vertical—it increases fruit production and decreases the
chance of diseases and pests. For the highest yield, plant
18” apart, grow in single or “Y” shaped vines, and tie them
straight up. Support your tomato! Cages,
garden net, or stakes are easy to find. Or plant your tomato
against a fence, or knot garden twine on a 6-foot frame and
suspend stems by twining them around the string. If you are
using cages, prune your suckers so you get 3 or 4 main stems
(instead of a long “Y”), then start pinching off their
growing tips once they start spilling out and blocking the
light of the tomato the next cage over. If you’re tying, tie
loosely—the stems will expand with time.
frequent visits will help you stay in touch with your
tomato’s health. Problems are minor when dealt with as soon
as they appear. Tomato hornworms eat leaves and fruit, and
leave their calling card: black droppings.
the hornworms off and smush them—disgusting, but effective!
Try using homemade pest repellent/leaf cleaner, especially
if you see little white bugs on the underside of the leaves.
Tomatoes can crack from uneven moisture, or appear
“catfaced,” with scars and holes in the blossom end from
cold weather or too much nitrogen. Ugly tomatoes taste
great—just cut out any bad parts. Blights, late and early,
disfigure both leaves and fruit for those east of the
Mississippi and on the West Coast. Wilts can kill tomato
the best cure:
control is key to
at ground level instead of
• Don’t tie or prune your plants when they are wet
• Don’t plant in the same area two years in a row, and make
sure you clean up dead plants at the end of the season.
As the Season
Get every last bit of tomato goodness! When there’s only a
month left of warm weather:
cut off all growing vine ends, and all small
and undeveloped fruit. Cut back on water and fertilizer so
the plant focuses on ripening existing fruit.
How to Get
Ask a gardening friend or neighbor—tomato people love to
tips! Try calling
your local agricultural extension office (most states have
them), ask Dr. Google, or visit www.windowbox.com/tomatoes.