Texas Cooperative Extension,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

March, 2006

Growing Tomatoes No Quick Gardening Task

Robert "Skip" Richter
County Extension Agent, Horticulture

Tomato cluster
Tomato cluster

To many Texans, gardening means growing tomatoes. Growing tomatoes in the backyard can be a fascinating and rewarding venture or it can be a very frustrating one. A sickly tomato plant which produces few, if any, fruit certainly doesn't boost anyone's gardening enthusiasm. For home owners growing tomatoes for the first time, some simple advice might help avoid common pitfalls.

First, home gardeners should not grow tomatoes unless the plants can be placed in an area that receives sunlight for at least six hours a day. Tomato plants placed between tall shrubs,under trees, or between buildings simply will not produce maximum yields.

Second, good soil is essential for good growth and high yields. Often, poor soil can be improved with liberal amounts of organic matter and by proper fertilization. A dark, heavy clay or even a fine sand can be improved by working 3 to 4 inches of decomposed organic matter into the soil where the tomatoes are to be planted.

If only a few tomato plants are to be grown, a space at least 2 feet square should be prepared for each plant. The soil should be worked to a depth of at least 12 inches. Raised beds work well. Liberal amounts of organic matter and a small amount of fertilizer, such as 10-20-10 or 12-24-12, should be mixed into the soil where the plant is to be grown.

Variety selection is of utmost importance and is one of the keys to growing tomatoes successfully. Select varieties that resist many of the common diseases. Look for VFN after a variety name; this indicates that it has resistance to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes.

'President', 'Celebrity', 'Big Boy', 'Champion' (a good warm-weather producer), or the small-fruited 'Sweet 100' are top producers in my experience. The new varieties 'Donna', 'First Lady', and 'Viva Italia' (a paste type) also show promise. Other old-time favorites exist and may also perform well.

Plants can be started at home, although at this time in the season it is best to purchase transplants at local nurseries. When buying plants, the home gardener should look for healthy, vigorous transplants. When the transplants are set in the garden, use a starter solution to assure adequate fertility during the early stages of growth. Starter solutions can be purchased at local garden centers, or they can be made by mixing one tablespoon of a complete garden fertilizer in a gallon of water. About one cup of the starter solution should be applied in the planting hole prior to planting.

For best results, the transplants should be set in the garden on cloudy days or late in the afternoon. The plants should be protected from adverse conditions such as high winds or cold temperatures for a week or so after transplanting. Cages,wrapped in row-cover fabric, can be used to control temperatures for a week or so after transplanting. Covering the plants with milk cartons also works well.

Almost all tomato varieties should be staked, trellised, or caged for best results. Any method is good if it keeps the fruit off the ground. Fruits allowed to contact the soil often develop fruit rot. People who would like to grow tomatoes but lack the space should try growing them in a five-gallon container. 'Better Bush' is a short, stocky variety well adapted to container growing.

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