The Basics of Planting Tomatoes
For the healthiest plants with the best yield, plant deep, water well, and stake the vines as they grow
Welcome to Homegrown/Homemade, a video series from FineGardening.com. We’ll be following a gardener (Fine Gardening executive editor Danielle Sherry) and a cook (Sarah Breckenridge) as they plant, maintain, harvest, store, and prepare garden vegetables. If you’re new to vegetable gardening, you’ll find these videos very helpful. In this video, the topic is tomatoes.
Episode 1: How to Plant Tomatoes
Here, Danielle shows Sarah a couple of tips for setting tomato seedlings in the ground. For the strongest plants, clip off the lower leaves first, then plant the stems deep in the soil. That allows roots to form along the underground portion of the stems, increasing the nutrient flow to the plant and anchoring it more firmly. Once the raised bed is planted, Sarah and Danielle set up stakes and netting trellises. It’s best to do this before the plants, and their root systems, start to grow.
The weather has been warm, and the tomato patch has turned into a jungle, so much so that the bed is getting crowded. Pruning will make it manageable again, and also allow the sun to reach the ripening fruit. The first order of business is trimming back any low-lying branches that touch the ground. followed by pinching out small suckers that appear below the first flower cluster. (A sucker is a shoot that angles out between the stem and the horizontal branches.) Larger suckers can be controlled by Missouri pruning, which involves snipping off the top of the sucker. Missouri pruning must be repeated from time to time.
As you prune, keep an eye out for dead, damaged, and diseased leaves. These should be removed as well.
Mostly, it’s the indeterminate tomato plants that require pruning. Determinate plants need little pruning.
This year, the weather has been hot and dry, and Sarah’s tomato patch is a jumble of thriving plants. A combination of selective pruning and tying will restore order to the patch. Pantyhose makes good tie material because it stretches. A figure-eight loop wrapped loosely around the stake and tied in a knot can be used to support stems as well as branches with fruit. (You can use strips of other fabric as well.) If you see brown spots forming on the fruit, they might be blossom end rot, a sign of inconsistent watering.
It isn’t hard to harvest tomatoes, but the tricky part is determining when they are at peak ripeness. Danielle shows Sarah three things to check for: color, smell, and “squishability.” Red, yellow, and orange tomatoes should be bright red, yellow, and orange, respectively; pink-fruited varieties should be a dusty rose color. Green varieties such as Green Zebra should be mostly green, with just a little yellow. Black tomatoes such as Black Krim should have a dusky purple color. Next, check the aroma. The tomato should smell like a ripe tomato. As for squishability, pressing a ripe fruit with your finger should make an indentation that springs back. If the fruit is hard, let it ripen a while longer. If the indentation stays, the fruit is overripe.
As the fruit ripens, the bottom leaves of the plants may turn yellow and brown. That’s normal; no need to worry.
Traditionally, canning tomato sauce is a lengthy affair, but you can speed matters considerably by making and canning a fresh tomato puree, which later on can be transformed into the sauce, soup, or even ketchup. Wash, core, and chop 8 pounds of paste tomatoes cook them over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Next, puree them using a tomato press or a food mill; this removes the seed and the skins. Now boil some water and get your canning equipment ready. You’ll need 4 clean pint Mason jars and lids. Put the lids into the boiling water to soften the rubber flanges. Meanwhile, take the tomato purée and bring it to a boil.
When all is ready put ¼ teaspoon of citric acid into the bottom of each jar to prevent botulism and fill with purée, leaving 1 inch of headspace. Stir with a rod to remove any air bubbles, wipe the rims, apply the flat lids, and then the top bands that hold the lids in place. As the liquid cools, the lids will form a seal. Then put the jars into a rack, and process in boiling water for 40 minutes. Let them cool in the pot for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack or towel and let cool for at least 8 hours. Properly sealed jars of tomato purée will keep up to a year in the pantry.