Your tomato seedlings are putting out leaves, stems, and blossoms. But now that the season is underway, what tomato plant care steps do you need to take to make sure your plants produce the best crop possible and flourish all season long?
Here’s the dirt: tomatoes are not a “plant-it-and-forget-it” crop.
But you needn’t hover over them. Instead, conduct a simple check on your tomato plants every day. If you grow a single plant on your balcony or patio, then you stick your head out the door and give it a once-over. If you have several plants in a patch or veggie garden, then invest five minutes each day to wander through. Your daily garden tour will soothe your soul. And you’ll find and prevent tomato problems before they take hold. Here’s what to look for.
Tomatoes require 1 to 3 inches of water per week – on the low end if you’ve had recent rain, on the higher end if it’s been dry and hot. Yet the perennial question remains: how can I measure how much water my plants receive?
There’s two ways to check. First, the unscientific method. Stick your finger in the dirt. If the soil next to your tomato plant is dry an inch below the surface, get out the hose. (Drip hoses work really well. You can set them up on a water timer to make watering even more consistent and convenient.)
A more technical approach is to monitor rainfall with a rain gauge. Combine that with a water timer set to emit water at specific intervals and amounts. Put rainfall amounts and measured watering amounts together and you can know that plants are getting enough moisture each week.
Keep in mind that tomatoes develop deep root systems. Rather than frequent, light watering, they do best with deep watering a couple of times a week. The exception, of course, is during a heat wave when gardeners do everything in their power to keep tomato plants alive and healthy, including watering daily and providing shade.
Pruning tomatoes encourages healthy growth and provides better air flow between plants. Good air circulation prevents diseases. And when you avoid overgrowth by pruning, you limit potential home base sites for tomato pests to live and from where they can do their dirty work.
Determinate tomatoes have automatic pruning built into their systems. They grow to a certain height and then stop. But indeterminates can quickly outgrow their allotted space without pruning, so place them in your sights as you conduct your plant inspection.
In particular, keep an eye out for suckers – those small shoots that grow in the area between the trunks and stems of a tomato plants. Pinch off suckers from the second flower cluster down to the ground. If you check plants daily, you’ll discover suckers as they emerge, allowing you to nip them right away. Once suckers grow to ¼” in diameter, a snip can leave an open wound, which gives diseases and pests more opportunity to invade.
Let’s assume you conducted a soil test at the beginning of the season. Subsequently you added compost and additional nutrients to the garden before planting your tomatoes. Now what?
Tomatoes are heavy feeders. They need plenty of nutrients to grow from a tiny seed to a large plant that puts out dozens of fruit – and does so in just a few weeks. You can maximize the process for your plants when you give them extra nutrition along the way.
Start by applying tomato fertilizer once fruit has formed and is about the size of golf balls. (Check product instructions for dosage.) After that, apply fertilizer every three weeks. You’ll help provide the nutrients plants need as they continue to pop out blossoms and fruit for the rest of the season.
As you stroll through your tomato patch, study each plant’s leaves, stems, and fruit. If you see yellowed or brown leaves, spots on leaves, curled leaves, mushy stems or stunted grown, discolored spots on fruit, or misshapen fruit, then stop and take a closer look. Those symptoms can indicate a disease.
The most common tomato diseases are several types of tomato blight and tomato wilt. In many cases, tomato diseases are not fatal, but early detection and treatment are the key to saving your plant. Most tomato funguses and wilts can be treated organically with copper spray or a biofungicide like Serenade.
While you’re studying plants for diseases, look for indications of an insect invasion, too. Pests reveal themselves in the type of damage they inflict. You’ll know the little buggers have been feasting on your tomato plants when you see chewed stems, defoliation, webbing on leaf undersides, honeydew (a white, sticky residue), or holes in leaves, stems, or fruit.
You can counterattack by handpicking and destroying pests (in the case of the tomato hornworm, snails, and slugs) or by applying a stream of water or insecticidal spray to dislodge aphids, pysillids, beetles, and spider mites. If pests persist, you may need to resort to bait pellets or insecticides (like Seven and Eight) in dust, concentrate, and ready-made spray.
One of the joys of your daily garden tour is discovering fruit that is nearing its peak or ready to pick. You know a tomato is ripe when –
A bit of tomato plant maintenance goes a long way towards crop health and yield. You know your tomato plant care has paid off on the day you must lug a garden hod or a wheelbarrow to your patch to harvest all the luscious tomatoes that have ripened and are ready to pick. In the meantime, be vigilant. A bit of policing and tomato plant care go a long way to a healthy, delicious tomato harvest.
More tomato plant care tips
By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source for growing tomatoes and using them.
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