Everyone loves a big, thick juicy slice of a Jersey tomato on a sandwich! They are easy to grow and most gardeners like to have some tomatoes to pick daily. The popular tomato plant is a tender, warm-season plant that is usually best planted well after the danger of frost is past.
Some folks insist on heirloom plants with fruits in various combinations of orange, green, purple, red and stripes. Some like grape or cherry tomatoes and some just want a big round, red, juicy tomato that tastes like a Jersey tomato. I have planted purple ones and pink ones and striped ones over the years, but I also plant the good old Early Girl that I have grown for years, as well as Rutgers and Beefsteak and I am usually happy with all the results.
One of the most popular plants is often the Early Girl (60 or fewer days to harvest). This one has a more compact growth than the main-season varieties, however it is shorter lived. But they work for the early fruit and are really good for areas where the growing seasons are shorter and the summer is cooler. They have small to medium-sized red fruit that usually come in around July 4, if they are planted now in full sun. Of course warm weather helps.) I also love the big, round slicing tomatoes for sandwiches and the meaty plum tomatoes for cooking. We plant some of each.
I continue to plant tomatoes up until mid-July to have fresh ones to harvest late in the season. For fall harvest and early winter storage of tomatoes, late plantings may be made until mid-summer; these plantings have the advantage of increased vigor and freedom from early cold weather diseases and produce a tasty fruit. Time late plantings for maximum yield before freezing temperatures kill the plants.
Space small varieties 15 inches apart in the row, staked plants 15 to 24 inches apart, and trellised or ground bed plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Some particularly vigorous indeterminate old-fashioned varieties may need 4 feet between plants and 5 to 6 feet between rows to allow comfortable harvest room. Staking or caging tomatoes keeps them off the ground and easier to tend.
Prepare the soil with good compost in the spots where the tomatoes will be planted. Avoid fresh manure or high nitrogen products, as this will produce a jungle of leaves but little or no fruit. Some old timers who grow tomatoes naturally suggest lots of compost. Plant small plants deep enough to hold them securely. Long lanky stems can be buried. Roots will come out of them. Sometimes I almost bury half of a lanky seedling, Hoe or cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds without damaging roots in and around plants. Mulching is recommended once the soil warms. I used cardboard last year and although I didn’t like the way it looked, it worked well. Some people use black plastic. Organic materials are also suitable for mulching. Your objective is to always keep the soil moist! You may also use grass clippings to keep the soil moist. A tad bit of extra fertilizer works best when the mulch is new.
Water the plants thoroughly and regularly during hot dry periods. Plants confined in containers may need daily or even more frequent watering. Remember that good compost and good soil produce the best plants naturally. Tomatoes need food. Some folks have sandy or poor soil and also need to feed with granular 10-10-10 fertilizers or 14-14-14 time-release fertilizers. Water in new plants with a mild liquid feeding. Sprinkle the fertilizer mix approximately one foot from the base of the tomato plant. Make sure you circle the entire plant. Cover the mix with 2″ of topsoil and then place a light covering of grass cuttings or root mulch over the fertilizer mix and soil. Be sure to soak the area! Make two more applications of 10-10 –10, 3 and 6 weeks later if you don’t use the time release, which is good for 4 months. If the weather is dry following these applications, water the plants thoroughly. Do not get fertilizer on the leaves. Many gardeners train their tomato plants to stakes, trellises or cages with great success.
Tomato cages may be made from concrete-reinforcing wire, woven-wire stock fencing or various wooden designs. Choose wire or wooden designs that have holes large enough to allow fruit to be picked and removed without bruising. The short, small, narrow type often sold at garden centers are all but useless for anything but the smallest of the dwarf types. Most modern tomatoes easily grow 3 to 4 feet tall and old fashioned continue to get taller until fall, easily reaching at least 6 feet in height if not pruned. Use cages that match in height the variety to be caged and firmly anchor them to the ground with stakes or steel posts to keep the fruit-laden plants from uprooting themselves in late summer windstorms. We usually end up with toppled over tomato cages everywhere! Maybe this year we will do it right.
In mid-summer I often spray my plant with a natural fungicide such as natural neem oil to avoid disease on the foliage. If your tomatoes have brown dry sunken decay has developed on the blossom end this is an indication of low level of calcium in the fruit itself. Some folks add calcium or even Epsom salts . Adequate preparation of the garden bed prior to planting is the key to preventing this . Insure adequately draining soil, maintain the soil pH around 6.5 – a pH out of this range limits the uptake of calcium. Lime (unless the soil is already alkaline), composted manures or bone meal will supply calcium but take time to work so must be applied prior to planting. Excess nitrogen in the soil can reduce calcium uptake as can a depleted level of phosphorus. After planting, avoid deep cultivation that can damage the plant roots, use mulch to help stabilize soil moisture levels and help avoid drought stress, avoid overwatering as plants generally need about one inch of moisture per week from rain or irrigation for proper growth and development.
A checklist for success with tomatoes
- Plant tomatoes in full sun.
- Add compost or humus with your soil.
- Make sure the soil drains well and is not muddy clay.
- Add any of the following below the hole dug for the plant: fish heads, the tops from a pack of matches, coffee grounds, eggshells, Epsom salts (these are all old wives tale given to me by some of our readers, let us know your secret ingredient).
- Plant or Bury the plant at least 50% of the plant’s height. (This will insure a deep, strong root system)
- Each plant should be spaced 18” to 24” apart.
- Stake plants with a sturdy 6’ high stake or cage anchored well. If plants get too tall, you can prune tomato plants.
So whether you plant one or one hundred tomatoes this year, enjoy the adventure of growing summer’s most popular product, a Jersey tomato!
Lorraine Kiefer has gardened all of her life. She is a garden writer, floral designer and professional horticulturist. Lorraine teaches many classes at Triple Oaks nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, NJ. Email Lorraine@tripleoaks.com for garden help or leave your questions below! www.tripleoaks.com