How to Care for Tomato Plants

Tomato Care picI’ve had several questions lately about tomato plant care, so I thought I would share my insights on this subject. Living in the South, I’ve had more challenges than most growing tomatoes because of the humidity and intense heat here. I’m not an expert at it yet; but each year, my plants do better than the year before. And isn’t that the goal?

First, let me share with you what I’ve discovered about the whole process of caring for tomato plants. It’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s more of an art. Each tomato variety has different growth patterns. Each climate demands different levels of “care.” Each gardener has his or her own way of pruning. So, this article will give you the basics, based on what I’ve learned. The “art” you will apply yourself.

TRANSPLANTING TOMATO PLANTS

Tomato plants transplanted

Tomato plants transplanted

  • Be sure your soil has enough organic matter in it.
  • Add organic fertilizer and/or rock dust (such as Azomite, for trace minerals/micro nutrients).
  • Remove all but the top set of branches (leave about 4 or 5 for photosynthesis) and bury the roots and stem as deep as possible.
  • Water well.

WATERING TOMATO PLANTS

  • Tomatoes need consistent watering – and a lot of it – especially when it’s hot.
  • NEVER water from above!! Always water from below. The best thing is to have drip irrigation, but it’s okay if you don’t have it. (I don’t – yet.) Just be sure to water directly at the roots with a slow stream, so you don’t splash the soil up onto the leaves of the plant. Tomatoes are very sensitive to soil-borne diseases. This is one reason you have to be careful when you water, being sure you don’t splash the soil up onto the leaves.
  • The best time to water is in the morning, but you can also water in the late afternoon if you leave at least 2-3 hours before sunset. (This is in case you get any water on the leaves, it’ll have time to dry before sundown.)

MULCH FOR TOMATO PLANTS

Dried grass mulch around tomato plants

Dried grass mulch around tomato plants

  • Mulch is a great barrier between the soil and your tomato plant’s leaves. It helps prevent the fungi in the soil from touching your plants. I use dried grass clippings for mulch. It’s free and it decomposes into organic matter fairly quickly. You can also use straw (not hay, which has seeds in it) or chopped dried leaves as mulch.
  • Mulch not only creates a barrier between the soil and the tomato leaves, it also helps conserve moisture in the soil.
  • Mulch also keeps the roots of your tomato plants cool in the heat of the summer. That may not be a big issue where you live; but here in the South, it’s critical to keep roots cool and prevent soil from getting scorched (and basically, sterilized) by the summer sun.

PRUNING TOMATO PLANTS

There are several things to consider when pruning your tomato plants, most of which will need to be addressed on a continuing basis throughout the growing season.

Tomato plants "bottom pruned"

Tomato plants “bottom pruned”

  • Bottom pruning: As your plant grows, you need to remove the bottom branches. No leaves should touch the soil, to avoid getting diseases. You have to be careful not to cut too many branches off too soon, though, else you’ll leave the plant with insufficient leaves to use for photosynthesis.  In the interim, you can also cut off half the branch (the part touching the ground) until the plant is large enough (has enough other branches) to cut off the entire bottom branch. The tomato plants above were transplanted about seven weeks ago, and they’re just now looking about right. The plant’s bottom 12 to 18 inches should have no branches. You’ll have to continue checking this because tomato plants are known for putting out new branches near the soil.
Tomato sucker

Tomato sucker

  • Suckers: Most of the suckers on tomato plants should be removed. These are the branches that grow from the notch between the main stem and another branch. (See picture above.) Basically, a sucker is a new plant growing from the main plant. You should allow a couple of them to grow into major branches (as long as they’re not too close to the ground).
Multi-stemmed tomato plant

Multi-stemmed tomato plant

  • Most gardeners like one or two additional major branches off the main stem/trunk of the plant. All the rest of the suckers should be removed. If you don’t prune most of these, your plant’s energy will be diverted towards too many branches, and the fruit production will suffer. You’ll also have a very large and unruly plant!
Beginning of disease on tomato leaf

Beginning of disease on tomato leaf

  • Diseased leaves: ALWAYS remove branches that have diseased leaves. Removing just the leaves is not enough! Many diseases that manifest in the leaves are within the branch, so the best preventative is cutting off the entire branch. I saw the beginnings of what is probably Septoria Leaf Spot on one of my plants yesterday, and I cut the entire branch off. Be sure you do NOT compost these leaves/branches. They must be thrown away so as not to contaminate your garden.
  • Finally, you need to thin out branches. Depending on how close you plant your tomato plants and the variety of plants you have, you many need to do more of this kind of pruning. You want to be sure that sunlight can reach all branches and that there is good air flow around your plants. This will help prevent disease and allow the plants to breathe. Just be sure you do not prune branches that are covering developing fruit, else the fruit will get sun scald.

STAKING TOMATO PLANTS

Tomato plants staked

Tomato plants staked

  • Most tomato plants are indeterminate, meaning they grow large in all directions without a set form. (You can’t call it a vine, technically, but they grow big and fast like vines.) Because of this, the plants need to be staked. Tomato cages are great, too, but when you have as many plants as I do (54 this year), the cost of tomato cages would be exorbitant! I purchase 8-foot long 1 x 6 fencing boards and cut them into 1 x 1 stakes. (Again, purchasing pre-made stakes for 54 tomato plants would cost me a mint!)
Tomato plant tied to stake

Tomato plant tied to stake

  • Tying: I use 4 mil thick 1/2″ stretch tie. You can order it from Amazon from a variety of vendors. It’s stretchy, so it doesn’t cut into the plant’s stem, and it’s very sturdy. I’ve been using it for three years now, and I love it! (You can see it in the picture above.)
When staking tomatoes, leave room for fruit growth

When staking tomatoes, leave room for fruit growth

  • Tying your plant to the stakes (should you use them) will be an ongoing process. I tie the main stem closely to the stake, but I tie the second or third major branches a little more loosely if they’re close to the main stem. Whatever it takes to add support and maintain air flow is good. Tie and prune. Tie and prune. Just don’t forget to leave room for fruit growth when tying next to flower clusters. (See picture above.)

FERTILIZING TOMATO PLANTS

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so you will have to supplement their diet, so to speak. Any of the following are great:

  • Organic tomato fertilizer, such as Espoma Tomato Tone – follow package directions
  • Compost Tea – use once a week as a drench or foliar spray
  • Bokashi fertilizer – This is made from fermented kitchen scraps and can be used like compost tea
  • Epsom Salt foliar spray – To add magnesium and a bit of sulphur, mix 1 Tablespoon of epsom salt to a gallon of water and use as a foliar spray once every two weeks.

DISEASE AND PEST PREVENTION FOR TOMATO PLANTS

The best prevention is a healthy plant, of course. But these additional items will also help, especially if you live in the South.

  • Prune well to keep leaves away from the soil and maintain good air flow (see above)
  • Remove any diseased branches (see above)
  • Always water from below, not above, preferably in the morning (see above)
  • Apply aspirin foliar spray. The salicylic acid in unbuffered aspirin boosts the plant’s immune system (click link to learn more). Crush one 500 mg unbuffered aspirin and add to a gallon of water with a few spritzes of horticultural soap, then apply as a foliar spray every two to three weeks.
  • Use organic pesticides, such as neem oil (never in the heat of the day, by the way) or insecticidal soap, according to product instructions.

Well, there you have it. It’s not a comprehensive guide, but it deals with the basics. I hope this helps you grow beautiful, healthy tomato plants that give you a continual, bountiful harvest all season long.

Please share with us any of your techniques for growing healthy tomato plants.

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