It is that time of year when many of us are busily planting gardens, nurturing chicks, milking cows or goats and getting into the warm months of the year. Honestly, it's the start of my favorite time of year. Especially reaping the benefits of home grown, sun ripened, fresh from my garden tomatoes!!!
In all my years of growing tomatoes, I have found a few good tricks to getting healthy and productive tomato plants. Please remember, every person's garden space, garden soil, and climate vary. Meaning these tips are a sure-fire way to get a good start, but that ultimately, they cannot control your ongoing efforts or weather which long term determine what you will harvest from your own gardens.
If starting your tomatoes from seeds, remember to start them about 6-8 weeks BEFORE you wish to plant them. My first tip starts here.....
Tip 1: Start Tomato Seeds in Warm Moist Soil
This helps with germination! I personally pour boiling hot water into my dry seed starting soil. Be sure to stir with a wooden spoon to prevent burning yourself. Once soil has cooled enough to work with your hands, begin your seed starting process. The boiling water kills any unwanted bugs and allows your seeds to be warm and moist for the germination process.
Tip 2: Start Seeds with a Heating Mat and Grow Lights
I personally use LED shop lights. The heating mat helps maintain warm soil during the germination process and can be unplugged after your seeds have sprouted. The "grow lights" when hung correctly, can be the make or break for beautiful and healthy tomato starts. To hang them "correctly", hang the lights 3 inches above your seedlings.
As your seedlings grow, move the light up, maintaining 3 inches of space between your grow light and the seedlings. This keeps your seedlings from getting leggy on you. I try to up-pot my seedlings once before time to plant. However, that isn’t always the case. If you are able to up-pot your seedlings, be sure to cover all but the top 4 leaves with soil. This process makes for more roots on your seedling.
Tip 3: Dig a Trench and Lay Each Seedling on its Side to Plant
Regardless of if you started your seedlings or bought them, this tip is by far the most important tip in my personal opinion. After digging your trench, cover your seedlings up. Make sure to cover all but the top 4 leaves. This tip helps you obtain a better root system. by covering the whole lower part of your seedling, the plant forms roots where the hairy stem once was. It also allows the roots to be closer to the surface. Which is beneficial when it comes to sunlight and moisture of your tomatoes. the bigger your root system, the better your plant.
Tip 4: Pinch the Blossoms
Yep, you read that right.... pinch your blossoms. Most plants, and especially tomato plants, like to start blooming early. Before your mother plant has truly had the time to focus on a good root system. While early tomatoes always sound like a win, by leaving the blossoms on a young plant, the plant and its energy goes into multiple tasks instead of focusing on the roots. Don't take that wrong, if you leave the blossoms, you will still get tomatoes. However, by removing the blossoms, you will get an abundance of tomatoes and have a mother plant with roots strong enough to support the ongoing growth of your tomato plants. A good healthy start leads to a good healthy growing season. Pinching of the blossoms only needs done for the first few weeks of blossoms.
Tip 5: Good Maintenance AKA Pruning!
When I first learned to prune, I felt like it was a silly concept. I mean.... they are tomatoes! Why prune? Well, simply put, you prune to allow better air flow. Better air flow to the roots and to prevent diseases. Diseases like blight. Pruning also offers the benefit of making it easy to water your plants. To prune your tomatoes, simply remove the lower 2-4 branches. This is done throughout the growing season. the bigger your tomatoes get, you may find 4- 6 branches need to be removed. The trick is to ensure there is plenty of space for air movement. Be careful to not over prune. And be sure to tie up your plants as you go. Another way you help you plant have optimal air flow and make picking ripe tomatoes easier.
Tip 6: Water at the base of your plants.
Watering overhead can cause damage to your beautiful tomato plants. Not to mention it limits the amount of water the plant takes in from the roots. The roots are what feed and grow the plants, therefore, that is where the watering should take place. And where your plant benefits most from being watered. Mulching your rows helps hold back the weeds and hold in the moisture as well. Allowing watering to be spaced out a little further. Plus, weeds pull nutrients from the soil that your tomatoes need.
Tip 7: Bug control
More specifically, those pesky hornworms. you know, those huge green worms with a horn on their toosh that will demolish a tomato plant if gone unnoticed. Yea....those things! the epitome of every gardener with tomatoes in the ground.... or at least in my world they are the epitome. In any case, those little buggers can be a real "I spy" critter in the garden. They blend right in! Often, being left undetected until your plants look pitiful, and tomatoes are well bitten into. No worries, this is the year you conquer those Hornworms! you simply need one handy tool. A black light flashlight!!! After the sun begins to go down you can use a black light flashlight to spot the horn worms. look, I barely believed it myself until I tried it! They glow when hit with that black light.
If you use any of these great tips, please tag us on our Instagram @westernchief. We want to see all of the beautiful results!
For more gardening content, follow @muddyoakhennhouse on Instagram and always come back for more blog posts by our Western Chief partners!