New Jersey is known for growing some of the best tomatoes in the US. It’s also a top favorite for home gardeners around the country.
Let’s set you up for success this season with ten tomato growing tips that I’ve learned throughout the years.
1) Start Tomatoes Indoors
Tomatoes take a long-time to produce fruit and require warm-to-hot temperatures. If you start seeds outdoors, you may not take full advantage of the growing season.
That’s why it’s a good idea to start your tomato seeds indoors around the beginning of March here in New Jersey (Growing Zone 7).
Of course, if you miss this window, go ahead and buy transplants from your local nursery or big box store in a pinch.
2) Harden Off Before Transplanting
If you go directly from indoor light to the harsh outdoor environment, there’s a good chance your tomato seedlings will struggle with “transplant shock”.
I like to run a fan in my growing room to get them used to a little wind. Then as they become bigger, you can take them outdoors for a few hours when the days are nice.
Cloudy spring weather presents a great opportunity to take them outside for longer periods without harsh sunlight when it’s between 60-70°F. As the temperature increases, give them a few more hours of direct sunlight and leave them outside overnight if the low temperature doesn’t drop too much (around 55°F minimum).
It’s best to wait until early-to-mid May to transplant tomatoes to eliminate the risk of frost killing your hard work.
If you do this over a week or two, your young plants will thrive when you move them into the ground.
3) Give Them Room to Grow
Most tomato plants require 2-3 feet of spacing between them to allow enough room for growth. You’ll notice within a few weeks how fast tomatoes can grow during peak season!
I’ve both left a few plants without support which become like a weed, taking over an entire garden bed, and training them vertically where they can reach 10+ feet tall.
4) Roots Grow From the Stems
Tomatoes are one of a few plants that root from their stems. That means you can plant them as deeply as possible to encourage a strong root system that will both provide support for your plant as well as keep it from dying if you go through a drought period and forget to water.
A good rule of thumb is to cut off the lower leaves (roughly 1/2 to 3/4) and make sure the entire stem is buried.
Another clever method is to angle your tomato transplants in pots, so they’re almost parallel with the ground. Then leave them outside for a few days, and the plant will naturally bend vertically to seek the sun. That way, you can plant the stems horizontally instead of needing to dig deeper!
5) Indeterminate vs. Determinate
It’s crucial to know the type of tomatoes you’re planting so you understand how to care for them throughout the growing season. They can be broken down into two types – indeterminate and determinate.
Indeterminate tomatoes grow continuously like a vine throughout the season. One trimming method for indeterminate tomatoes is growing them on a single stem to encourage the most fruit growth instead of foliage.
Determinate tomatoes grow bushy, and their fruit sets and ripens in bunches, roughly around the same time. Because of this, you want to keep them short and stocky. If you trim them too much, you could be reducing your potential harvest.
6) Provide Vertical Support
Tomatoes grow tall, fast, and other than the smaller cherry or grape varieties, the weight of the fruit will snap a branch. That’s why you need to provide tomato plants vertical support, which can be anything from a trellis, stake with ties, or a heavy-duty cage.
In most cases, a standard store-bought tomato cage isn’t big enough if you’re planting tomatoes in the ground.
7) Prune the “Suckers”
The “suckers” are entire tomato plants growing from an existing tomato plant. It’s easy to identify these. If you think about the main stem of the tomato plant growing vertical and the leaves growing horizontal, the new suckers emerge from the junction of the main stem and a leaf (a.k.a. the “armpit”).
With indeterminate tomatoes, you’ll want to pinch these off or cut them with a set of pruners when they’re small, or else your tomato plant will bush out and become unruly very quickly. Plus, it puts more energy into producing fruit instead of new foliage.
This maintenance is not as crucial to a determinant tomato plant because it may lessen your harvest when all tomatoes ripen at once.
If the sucker is almost the size of a baby tomato plant, you can put your cutting into water or moist potting soil, and it will root into a new plant!
8) Water Deeply & Evenly
Since tomato plants grow so fast, they require lots of water and nutrients to thrive. You might think it’s best to give them a drink daily. However, this has several disadvantages.
If you don’t water them enough, the moisture will stay at the surface level and might even evaporate before it gets to the roots. If you overwater your plants every single day, the fruits are prone to splitting or cracking before they ripen.
The optimal frequency is to water deeply (approximately 1 inch) once a week. It’s best to do this either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Deep watering allows the liquid to soak in, encouraging the roots to grow downward instead of staying shallow.
Keep track of the weather in your area, so you know if the rain is taking care of the job for you or if it’s a dry period where you’ll have to manually water.
9) Keep the Leaves Dry
Lots of diseases that take out tomato plants early in the season are due to high humidity. Sometimes it’s from suboptimal weather conditions, but it can also be self-induced due to excess water on the foliage and planting too close together, limiting the airflow.
Many pathogens can infect your plant when you water with a hose, and it splashes soil onto the leaves.
The best solution is to install an underground irrigation system, so only the roots get their necessary water, keeping your plants healthy and dry. If you manually use a watering can, just be careful and soak only the areas around the base of the plant.
It’s usually a good idea to trim the lower leaves, so they’re not touching the ground. An added defense is to mulch around your tomato plants to add a layer between the soil and the foliage.
10) Watch Out for Pests
Look out for unwanted insects that can damage your plants. The ones that I’ve encountered the most on my tomato plants here in New Jersey are aphids, spider mites, and tomato hornworms.
Aphids and spider mites are the small guys on or under the foliage and infest with their eggs. It doesn’t take long until they’ve taken over a plant. You can attempt to spray them off with water. If that doesn’t work, a popular organic pest repellent is neem oil, which supposedly disrupts the egg cycle of insects. That means it may take a few applications a couple of weeks apart to do the job.
Tomato hornworms are easy to recognize since they are large and leave noticeable poop on your foliage as they eat away at the leaves. They also can chew holes into your ripe fruit.
It’s good to inspect your plants regularly to ensure they are not getting attacked by any of these pests. If so, take action to save them now!