Tomatomania! A Fresh Approach to Celebrating Tomatoes in the Garden and in the Kitchen

Planting tomatoes and organic gardening go hand in hand, but tomatoes can present their own set of challenges to even a seasoned gardener. Learn some tricks and techniques to make the popular plant thrive in your backyard garden.

Tomatoes in a Shovel

Dig a little. Carry your shovel with you as you look for new tomato-growing opportunities.

Photo courtesy Staci Valentine

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Excerpt from the book of the same name released in January 2015 by St. Martin's Press.

OK, so you’re a farmer now … well then, tomato farmer, let’s start at the very beginning. Where will you plant your tomatoes? Simple enough question, right?

Faced with that question, many of you seasoned veterans will trot right out and point to your usual summer garden spot — the one now covered with weeds — and call it a day. But remember, just because that plot is the sunniest, or a safe distance from the trampoline, doesn’t mean tomato plants are going to love it there again this season.

Let me ask you this: How was your harvest last year? How many years have you grown tomatoes in that space? It might be time for a change.

Sure, if you add compost like a fiend, thereby keeping the soil supremely active all year, you might be able to adequately rejuvenate the soil and reduce some of the lingering disease and pest problems that can challenge us in the growing season. But who does that, really? Be honest. If you’ve seen a decline in plant growth, vitality, and harvest amounts in the last few years, your best move toward a successful harvest this summer may be to, well, move it.

Do what farmers do: Rotate your crops. Prepare multiple spaces, or heck, multiple pots, that can host different combinations of vegetables in successive years. This is how you keep the soil healthy and grow terrific produce.

New tomato gardeners, you may not have to worry about this in your first season, but you’ll want to pay attention to this concept in the future as you become hopelessly obsessed with growing homegrown tomatoes. Trust me on this one.

Rookie Luck

It’s true, beginner’s luck happens in the vegetable garden as often as on the roulette table. Maybe you succeeded beyond your wildest imagination in that initial year, only to see your crops fail dismally in successive years as the plants fell prey to disease and pests. That’s not so much a comment on your gardening skills as it is on the natural state of things, I promise.

First, when you plant in the same space year after year, soils tire and nutritional value is reduced. You have to be really proactive and add a lot of new organic material each year to counteract that reality.

Second, diseases that tomatoes are prone to, such as wilt or blight, and the pests that love them (hornworms, tomato beetles and other monsters) are also likely to set up housekeeping in that area. (Gardeners in warmer zones, this is why it helps to take your plants out and clean them up well in the fall/winter, even though they’d often happily live through until the spring!) That growing population or concentration may cause your plants to die off earlier and earlier each season. It goes without saying that fruit production will be adversely affected.

Yes, some of us have neighbors, relatives, or friends who have gardened in the exact same place for over a decade with no decreasing returns. Don’t you just hate that? They’re very lucky tomato gardeners. If this is you, and you’ve yet to have an increase in disease problems, carry on. But as the season goes along, keep an eye out for signs of trouble that might hint at the need for a new space next year.

Find the Sweet Spot

Okay, but move or start the garden where exactly? We all have only 100 square feet when we want 100 acres, right? Tomatoes need sun — full sun — in order to be the most productive, healthy plants they can be. That’s the cardinal rule of tomato placement. Find that spot.

In some established gardens, it could be as simple as moving from one corner of your veggie bed to another. Or, if you use multiple raised beds, planting your tomatoes in beds three and four instead of one and two. Just take a minute to look at the garden with a new set of eyes and evaluate the basics. I’m betting you can find another sunny option.

Case in point, when my partner, Sam, and I moved into our first home I planted tomatoes everywhere. Everywhere. Desperate to recruit more heirloom space, I even yanked up the concrete in the middle of the driveway to plant seedlings. (Don’t believe a word Sam says; the neighbors were absolutely thrilled.)

But “full sun” doesn’t mean tomatoes need hot sun all day long. Commercial tomatoes are a field crop, in the sun from dawn to dusk. The cultivars that thrive in commercial fields have been bred for that. In our home gardens, most cultivars will be quite happy with liberal amounts of sun, but it’s not imperative to provide all-day exposure in order to have a successful season.

In fact, many cultivars, especially heirlooms that come from more temperate parts of the world, may not like intense and constant sun exposure. Your plants are likely to look better, and produce tomatoes longer, if not completely sun-stressed every day of the season.

“Full sun” in homegrown tomato lingo actually means six to eight hours of uninterrupted sun a day. That’s easier to find in your garden than 12 hours. It means that spot with morning and midday sun could be perfect. And the sunny hours don’t need to be concurrent. Exposure from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m. and 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. qualifies just fine. If you get to make a choice between planting in a location with morning, midday, or late afternoon sun, choose the warmest sunny stretch of the day.

When to Apply SUNscreen

Part of the full-sun equation is that tomatoes want and need heat in order to grow and fruit successfully. That “warmest sun” concept is especially important if you happen to live in a more temperate zone with cool summers or widely variable summer temperatures.

But, if you live in an area known for excessive heat, you may actually be doing your plants a favor if they get a little shade (as long as they get the necessary sun exposure) during scorching midday hours.

Branching Out

As you look for the perfect spot, here are a few other things to consider:

Dig a little. Carry your shovel with you as you look for new tomato-growing opportunities. When you find a promising spot, try to dig a hole. If that soil is unyielding, rocky, all sand, or way too wet, you may want to scratch it off the list and move on.

That 6-foot tree you planted in the corner of the yard must be larger than it was last year, right? Consider that and all other potential shadow positions in high summer. Canyon walls, apartments next door, and that new play structure might all affect garden exposure and hours of direct sun. (And tree roots mean extra competition, too!)

Reflected brightness and retained heat from a light-colored wall or fence can do wonders to increase the productivity of your season. Use that to your advantage.

Where’s the rain going? Did you change the garden grade when you put in that putting green or patio? Tree growth and other interruptions in sun exposure are generally easy to see and assess. Grade changes, not so much. Pay attention to where water gathers in a generous rainstorm or after a sprinkler soaking. That’s not where you want your tomato garden to be.

Brrrrr! If you have a large property or garden area, that wet area may also be the lowest place on your property, topographically speaking. That may also mean it is the coldest part of the garden — another reason to avoid the space.

If you live in an area that gets liberal summer rain, and even if you don’t, can you plant on a hill, berm, or even a slight slope of any kind? It doesn’t have to be huge. Most of you have been hilling up rows in your garden since Mr. McGregor was a kid, right? Hillside or berm planting is especially beneficial for rainy areas because when it gets too wet, tomatoes get exactly what they want: sharp drainage. The first tomatoes ever found, the precursors of Tomatomania, are generally thought to have been found on a hillside in South America.

Do you have a new backyard wind tunnel NASA doesn’t know about? Be they winds that come “whippin’ down the plain” or just a subtle ocean breeze, air movement cools things off. That’s not your goal. Look for natural windbreaks and plant behind a garden shed, a thick row of hedges, or a sturdy fence. Or create your own temporary screen, just like you do when you go to the beach really early in the season. (You know this works.) You’ll still get some beneficial air circulation but a screen will raise garden temperatures a good deal, and you’ll see the proof when it’s time to harvest.

Did you rescue a puppy who likes to dig in the garden? Yes, even lifestyle changes can require you to move the garden or change your growing patterns.

Backyard Soul Searching

If you’re still perplexed, or if your garden, neighborhood, or even city is entirely new to you, why not ask a garden friendly neighbor, area Master Gardener, landscape designer, or other expert to walk your garden with you, plot the sun’s summer track, and identify opportunities and potential problems?

Or you can just do what my grandfather did and situate your veggies dead center in the backyard, away from trees, border plants, the house, and anything else that would block sun from those treasured tomato plants.

Field Envy

Unless you own a farm (or a private island somewhere), space is almost always an issue when you are looking for new potential garden plots. So maybe you don’t need to move your entire veggie garden. Tomatoes are more than happy to strike out on their own. What about the small but sunny space behind the garage, the patio outside the kitchen door, or the gravel area on the far side of the house? Leave the corn where it is. Consider creating your very own tomato annex.

If all this reaps no reward, there’s always the “shared” space possibility for the summer season. Could you squeeze some tomatoes into the rose garden? Sneak them in while your partner (the rose lover) is out shopping. What about the intermittent spaces in perennial plantings (among the daylilies, irises, or lavender), or in borders where colorful annuals like alyssum, sunflowers, and calendulas thrive each season? Those are probably planted in full sun and yes, your tomatoes could be happy there. Before all is lost, are you friendly with your neighbor who’s got 500 square feet of prime sunny space just across the fence? Hey, it’s worth a shot.

Nothing? Then leave the soil in your current garden barren for a season or two. Or three. It’s what you can do. Layer the entire existing garden with compost, leaves, hay, or other rich mulch — or a wonderful combo of all those organic ingredients. Lay it on thick, a good 8 to 10 inches.

Add some fertilizer to help activate the soil while it waits (patiently!) for future tomatoes. Plant this year’s crop in containers or grow bags situated right on top of your current space. Do this for even a couple of seasons, and you’ll address the tired or diseased soil question and hopefully create a new, vibrant garden in its place. I’ll give you more hints on growing in containers next.

Getting Potted

Whether you’re planting two dozen of your favorite heirlooms in pulp pots on top of last year’s vegetable garden, or a single dependable hybrid in that French urn by the back door, you’ve made a good move. Sure, it’s hard to beat Mother Earth; but there are a lot of reasons why container growing is a great idea.

For starters, pots are mobile, so it’s possible to move them to where conditions are best as the season goes along and if the need arises. You also have the opportunity to, and must, create a perfect soil mix for your plants. You won’t have either option in the garden. Other benefits include sharp drainage, which is almost assured.

And here’s a biggie: Soil in a pot warms more quickly than in the ground. Tomatoes in pots will generally ripen 10 to 14 days earlier than the same cultivar planted in the ground. Do I need to repeat that one for you gardeners on the beach or the Canadian border? Growing in containers could be the key to a good season if your climate requires a quick turnaround.

So growing “in the box” is definitely not a lesser choice, just a different one. What makes a good container? Anything that holds soil and has a drain or drainage holes, for a start. With that as a guide, and adherence to just a few other rules, many things work well. We’ll get into specific types of containers later, but in the meantime, here are a few things to think about as you scout for viable container space.

Containers 101

You need to use a large pot, 15 by 15 inches at a minimum. Bigger is better. Tomato plants will not grow well in a 6-inch terra cotta pot, people! Can you tell I’ve diagnosed that malady way too often?

Only one plant per pot. Yes, it will look silly at first, but not for long.

Look for pots made of a material that won’t heat up in high summer temperatures. Pulp pots, wine barrels, redwood boxes, and similar containers are great choices.

Make smart choices as to cultivars.

Mix a nutrient-rich growing medium for your containers.

Gardener Alert!

Before you decide to plant in containers, know this: Your container tomatoes can require more of you, the gardener, than plants in the ground. This is a growing situation that needs to be managed more closely. For those of you who completely automate your watering system and such, you’re off the hook to some degree. But not entirely.