It's Time to Grow the Best Tomatoes

The secret to great veggies is proper planting. Deep roots make the difference.

Grow the Best Tomatoes (NEW)
The secret to great veggies is proper planting. Deep roots make the difference. Photo: Joseph De Sciose

One bite of a juicy vine-ripened tomato can capture the whole essence of summer. Let your teeth break through the shiny skin, and the sweet flavor instantly delivers everything the season promises. And what's even better is that growing them is easy. Use this simple planting guide, and you'll have an abundant harvest you'll be proud of.

Good Roots
The key to tasty tomatoes is limiting how much water is inside the fruit. The more concentrated the flavor, the better. The best way to get this result is to encourage your plants to grow deep roots, accessing the water table belowground. With well-developed root systems, the tomato plants won't need much surface watering because they will be getting their moisture from below.

This has a number of important advantages. First, you won't have to water the tomatoes as much, which will end up saving you money and valuable time. Second, by limiting the amount of water that is around your plants, you will reduce the likelihood that they will become infected with disease and mildew. Finally, if your tomatoes receive a consistent supply of water from belowground, the fruit will be much less likely to split open or rot.

The Right Seedlings
One of the easiest ways to get the best-tasting tomatoes is to start with the healthiest seedlings you can find. Avoid leggy plants with more than an inch between branches. Compact plants with well-developed roots will grow faster and areless prone to disease and insect problems. Also, don't be tempted to buy seedlings when they first appear at nurseries. Wait until nighttime temperatures stay in the upper 50s to buy and plant your tomatoes.

Strategic Cuts
Before putting seedlings in the ground, snip off the bottom branches. This lets you plant the stems deep and encourages roots to grow from them. More roots equal healthy plants and flavorful tomatoes.

Dig Deep
Make a hole at least a foot deep, and put a shovelful of compost at the bottom, giving each plant loose soil and accessible nutrients. Also, add a balanced fertilizer, such as Garden Safe Tomato & Vegetable Plant Food 5-5-3. Avoid adding too much nitrogen, which encourages the production of leaves, not fruit. Space the plants about 2 feet apart to allow good air circulation.

The Perfect Combo
With the seedlings in the ground, fill in each hole with a mixture of compost, bonemeal, and garden soil to give the plants plenty of nutrients during the growing season. Bury each seedling "up to its neck," so the bottom leaves are just touching the soil. A 1-foot-tall seedling should stand only 3 to 6 inches aboveground.

A Little Support
After the tomatoes have been planted, water them in well, and mulch around the bases with either straw or hay to reduce the amount of moisture that evaporates from the soil.

Finally, put up trellises to provide support for the fruit, and apply a liquid fertilizer every two weeks. Plant more tomatoes using this same method around the beginning of July to ensure you have a continuous supply of fruit all the way till frost.

You can also follow these steps if you are planting tomatoes in containers, giving the roots lots of room to grow and adding a thick mulch on top. --Edwin Marty

Find the Right Plant for You
All tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate. Choose selections that produce fruit when you want it.

  • Indeterminate--These vines continue to grow throughout the season. They produce fruit for a period of months. Try 'Early Girl,' 'Brandywine,' or 'Sun Gold.'
  • Determinate--These plants are bushy and stop growing and producing fruit after reaching a certain size. They yield the majority of their fruit at one time and are great for canning or providing early tomatoes. Try 'Celebrity' or 'Valley Girl.'

"Grow the Best Tomatoes" is from the May 2006 issue of Southern Living.

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