How to Grow a Bumper Crop of Tomatoes
Tomatoes are one of those crops that you really can’t grow enough of. Even if you’re not a big fan of fresh tomatoes, chances are you enjoy some tomato-based products on the regular. And that means that if you grow your own tomatoes, you can make those products at home!
Homegrown tomatoes aren’t just healthier than the conventionally grown, chemically-ripened, pesticide-sprayed, imported tomatoes from the store, they’re infinitely more flavourful too.
There’s nothing like a fresh tomato right off the vine in the summer. Slice it up, sprinkle it with a little sea salt… Mmmmmmm….
Grow enough of them and you’ll have your own more nutritious, more delicious homegrown, homemade tomato sauce, pizza and pasta sauce, salsa, sun-dried tomatoes, ketchup, BBQ sauce, hot sauce, diced tomatoes, Caesar or Bloody Mary mix… The options are endless.
The point is, tomatoes are one of the most versatile crops you can grow, and there’s really no such thing as having too many tomatoes because they’re easy to preserve (just stick ‘em in the freezer until you’re ready to can ‘em or process right away), and they play a starring role in so many dishes and condiments, from soups and stews to pizza and pasta to Mexican food (salsa, enchilada sauce, hot sauce, etc.) and more.
They’re also pretty easy to grow, provided you give them a sunny spot and lots of space for their roots to stretch out. If you can, plant tomatoes in the ground to give them maximum root space. But if not, they grow well in raised beds and containers too.
Basically what I’m saying is, if you can grow tomatoes at home, you most definitely should.
Related: How to Grow Tomatoes From Seed
But growing tomatoes can come with its share of heartaches and disappointments too. Tomato plants are susceptible to a range of common problems ranging from blight and blossom end rot to leaf spot and fusarium wilt to catfacing… Yes, I said “cat facing.” Stay with me. We’ll get there!
Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do prevent many of these common tomato problems from occurring in the first place. And with tomatoes, an ounce of prevention really is worth at least a pound of cure!
Aside from the things you should be doing with ALL of your annual vegetables to keep them healthy and give them a strong head start (ie. companion planting, crop rotation, starting with healthy soil, etc.) tomatoes require a little specialized care and attention to make sure they stay healthy and productive.
The following is a list of six tips and tricks to give your tomato plants a strong head start in the garden, keep them healthy all season long and grow a bumper crop of tomatoes in your home garden. This is the stuff we do every year and our tomatoes go gangbusters!
Get ready for your best tomato crop ever:)
How to Grow A Bumper Crop of Tomatoes: 6 Tips for Healthy Tomato Plants
1. Plant deep
Tomatoes like to be planted deep, Like, really deep. If you look closely at the stems, you’ll see tiny, fibrous “hairs” all the way up the stem. These are all potential roots on the tomato plant, and any part of the stem that’s buried under the soil will establish roots. Planting tomato plants deep means that they’ll establish a strong, healthy root system, which means they’ll be able to absorb even more nutrients from the soil to feed the plants and produce more fruit.
At the time of planting, pinch off the lower leaves, leaving only a few leaves at the top of the plant, and plant the tomato plant deep enough that you bury the stem to just below the lowest set of leaves (try to avoid having the lowest set of leaves touch the soil).
2. Add calcium
Another very common tomato problem is blossom end rot. This is when black or brown spots form at on the flower (blossom) end of your tomatoes as they’re forming, and it’s most often caused by a lack of calcium in the soil.
An easy, frugal way to fix this is by saving up your eggshells and grinding them into a powder, then adding a handful or two to each planting hole before you plant your tomatoes. We’ve had way less blossom end rot on our plants since we started using crushed eggshells in our soil.
If you don’t have time to save up eggshells, you can also use gypsum or lime, which you can get from your local nursery. Lime is a great source of calcium but it raises the PH level of your soil making it more alkaline, which can negatively affect your plants and your overall production in the garden if your soil too alkaline (most plants prefer slightly acidic soil). Gypsum is another good option and doesn’t raise your PH.
3. Pinch off the lower branches
When planting your tomatoes, you’ll want to pinch off most of the lower branches in order to plant the stem really deep (see hack #1). This will allow the stem below the soil to produce more roots and will also direct more energy into rooting rather than into the leaves and branches.
You should also pinch off any tomato blossoms on your plant at the time of planting to direct all energy into growing a healthy root system.
As your tomato plants grow, continue to pinch or cut off the lower branches.
Take off all of the branches below the lowest vine of fruit to encourage the plant to put all of its energy at this stage into fruiting rather than into the leaves.
You also want to prevent the lower leaves from touching the soil as this can cause fungus and disease to spread. Always keep your tomato plant pruned so that the lower branches are well above the soil. Mulch can also help by acting as a barrier.
4. Pinch off suckers (on indeterminate plants)
Suckers are the new vines that form on tomato plants. They start out small between the “crotch” of the stem and existing branches. Then they grow into new vines that produce more leaves and more flowers.
Both determinate (bush) and indeterminate (vining) tomato plants produce suckers, but it’s not necessary to pinch off the suckers on determinate plants since the plants only grow to a certain size and then stop. On indeterminate plants, suckers will continue to grow into new vines that will become hard to support and all of your plants energy will go into producing new vines instead of into producing and growing big, beautiful tomatoes on the main vine, so it’s best to pinch or cut off the suckers on indeterminate plants.
We sometimes allow one extra vine to grow if a sucker gets away from us, but for the most part we prune pretty ruthlessly. We also cut back some of the upper leaves to keep them relatively short. We still want enough foliage for the plant to convert lots of energy from the sun into sugars to feed growth. But we also want as much energy as possible going into fruit production once the plants are established.
Plus, tomato plants do best when there’s lots of airflow between their leaves. Keeping them well pruned helps to allow lots of space for fresh air to flow around and between tomato plants.
5. Water evenly
When it comes to watering tomato plants, you want to try to water them as evenly as possible. That means trying not to let them get too dried out and also trying not to flood them when you do water. If tomato plants dry out a lot and are then given a large dose of water all at once, this can result in catfacing. Yes, I said “cat-facing.” It’s when your tomatoes look like this:
They get all gnarly and twisted looking, which would be really cool if they were halloween pumpkins or something. But considering we wanna be able to eat these guys fresh off the vine, or process them easily to preserve them, cat-faced tomatoes aren’t ideal.
In general it’s best to water tomato plants low and slow, meaning water deeply at the base of the plant and don’t give your plants more water than they can handle at any one time (ie. if they’re really dry, slowly get the, back up to the proper moisture level).
Your watering schedule will vary depending on your climate and weather, but in general it’s good practice to water your tomato plants deeply every two or three days so that the roots can easily absorb the water, and so that the soil has time to dry out just enough but not too much before the next watering.
Mulch will also help with keeping your soil moist, and will keep soil from splashing onto your tomato leaves and possibly spreading disease while you’re watering.
6. Keep the leaves dry
It’s not just the lower leaves that don’t like to get wet or “muddy.” In general, tomato plants don’t like to get their leaves wet at all. In fact, when tomato leaves get consistently wet, the plants can easily develop blight, and once you plants get blight there’s pretty much no bouncing back from that.
This is why you should always water around the base of the plant (not overhead) and you should try to protect your plants from the rain as much as possible.
If you live somewhere hot and dry, you might not have to worry about rain during the growing season. But if you live in a place with a lot of rainfall (like where I live here on Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest), then you might have to put up a shelter or grow your tomatoes in a greenhouse or a hoop house to protect the leaves from getting wet.
We built our own shelters (ok, my husband built them mostly, but I helped a little) to go over our tomato plants, and they’ve been a total game changer for our tomato plants.
Last year we had higher than average rainfall over the summer months and many people’s tomato plants suffered around here. But we got our largest bumper crop ever! Well over 300 pounds of healthy tomatoes came out of our garden last year and I attribute most of our success to our tomato shelters:)
If you do a quick Google search for tomato growing tips, you’re sure to get all sorts of information on how to grow healthy tomatoes at home, many of which we covered today and some other ones that we didn’t. In the end, you’ll get to know what works best for you and your tomatoes by trial and, sometimes, error.
It took us at least three years to really get our tomato game down. We’ve literally dealt with all of the common problems I mentioned above (did you see that catfaced pic from our garden a few years ago??)
But now that we follow the aforementioned tomato-growing hacks pretty religiously, we’ve seen a marked improvement in how well our plants perform and produce and how many pounds of tomatoes we pull out of our garden throughout the season.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement, so I’d love to know any of your special tomato-growing hacks too!
What special tips or tricks do you have for growing healthy, productive tomato plants at home? Let me know in the comments below!
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness 🙂
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