Tomato is a warm season crop, meaning it's best planted in the spring and harvested in the summer. It requires full sun, fertile soil and regular watering. Tomatoes are the No. 1 backyard vegetable grown in the United States. You can do so much with tomatoes, from eating them raw in salads or on burgers, to stewing them, canning them, making soups, Italian dishes and pizzas. Botanically speaking, tomato is a fruit because it produces its own seeds. There are some tips that will help you get a bountiful harvest out of the delicious fruit that's eaten as a vegetable.
Seeds or Transplants
You can plant tomatoes from seeds or transplants. If you start with transplants that are already strong and healthy, you will have a jump start toward harvest, that method's main advantage. The advantages of using seeds are that they are less expensive, and you get the joy of watching the seed sprout and grow.
When to Plant
The best time to plant depends upon your planting zone. Consult a regional almanac, contact your local agricultural extension agent or get a local planting guide from your garden center. As a general rule, plant transplants into the ground when the soil warms in the spring, soon after the last frost date for your area.
How to Plant
Generally, you plant tomato seeds in plant trays six to eight weeks before the last frost date, and then "harden them off" by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions. Put transplants in the ground to a depth of 10 to 16 inches. Place the plant upright in the hole, fill it with composted, amended soil, tamp the dirt down lightly and water thoroughly. Add your support mechanism.
Soil and Amendments
A rich organic soil is best. You may work composted manure into your soil from 6 to 8 inches deep. Obtain a soil test kit from your local health department or garden center if you believe your soil may be lacking the proper nutrients. Two organic fertilizers that seem to work well for tomatoes are composted turkey manure and Black Kow. The University of Illinois Extension recommends side-dressing with nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) when fruit starts to grow; but if you work composted manure into your soil, you'll probably find you don't need additional fertilizer. An occasional dose of "compost tea" (compost mixed with water) only at the roots makes a good organic fertilizer.
Spacing of plants depends upon several factors, including the variety of tomato (patio tomatoes are dwarf and compact, while others may grow 6 feet tall) and the type of garden (container, raised bed, square foot garden or row garden). Look on your seed packet or the label of the transplants for recommendations. Think of the needs of the mature plant when you're planning the spacing. Growing vertically will occupy less space. This is accomplished with stakes, cages, fences, trellises and teepees. Generally, staked plants should be 15 to 24 inches apart.
Most tomato plants grow very large (unless it is patio, miniature or dwarf variety). While vines may be left to sprawl, the best results are achieved by keeping the fruits up off the ground. If you plan to put wire cages, stakes or teepees as a support mechanism, it is best to add these while the plants are small.
Control garden pests organically by keeping your plants healthy and picking ripe fruit promptly. You may also control pests by using floating row covers. These allow sun and water to come through but keep insects out. If an infestation occurs, you may want to try Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), an organic pesticide.
As soon as you transplant, water thoroughly, and water regularly thereafter. Water plants in containers daily unless it rains. A good rule of thumb is to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Mulching with black plastic or organic materials is recommended by University of Illinois Extension. Wait to apply organic mulch until the soil warms thoroughly in early summer.