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Beginner's Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes

I like to think of tomatoes as the gateway veggie -- you know, the one that really gets you hooked on gardening. It is certainly one of the first crops I suggest for new gardeners, so I am offering this beginner's guide to growing great tomatoes.

For the little time and effort it takes to grow one tomato plant, you really get a lot of food in return. They are low-maintenance plants with few major pest and disease issues. Perhaps my favorite part of growing tomatoes is that they grow quickly in our Arkansas summers, they love the heat and humidity, so it’s fun to watch the progress daily with the kiddos while learning more about how our food grows.

There are literally thousands of tomato varieties, so how could you possibly know what to get? Thankfully, you won’t find thousands of different varieties at our local garden centers, but you will find an assortment of plants with different features. You’ll need to have an idea of what you want before you go shopping.

Considerations

  • How much space do you have?  All tomato plants are either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants only grow to a certain height and produce a certain number of fruits, regardless of the weather, while indeterminate plants continue to produce food as long as the conditions are favorable. If you have limited space, a determinate variety might be best for you, as they require smaller supports. But if you have plenty of garden space, I would recommend an indeterminate variety so you have fresh food throughout summer and fall. Read all plant labels for spacing instructions.
  • What does your family eat? When you’re at the grocery store or farmers market, do you tend to purchase slicing or cherry tomatoes? Naturally, I would encourage you to grow both, but your priority should be to grow what your family likes best.

How to Plant Tomatoes

Location:
When selecting your location for tomatoes, the first thing to consider is sun exposure. Tomatoes will only grow well in full sun -- an area that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun every day. This is non-negotiable if you want healthy plants that produce fruit.

Ground vs. Containers:
Full sun might not be optional, but your method of planting is. Tomatoes grow well in the ground, raised beds or containers. Pretty much any variety can be grown in the ground or raised beds, but there are a few things to consider when planning a container garden. First, you’ll want to grow a determinate variety -- those that only grow to a certain height and produce a certain amount of fruit. This ensures you don’t end up with a sickly jungle of vines too big for your container. You can even purchase varieties that are specifically for containers, look for plants with “patio” in the name.

If you’re growing in raised beds or in the ground, I suggest indeterminate varieties. This is really where you get the most bang for your buck because they produce fruit as long as conditions are warm enough, which in in NWA tends to be well into October.

Support:
For small, determinate varieties, those little three ring tomato cages are fine; however, they will not work for indeterminate varieties. For a sturdy tomato cage, I like concrete mesh cages that I make myself. They never tip and always keep my plants upright and healthy. If you aren't able to make your own, or if you want something more attractive, these tomato cages will be good enough for small tomato varieties.

Planting:
Now that you know what type of tomato is right for you, and you have your location decided, it’s time to plant! Here are a few tips for my beginner's guide to growing great tomatoes:
  • I like to make a cocktail of nutrients to go in the hole with my tomato plants to make sure these heavy feeders have enough to live on throughout the summer: 1 handful of used coffee grounds (or other nitrogen source), 1 handful of compost, 1/2 cup of crushed eggshells, 1 TBSP of epsom salts. Put all that in the hole and  top it with an inch of soil before placing your tomato.
  • Plant your tomato all the way up to about an inch below the top leaves. The buried section of stem will grow roots, building a very healthy root system.
  • Always water well after planting!

What is your favorite type of tomato to eat?


 

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