Are you looking for advice on growing awesome tomatoes? Congratulations---you're in good company. The tomato is the number-one vegetable grown in America, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Since it bears seeds, the tomato is actually a fruit, but because it is eaten as a vegetable, it is almost always filed in the "vegetable" column. No matter what you call it, the tomato is simply great food and an excellent source of a variety of vitamins, including the antioxidant vitamins A and C.
Start With Healthy Transplants
Start off with the healthiest transplants you can find. Look for plants that have strong stems, vigorous root systems and healthy leaves. This head start will aid production during the entire growing season. Potted plants seem to be the healthiest of all and will give you the best head start on the season, although you may plant from seeds or from bare root tomato plants (which usually come in bundles) if you choose. If you plant from seeds, start them indoors six to eight weeks prior to the last predicted frost date for your area. Use a bagged planting medium or create your own amended soil mixture. Harden the plants by gradually exposing them to the outside a little more each day prior to transplanting. When you transplant, set the plant upright in a hole about 10 inches deep. Fill in the hole with your amended soil and tamp it down lightly. Water thoroughly.
Sunlight and Watering
Plant in a location, or place your containers in a location, that receives from six to eight hours of sunlight daily. Tomatoes need full sun to thrive. Plant your transplants in a location that is easy for you to water. Tomatoes thrive in a rich, well-drained soil. Water thoroughly after transplanting. Water regularly throughout the season, especially during dry spells. Container plants should be watered daily.
Soil Amendments and Fertilizer
Amend your soil prior to planting. Composted manure is an excellent amendment/fertilizer. Work composted manure into the soil six to eight inches deep. You may use a starter fertilizer when you first put your transplants in the ground or container, but you probably won't need it if you amend your soil with composted manure.
If you're into organic gardening, all the fertilizer you may need is an occasional side dressing of composted manure or application of organic compost tea. To make organic compost tea, simply steep one gallon of mature compost and one ounce of unsulfured molasses in four gallons of non-chlorinated water. Let it steep in the sun for several days, stirring it occasionally. You can use a pump to circulate the mixture for best results, but you don't have to. Apply compost tea around the roots of your plants---not on the leaves---just as you would apply a liquid fertilizer. Other soil amendments/organic fertilizers favored by gardeners include seaweed, kelp, fish emulsion and worm castings.
Provide the larger vine varieties of tomatoes with support. Supports such as trellises, cages, tepees and stakes should be placed in the ground when you first transplant your plants. Don't wait to do it until later, or it might damage the root system of larger plants. Some people leave tomato vines to sprawl on the ground, but the vines produce better if you provide them with support and keep the fruit off the ground.
Pick Ripe Fruit Promptly
Keep the ripe fruit picked so the plant will continue to produce throughout the growing season. When ripe fruit is left to rot on the vine, it attracts garden pests and signals to the plant that the season must be over, so it will start to die back. Energy is transferred from new fruit production to seed production. This is true of most vegetables.
Mulching is recommended by the University of Illinois Extension. You may use plastic or organic mulch. Simply lay it on top of the soil; don't work it in. This helps the soil retain water. Don't add the organic mulch until the soil warms up later in the season.