Gardening & More: Six tips for growing successful tomatoes
Thomas Mitchell, a horticulture teacher at Niagara County Community College, shared tips on growing vegetables during a presentation at Plantasia, Western New York’s premier garden and landscape show, earlier this spring.
Mitchell’s number one point was that you have to have good soil. I demoted that tip to number two because I want everyone to know that they can have tomato plants and enjoy fresh tomatoes no matter how little land they have.
1. You can grow tomatoes in small spaces: You don’t need a lot of room. You can grow tomatoes in containers and they don’t have to be fancy containers. Do you have room for a five-gallon bucket? Then you can grow tomatoes.
If even that is too hard, use a bag of potting soil as your container.
Use a big bag of potting soil according to Mitchell. Poke some holes in it for drainage. Flip it over and cut a hole in the top. Insert your tomato plant.
2. Start with good soil: “It’s important to have good soil,” Mitchell said. “You can’t be successful if your soil’s not good. The more you can do to improve your soil, the more successful you’ll be.”
If your soil is especially problematic, he suggested using raised beds.
3. Fertilize properly: Test your soil so you know how much fertilizer to use.
Be careful with feeding, he recommended. If you feed too much, you’ll get big plants, but not many tomatoes.
The acidity of the soil is important and most vegetables like a pH of 6 - 6.5.
“You can’t tell the acidity of the soil by tasting it,” Mitchell said, trying to dispel a myth. “My grandfather used to say he could smell if the soil needed lime” to change the pH, but you really need to have the soil tested.
Volunteers from the Master Gardeners program of Cornell Cooperative Extension will be available to test soil and answer questions at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, 2655 South Park Ave., Buffalo.
The dates are May 12 and 26, June 9 and 23, July 7 and 21, Aug. 4 and 18 and Sept. 1, 15 and 29. The fee is $5 to have three samples tested.
Call 827-1584 ext. 291 for information on how to take your soil samples properly so that you get accurate results.
4. Choose good seeds: Mitchell encourages people to start plants from seed, but “cheap seed is not better seed,” he said.
He said he likes hybrid varieties of tomatoes, which have been bred to be more disease resistant and tend to perform better than heirloom plants.
However, if you like to save your own seeds, be aware that the seeds from a hybrid may not be true to the variety because of pollination with other plants. If you want a plant that is very much like the one you have, save the seeds from heirloom tomatoes.
5. Don’t plant seeds too early: This is a tip to file away for next year: Don’t start your seeds inside more than five weeks before it’s safe to plant outside, which is usually after May 20.
“The biggest mistake people make is they start them too early,” Mitchell said.
Here’s a tip to use right now: When you transplant your seedling outside, plant it as deep as you can and new roots will form along the stem, he said.
6. You can let your tomato plants trail: We’re all used to staking tomatoes or using tomato cages to prop them up, but you can allow the tomato plant to grow on the ground if you want, he said.
Mitchell doesn’t like the wimpy tomato cages that you buy, so he makes his own with the screen used to reinforce concrete.
Even if you have little space for gardening, you can grow fresh tomatoes.
Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com the online gardening magazine for Western New York.