Tomato Fever

Our Garden Gang's 

Welcome to Tomato FEVER!

tomatocluster.jpg (136x100 -- 3067 bytes)Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable crop in North America. They grow well in most areas if planted in a well-drained soil. Tomato plants need at least 6 hours of sunlight each day - that means direct sun, not dappled shade!

Here are some tips gleaned from all over the web and, um, your old Auntie's experiences. There is absolutely no sense at all in YOU making the same mistakes I did! So here goes....


Care of Tomatoes

Soil Preparation

Work the top 8-10 inches of soil several weeks before planting. Break up the large clods. Remove rocks and trash, weeds, etc.

Tomatoes grow best in soils which have lots of organic matter. If possible, spread 2-3 inches of organic material over the  planting area. You can use materials such as compost, leaves, peat moss or rotted hay. Work it into the top 4-6 inches of soil. Work the garden soil only when it is dry enough not to stick to the garden tools. This is particularly important if you have clay soil. Working too early will result in unbreakable.


greenbigbeefs.jpg (100x132 -- 2617 bytes)Add 2-3 pounds of a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 for every 100 square feet of garden area. Spread the fertilizer evenly over the area. Mix it with the top 3-4 inches of soil when working the soil before planting.  

If you plan to grow single plants, dig a hole 2 feet wide and 10 inches deep (or plant in a pot that size).  Fill with half soil and half organic matter. Mix 2 level tablespoons of fertilizer into this planting area. 

When the first fruits are about 1 inch in size, scatter 1 level tablespoon of fertilizer around each plant. Scatter it about 6 inches from the stalks. Work it lightly into the soil. Water the plants after fertilizing. Fertilize them every 3-4 weeks.


Most families need only a few plants. So it is best to buy plants, not grow them from seed if you are a new  gardener, or start your seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the date of your usual last frost. Plant healthy, green plants 6-8 inches tall. Do not set out tomato plants until all danger of frost has passed. Tomatoes usually need at least 70 days from sprouting to fruiting, so transplant tomatoes into the garden about 100 days before the first expected fall frost.

tomatodeeper.gif (150x108 -- 7455 bytes)Make the transplant holes at least 3-4 inches deep, and 2-4 feet apart in the row. Space rows at least 2 feet apart for staked and 3 feet apart for caged plants. For unsupported plants, leave 4-5 feet between rows. If possible, set out tomatoes on raised beds of soil about 6 inches high.

Transplant tomatoes in the evening or on a cloudy day. This will keep the plants from wilting and getting too dry. Before planting, fill the transplant  holes with water and let it soak in. Plant the transplant slightly deeper than it was in the container, as they will root from the stem.

Adding 1-2 tablespoons of a Mychorrizal fertilizer mixed into the soil in the planting hole improves the ability of the plant to take in nutrients.  This beneficial fungus encourages root growth, helping the plant to weather drought.

Pack the soil gently, and firmly around the plant. Leave a slightly sunken area around each plant to hold water. Adding a "collar" of anything from paper cups (with the bottoms cut out) to circles of plastic garden edging (staple the cut ends together to form a ring) around the base of your plant will help keep cutworms away from your young, tender tomato stems, and also helps to catch water. Put these on when you plant, carefully sliding them down over the planted seedling and pushing gently about 2" into the earth.  Filling the collar with water immediately after planting with drown any cutworms inside the area.

Care During the Season

Mulch the tomatoes for highest yields. Place a 2-3  inch layer of organic material such as  compost, leaves or hay around the growing plants, but keep it a good 6-12 inches away from the base of the plants. Mulching helps stop weed growth and water loss from the soil.  If you have had previous fungus or insect problems (see Staking Tomatoes), skip the mulch.  Keep a sharp eye out for pests and diseases, and treat the problems immediately. Remember to fertilize around your plants every 3-4 weeks to keep fruit and new fruit-bearing growth coming.


cracking.jpg (100x89 -- 2425 bytes)Water the tomato plants slowly and deeply to help grow a strong root system. Do not let tomatoes wilt, or yields and fruit quality will be low. 

Keep the watering regular to avoid alternating wet and drought.  Fluctuating moisture levels will cause wilt and fruit split. Splitting occurs when water has been applied to too-dry tomatoes - the fruit soaks up the water and literally bursts its skin!

If you have sandy soil, water for 30 minutes 2-3 times a week - more during heat waves and droughts.  If you have clay soil, water once a week for 1 hour.  Don't apply so much that it stands on the surface.  That will lead to compacted soil with a cracked surface.  If you have a good loamy soil, split the difference!

Pruning Suckers 

tomatosuckers.gif (122x130 -- 4467 bytes)Prune staked tomatoes to produce a more orderly vine. Remove the small shoots which grow out of the point where each leaf joins the main stem. Remove the shoots by bending them sideways until they snap.

For two main vines, remove all but the lowest shoot. It will develop into a second branch.  Tomatoes growing in cages do not need to be pruned.


To control weeds, cultivate or hoe carefully around the plants. Work the soil only deep enough to kill the weeds. Do not hurt the tomato plant roots.

Tomato Problems

As the tomato begins to ripen, problems with diseases that effect tomato plants begin to surface. Some problems with tomatoes can be prevented, but you need to know what you're looking for. Here are some of the most common problems and suggested solutions.

If you see white rings and spots about a centimeter in diameter on green fruit, this is probably Botrytis in its dying stage. Sunlight and good air circulation usually take care of Botrytis, but if we have a lot of cool moist days, you should keep an eye open for this. Use a sulphur-based fungicide if this persists and threatens your tomato plant.

blossom_endrot.jpg (120x127 -- 3237 bytes)

Blossom End Rot: If the blossom end of the tomato is brown or black with a sort of "leathery' appearance, this is blossom-end rot, caused by a calcium deficiency and fluctuations in moisture or temperature conditions.

Don't over-do the nitrogen when fertilizing, add lime before planting and water the plants deeply and regularly. A sprinkle of epsom salts applied under each plant as the flowers emerge, also helps correct this condition.

Cat-Face: If your tomato looks like tit came from outerspace, this is "catface". This abiotic disease causes fruit to become badly scarred and malformed.

A lot of cold weather when the fruit is setting is the major cause of this. Pray for warm weather.

hornworm.jpg (120x79 -- 2038 bytes)

Hornworms: Several different insects and diseases bother tomatoes. Control these problems by using approved insecticides and fungicides. Common problems are on the next page. 

Or, ask your county Extension agent or reputable garden center staff what to use to control tomato insects and diseases. Follow the directions on the container.  That's a Tomato Hornworm on the left!

Sunscald: White or yellow patches on green fruit is sunscald. This happens with sudden exposure to hot, dry, sunny days. Keep your tomato plants clean of debris and damaged fruit and branches; keep them moist in dry weather; and prepare the soil properly. Try to keep the tomatoes somewhat shaded by their own leaves. Tomatoes ripen by the action of sun on the leaves, NOT on the fruit!

If you run into problems other than these, see our Plant Problems series for more information. 
For all the gory details on exotic tomato pests and problems, click here  or use these links:

Green Fruit Problems Ripe Fruit Problems Insect Pests Leaf Problems Stem Problems Root Problems


Pick tomatoes at full color for best quality. If you pick them when they are pink, let them ripen at room temperature. Do not store them in the refrigerator, as they get mushy inside and lose their quality.   Keep them in on a cool window sill until ready to use.  If you have to rush out to pick green ones on the eve of a frost warning, store them in layers between sheets of newspaper in a good, sturdy brown paper bag. Close the top of the bag and store in a slightly cool, but dark place to allow them to ripen properly.


Tomatoes are a good source of Vitamin A and fair source of Vitamin C. Fresh tomatoes are popular in salads, on sandwiches and sliced. Tomatoes can be cooked and used in many different ways. Tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce and salsa recipes are widely available - so get cooking! You have entered paradise!


Fully ripe tomatoes can be stored in a cool dark location for several weeks, but they will lose their peak flavor after a few days, so eat fresh tomatoes or cook them up in various recipes within 3-5 days.

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